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Saturday, March 26, 2011

R.E.M. "Collapse Into Now"

Back in the summer of 1986, I saw a strange little music video on MTV (back when MTV still played music videos--remember those days?). The entire clip was comprised of a black & white overhead shot of some sort of industrial site, perhaps a disused railyard or rock quarry. The song lyrics were superimposed in giant block letters in the middle of the screen. Prior to the lyrics' appearance were these cryptic lines, "Bury magnets, swallow the rapture, let's gather feathers," which undoubtedly left me scratching my young head The song, entitled "Fall on Me" was a somber, yet oddly catchy tune with a ringing Rickenbacker guitar sound. I was instantly hooked and haven't looked back since. (Okay, 2004's  Around the Sun was an awful album, but I digress). For the most part, I've been on R.E.M.'s side for 25 years.

Back in 1986, I never would have thought that 25 years later I'd be talking about a new R.E.M. album. But the "boys" (who are all now AARP-eligible) just released their 15th studio album, Collapse into Now.

With every album that R.E.M. have released since Bill Berry left back in 1997, the inevitable questions are variatons of the following: "Are they any good anymore?" , "Should they just give it up?", or "Does the new album have any redeeming quality whatsoever?" (Of course, there are plenty of hipsters out there who insist the band sold out after their debut album Murmur, but that's another story).

Count me in as someone who’s happy these guys are still around and making music, and YES, the new album, Collapse into Now is good. Maybe not great, but a solid effort that may be the band's best release since at least 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Now, back to the issue of whether R.E.M. is still relevent. I often hear people say, "I used to like them, but they just aren't the same anymore" or "I haven't liked anything since [name-any-R.E.M.-album-released-in-the-1980s]." These folks are entitled to their opinions, though I don't happen to agree with them. (I, for one, haven't been interested in anything Sonic Youth has done since 1992, but I'm sure there are plenty out there who think Rather Ripped or The Eternal are incredible and that I'm missing out on 19 years of great music).

I'm not going to argue that R.E.M.'s post-Berry output is as good as the pre-Berry stuff, but with the exception of the putrid, fetid turd that was Around the Sun, they've come out with some consistently decent material that hasn't tarnished their name. I agree that the mystique the band cultivated in the '80s is gone (which was inevitable), and I lament the end of the the impressionistic, and sometimes downright indecipherable,  lyrics that Stipe penned in those days. I do agree with the R.E.M. critics who believe Stipe has become excessively didactic in his recent songs.

Yes, R.E.M. have changed, but so have we as fans. They aren't the same band they were then, in fact they may not even be the same people they were then (growing older will do that to you), but I'm not the same (relatively) innocent 18 year-old I was when I discovered the band 25 years ago. Back in the '80s, the guys in R.E.M., still in their twenties, were in decidedly pre-millionaire status. They were schlepping from town to town in a van (and probably by about '85 had graduated to a bus) playing relatively small venues. (Peter Buck has gleefully gone on at length about some the early gigs where they played in some podunk town in front of about five disinterested drunks). Most of their fans (including yours truly) were about the same age or younger, with the wide-eyed wonder that comes with youth. That exciting, youthful empty slate tends to slowly disappears with age.

R.E.M. are middle-aged millionaires who now live miles apart from each other. For all intents and purposes, they no longer exist as a "band", more as a "project" that reconvenes every three years or so to record a new album.

As a fan since my late teens, I feel this weird sense of obligation to buy every new album they release, despite the diminishing returns. I'm happy to report that Collapse into Now maintains the modest upswing that began with Accelerate, but even so, after a few listenings it's hard not to get a sense that they're going through the motions. They seem to feel the same sense of obligation to record a new album that I have to buy whatever they put out there.

If you haven't guessed it already, I'm a little ambivalent about this new album.

Overall, Collapse into Now is a solid album, and proof that the band can still play well and write catchy tunes when the inspiration strikes them, but the sense of adventure that existed on previous albums is largely gone. I don't know whether that's a product of being bored middle-aged millionaires just going through the motions, or a band--still smarting a bit over the disaster of Around the Sun--playing it a little safe and recording an "R.E.M.-sounding album" with songs that make sonic references to various points in their career, but don't venture too much beyond that.

I initially thought that I'd write a blow-by-blow track analysis of this album, but I'm not going to bother. I've slaved over this stupid post for too long and by the time I finally publish it, there really won't be any point.

I guess I'll just finish by saying that Collapse into Now is the best we can reasonably expect from R.E.M. in the year 2011, and we just need to live with it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My longtime Simon & Garfunkel fandom is re-awoken (thanks, Honda Accord commercials)

It started innocently enough: I was watching television one day when a Honda Accord car commercial came on. The background music was of a song I knew very well, a song I had first heard when I was about 13 years old and had grown to love more and more over the ensuing 30 years. The ad only featured the last part of the song: the vocalists’ multi-tracked voices singing, “Aaaaaaahhhh-aaahhh-aaahhh-aaahhhhhhh, heeeeere, I ammmm.” The song is “The Only Living Boy in New York” and the singers in question are Simon & Garfunkel, and hearing that song in that commercial soon led me to dig out my old Bridge Over Troubled Water CD, an album I hadn’t listened to in…well, I can’t remember how long. It has been a few years at least.

Not too long after digging out BOTW, I learned of a soon-to-be-released 40th anniversary edition of the album, containing the remastered music (actually, probably just a repackaged version of the 2001 remaster) plus a bonus DVD with S&G's infamous and very obscure 1969 television special, Songs for America , AND a brand-new "making of the album" documentary, The Harmony Game, featuring new interviews with Paul, Artie, Roy Halee (plus some of the surviving musicians who played on BOTW, famed Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine and bassist extraordinaire Joe Osborn. I knew right away that I would have to snag it--and I did. At $18.01 (including tax) it was worth every penny. Oh year, in my newly rediscovered Simon & Garfunkel frenzy, I finally picked up the 2001 CD remaster of Sounds of Silence, and the soon-to-be-deleted Warner remasters of Paul Simon's solo albums Hearts and Bones and Graceland.

As I mentioned, I first became interested in Simon & Garfunkel at age 13, back in 1981(or early '82), when I saw their reunion "Concert in Central Park" on HBO. I fell in love with their music right away, and was mesmerized by Art Garfunkel's halo of reddish-blonde frizzy hair. I'd love to be really cool and say that Led Zeppelin or The Kinks were the first 1960s/1970s era group with which I became obsessed, but I have to admit it was Simon & Garfunkel, the two relatively clean-cut folkies from Queens. I don't know how many times I re-watched "Concert in Central Park", but it had to have been close to a half-dozen viewings. My parents had two S&G albums, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme and Bridge Over Troubled Water. I distinctly remember listening to those records alone on the old Motorola console stereo. I was alternately haunted and mesmerized by such tunes as "The Boxer", "7 O'clock News/Silent Night", "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her", and "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" (to name just a few from those two great albums). When The Concert in Central Park album was released in February 1982, I made a beeline to Camelot Music, in Saginaw's Fashion Square Mall to buy my copy of the album. (Thankfully, I didn't have to wait four days to hitchhike from Saginaw, my parents drove me home). It was a double-album, so it was quite a financial investment for a 13 year-old. My mom insisted that we already possessed a couple Simon & Garfunkel albums that already contained many of the songs from the concert, so purchasing the Central Park album was unnecessary. I wasn't having any of that, though--I simply had to have that album.

I remember bringing that album home and immediately playing it on my crappy little record player in my bedroom, pouring over the lyrics in the booklet and gazing at the various photos of S&G, from different periods of their partnership--from the squeeky clean "Tom and Jerry" days of the late '50s to an awkward mid-'70s photo of the two standing uncomfortably side-by-side in front of Paul Simon's boyhood home in Queens. (I haven't listened to my copy of The Concert in Central Park in many years. The last time I heard the album was when someone played it several years ago at Schuler Books & Music, and it seemed a little bit limp to me).

Over the next few years, I bought the rest of the S&G discography (not too difficult to obtain since the duo only released five studio albums). As I've gotten older, my devotion to Simon & Garfunkel has ebbed and flowed. There were times in college and in my twenties when S&G didn't seem terribly cool, and other more hip and stylish music took precedent, but I always managed to return to Paul and Artie.

Lately, I've grown to truly appreciate how incredibly well-crafted their albums were. Paul Simon may not have been particularly prolific as a songwriter (and, in fact, may have set the record for writing the most songs that make reference to writer's block) but what he did create was almost always good-to-great). "The Harmony Game" (making of Bridge Over Troubled Water) documentary sheds considerable light on what master craftsman Simon, Garfunkel, and producer Roy Halee were in the studio. First of all, they worked with excellent studio musicians throughout their career--(one thing I've noticed while revisiting the S&G catalog is how impeccable the musicianship is throughout)--but this reached a pinnacle on BOTW. From Larry Knechtel's brilliant piano playing on the title song, to Joe Osborn's amazing, melodic bass work on "The Only Living Boy in New York" (a sound created by an 8-string bass), and Fred Carter, Jr's acoustic finger-picking on "The Boxer", the playing on this album is amazing, yet understated.

Simon, Garfunkel, and Halee's use of innovative recording techniques rivals that of The Beatles and George Martin. For example, the "aah-aah-aah, here I am" vocals of "The Only Living Boy in New York" were achieved--if I'm remembering this correctly--by having Paul and Art sing in a cathedral, then multitracking their voices. The effect is otherworldly and incredibly moving.

I've always read, from various critics over the years, that S&G were “safe” and/or “square.” I realize that with their oxford shirts, sweaters, and short (for the time) haircuts, (not to mention their gentle music), this assessment may be somewhat justified, but I see S&G as about the most quietly subversive group/band of the ‘60s. They made anti-war sentiments and a questioning of America's direction, during a time of war and unrest, more palatable to the establishment—i.e. the middle American moms and dads of the young hippies who were gathering at Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont. Perhaps in a small way, Simon & Garfunkel's decency, intelligence, and accessible music helped to bridge some of the generation gap. They did it in a way that more overtly rebellious musicians like The Doors, Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones never could. S&G were literally "bridges over troubled water" during a difficult time in America.

Spartan basketball: a postscript and postmortem

The Spartans bowed out in the first round of the NCAA tournament with a performance that was befitting of their entire season. They started off incredibly sluggish and throughout the first half and most of the second half were getting blown off the court by the UCLA Bruins. Then, when it appeared they were completely dead--down by 23 with a little more than eight minutes left--MSU made a furious comeback and and made us all dare to dream that maybe, just maybe, they could walk off the court with a most improbable victory. But, much like the season, they dug too big a hole to successfully climb out--and lost by two points.

Thus ends one of the most disappointing MSU basketball seasons in many years. I can tell you that most MSU fans don't quite know how to take it. We've gotten just a wee bit spoiled around here and aren't accustomed to disappointment.

We're certainly not used to losing to our archrivals in Ann Arbor not just once, but TWICE, in the same season. (I'm still hurting over that). We're not used to wondering if our team will even make the NCAA tournament, and there were many nervous days late in the season where it appeared that the Spartans might be NIT-bound.

We as fans have to be realistic. We've had it really good for a long time and a less-than-stellar season was inevitable at some point. Lots of other schools would be thrilled to have the season we had in 2010-2011. (Northwestern, I'm looking at you).

So it's time for us to lick our wounds and look forward to (hopefully) better times in 2011-2012.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Spartan basketball post, finally

I’ve gone the entire season without commenting whatsoever on the subject of Michigan State basketball.

It’s been a disappointing year for our hoops team: after starting the season ranked as high as #2 in the nation, the Spartans limped to a 9-9 Big Ten record (17-13 overall), while enduring every conceivable bad thing that could have happened to them along the way. I suppose the harbinger of bad tidings came in the off-season when Chris Allen was kicked off the team. Then, early in the conference season, Korie Lucious was removed from the squad.

Other difficulties hampered the Spartans. Already thin after losing Allen and Lucious, Delvon Roe continued to fight through pain and injuries, Kalin Lucas slowly recovered from last year’s Achilles injury and only recently has played with the explosiveness of his first three seasons. The bigs never quite developed: Derrick Nix had disciplinary issues but has looked better as of late, Adrian Payne more often than not looked like a little lost out there, as did Garrick Sherman. Draymond Green sometimes looked like he was trying to do too much and his game suffered with inconsistency.

Perhaps the brightest surprises, in a season sadly lacking in bright surprises, were Keith Appling becoming a lockdown defender and walk-on Mike Kebler making the most of his significant increase in playing time.

Through all of this I’ve felt like a bad fan this season. A fair weather fan, if you will. This team just isn't fun to watch, so I've selectively chosen which games to watch this year. I missed the bulk of both Michigan losses, as well as the regular season blowout losses to Purdue, the Ohio State loss, and several others.

I felt quite guilty about my sporadic fandom this season until I talked to my wife's sister's husband. He's a former MSU athlete (track and field) as well as a season ticket holder for basketball and football. He admitted to "giving up" on the season and echoed my feeling that this year's basketball team was brutal to watch. I didn't feel so bad after hearing this admission.

So why were the Spartans difficult to watch? Let me count the ways: With the exception of Kalin Lucas, they struggled mightily to score; due to lack of depth, they were unable to push the ball up the court as in years past, and they seemed to struggle with fundamentals (lazy passing leading to turnovers and constantly biting on pump fakes, leading to ridiculous fouls).

I attended four games in person this season, and amazingly they were all victories for the Spartans. The come-from-behind win over the stinkin' Wisconsin Badgers was probably the most exciting game I've ever seen in person (so I suppose this team wasn't THAT brutal to watch).

So now the Spartans find themselves in their 14th consecutive NCAA tournament, and I'll be darned if I have a clue what to expect from them. If they lost in the first round, I wouldn't be surprised and if they made a little run I wouldn't be overly shocked (though a little surprised). Nobody, not even Coach K, is a better floor general in March than Tom Izzo--so anything is possible. Stay tuned, Spartan fans.