R.E.M. – Automatic for the People

Automatic for the PeopleMany critics and fans consider Automatic for the People to be R.E.M.’s finest hour. They’ll get no argument from me. Transformed into superstars by Out of Time, with millions waiting to see what they’d do for a follow-up, the band produced a complex, contemplative, and absolutely beautiful album.

Lyrically, the most frequent theme is death and loss. “Try Not to Breathe”‘s protagonist is an elderly woman contemplating her full life and how she wants to be remembered; “Sweetness Follows” is about the coming together of a family at a funeral. In “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Man on the Moon,” Michael Stipe considers long gone cultural figures such as Montgomery Clift and Andy Kaufman. Amid all this melancholy is a core of hope, optimism, and belief in the human spirit. There’s the urge to “hold on” in “Everybody Hurts,” one of the most direct songs Stipe has ever written, and another entreaty in “Sweetness Follows” to “live your life filled with joy and thunder.” There’s also the goofiness of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” which includes Stipe’s laughter over his mispronunciation of Dr. Seuss. The lyrics themselves are good, but what makes the songs great is Stipe’s emotional range, the way he can make a particular feeling almost tangible without having to overpower the music or the listener. I don’t think he’s ever been better as a performer than he is on this album.

It helps that he has such strong musical backing. While Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills went into the studio expecting to do a harder rock record, they instead found themselves drawn to slower, more complex, often heavily acoustic arrangements. John Paul Jones added orchestral arrangements to four songs, including “Nightswimming,” which may well be my favorite song in the universe. The orchestral elements support Mike Mills’ beautiful piano melody, which perfectly fits Stipe’s reflections on the carefree spirit of youth. Mills also wrote the album closer, “Find the River,” which is quite possibly the best final track I know of. This time Mills’ keyboards balance with Peter Buck’s acoustic guitar and Stipe’s vocal to create a palpable sense of finality, a moment of looking back that’s calm yet intense because it sums up what’s gone before.

Buck and Bill Berry also contribute standout tracks to the album; “Everybody Hurts,” for example, was penned by Berry, while Buck contributed “Drive” and “Try Not to Breathe.” Buck’s songs in particular seem to hold a little more edge, a tinge of dark and ominous things on the horizon, but they’re still wonderfully constructed pieces of music. Outside of the peppy “Sidewinder” and the electric-guitar-driven “Ignoreland” (and maybe the choruses to “Man on the Moon”) this is generally a slow album, and while some have criticized those two songs for throwing off the album’s unified feel, I think both work well as interludes that try and cover similar themes from different vantage point, giving the album a little bit of variety to help individual tracks stand out.

rating: 4 out of 4 Automatic was recently released in DVD-Audio format, featuring new mixes for both stereo and 5.1 channel surround sound. These mixes certainly allow the listener to hear more detail; there are certain instrumental flourishes as well as a line or two of vocals that I had not been aware of before the DVD. Some may find the tweaks a bit distracting, especially in the surround sound mix. It’s also a neat listening experience that gives some sense of the role mixing and production play on an album. The DVD-A also comes with images of Stipe’s handwritten and hand-typed lyric sheets, a short electronic press kit documentary on the making of the album and the restaurant that inspired its title, a photo gallery, and an extended set of liner notes. Since DVD-A players are not that common, I’d only recommend this version for the really hardcore fan.

This album is an outstanding piece of work, and the only reason I’m rating it a 4 is that Earl’s rating system won’t let me give it a 5.

Order this CD

  1. Drive (4:31)
  2. Try Not to Breathe (3:50)
  3. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite (4:09)
  4. Everybody Hurts (5:20)
  5. New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 (2:15)
  6. Sweetness Follows (4:21)
  7. Monty Got a Raw Deal (3:17)
  8. Ignoreland (4:27)
  9. Star Me Kitten (3:16)
  10. Man on the Moon (5:14)
  11. Nightswimming (4:18)
  12. Find the River (3:49)

Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 1992
Total running time: 48:52

Tears For Fears – Tears Roll Down: Greatest Hits, 1982-92

Tears For Fears - Tears Roll Down: Greatest Hits, 1982-92Another of my not-quite-guilty pleasures of the 80s, Tears For Fears has always been one of my favorites from that era. They understood that if you’re going to build your music on a largely electronic palette, you should at least have a decent vocalist to give it some kind of human touch – and few bands around that time could do better than Roland Orzabal.

This collection picks up with a song which is actually simultaneously atypical and emblematic of the Tears For Fears sound, “Sowing The Seeds Of Love”, which I’m sure everyone remembers from around 1989-90. Like several of the duo’s singles, it got huge radio airplay, so you’re bound to remember the song, even if you don’t remember who did it.

The highlights include “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”, “Head Over Heels”, “Cold Shelter” (my personal favorite of anything the band did while they were in business), “Woman In Chains”, and two songs with some fairly interesting (and psychologically loaded) lyrics, “Tears Roll Down” and “Shout”. A few less prominent selections round things out.

Overall, I found, while listening to this, that I actually miss the Tears For Fears sound. What I miss about the ’80s in general is both the cutting-edge way the music was put together (when synths were relatively new), 4 out of 4and the fact that there seemed to be a sudden influx of songwriters who not only knew what chord progression they wanted their material to follow, but how they wanted it to sound, how they wanted to sing it, and how to use the then-new technology to achieve that. Tears For Fears were masters of that art, and sadly, precious few of the acts who were equally as good are still in circulation.

Order this CD

  1. Sowing The Seeds Of Love (6:19)
  2. Everybody Wants To Rule The World (4:11)
  3. Woman In Chains (6:29)
  4. Shout (6:33)
  5. Head Over Heels (4:14)
  6. Mad World (3:29)
  7. Pale Shelter (4:39)
  8. I Believe (4:49)
  9. Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down) (4:44)
  10. Mother’s Talk (4:59)
  11. Change (3:54)
  12. Advice For The Young At Heart (4:54)

Released by: Fontana
Release date: 1992
Total running time: 59:14

dada – Puzzle

dada - PuzzleTo the extent that dada has any hits, this is where you’ll find them. The sometimes-cynical sense of humor of “Dizz Knee Land”, with its once-again-pertinent line “I just flipped off President George / I’m going to Dizz Knee Land!”, permeates a few of the other tracks, like “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” and “Posters”. But there is also a solid emotional core to the songwriting. “Timothy” is the story of a boy whose life is so depressing he resorts to fantasy; the accompanying strings might come off as overbearing if they weren’t so well balanced by the understated bass, acoustic guitar and vocals, all of which build in intensity throughout the song. “Surround” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. At its core, it’s just percussion work and acoustic guitar playing a melody that’s simple yet elevating (with similar lyrics), but it layers other instruments in so well that the resulting harmonies intensify the feeling. Dim captures the sense of desperation of a person who looks back on his life at the end of a rating: 4 out of 4relationship and isn’t sure how he got where he is; as he asks, “Can’t this car go any faster / ’cause I can still see where I am,” the drums and electric guitar drive the song forward. I don’t have a DNP list like Earl’s, but if I did, it would be right up there. Suffice to say it’s one of my favorites.

Order this CD

  1. Dorina (6:06)
  2. Mary Sunshine Rain (4:39)
  3. Dog (4:13)
  4. Dizz Knee Land (4:06)
  5. Surround (3:38)
  6. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow (4:42)
  7. Posters (4:05)
  8. Timothy (4:00)
  9. Dim (4:21)
  10. Who You Are (3:25)
  11. Puzzle (6:20)
  12. Moon (5:18)

Released by: I.R.S.
Release date: 1992
Total running time: 54:58

Split Enz – Rear Enz

Split Enz - Rear EnzCollected here in one easy-to-grab chunk is the entire ’80s career of Split Enz, courtesy of Mushroom Records. Normally I rail against labels reissuing the unpteenth iteration of a band’s greatest hits, but since we’re getting the whole albums here, I can honestly give you hearty recommendations for this set. My big gripe with the five original albums included in this 6-CD box set has nothing to do with sound quality – everything was cleaned up by Enz keyboard whiz Eddie Rayner for this re-release – but everything to do with packaging. When the Split Enz 70s box set was released, there was at least some attempt to retain the original LP artwork, front and back, in some form. Not so here – and I wouldn’t be griping unless this omission involved the best back-cover art ever, Time & Tide‘s photo montage. Okay, so maybe that’s something not everyone’ll see as a problem, but it honked me off a bit. As I noted, had the same effort not been made for the 70s set, I would have shrugged it off more easily.

The real treasure here is the sixth disc, a bonus CD of non-album B-sides, demos and other rarities. Much more entertaining than the first box set’s disc of extras, this one is a solid slice of studio material with no live cuts (and really, why bother when The Living Enz has this part of the band’s career covered so well?). “Fire Drill” is an early Tim/Neil Finn collaboration (with Eddie Rayner getting a credit as well), and makes one wish that the Finn brothers had written more Split Enz material together – it’s definitely hit material. “Next Exit”, written by Tim and released as a stopgap single between albums in 1983, is another guilty favorite of mine – it’s goofy as hell lyrically, and yet still listenable. Other Tim songs – “Big Heart”, “Parasite”, “In The Wars”, “Remember When” – all have their own quirky appeal.

The real fascination here is the chance to witness – in an aural way at any rate – the evolution of songs that would later see release in other forms. Neil’s “I Walk Away” is heard in two early forms (“Your Inspiration” and the surprisingly disco-fied “Love & Success”, though portions of the latter became “Can’t Carry On”), with drastic steps yet to be made in both lyrics and the structure of the song’s melody itself. Even more revealing is Tim’s “Mr. Catalyst”, a jumpy dance tune which would be given entirely new lyrics and held back until his second solo album, Big Canoe, where it became “Spiritual Hunger” – though certain Eddie Rayner-penned instrumental breaks were lifted out of it completely and transplanted to Neil’s “Years Go By” on the final Split Enz album to great effect. Rayner also contributes an instrumental number all his own, “Over Drive”.

4 out of 4And the money shot of the Rear Enz bonus disc? Easy one – Neil’s “Serge”, a song dating back to his pre-Enz days in a band called After Hours (when it was titled Late In Rome). While it’d be easy to say that Rayner’s synth-sampled strings make the song, it’s a lovely example of Neil’s early ballad writing. (And it’s no surprise that it was a fan favorite in Crowded House’s live shows.)

Order this CDThe first five discs in this set are also available separately and have been reviewed previously: True Colours, Corroborree, Time & Tide, Conflicting Emotions and See Ya Round.

  1. Fire Drill (3:11)
  2. Your Inspiration (3:27)
  3. Parasite (2:44)
  4. Next Exit (4:15)
  5. Over Drive (4:17)
  6. Serge (4:06)
  7. In The Wars (4:08)
  8. Love & Success (3:43)
  9. Big Heart (3:41)
  10. Mr. Catalyst (2:59)
  11. Remember When (3:50)

Released by: Mushroom
Release date: 1992
Bonus disc total running time: 44:24

Left Banke – The Complete Recordings, 1966-1969

Left Banke - There's Gonna Be A Storm: The Complete Recordings, 1966-1969 Long ago in the mists of time, I started my humble radio career at KBBQ, then known as Q-101 (later renamed Q-100.7 for some reasons that probably have something to do with consultants and FCC regs). I was about to start my senior year of high school. And while rap and dance music were reigning supreme among my peers, I sat at the local broadcast end of a canned satellite radio service and soaked up music from the 50s through the 70s. It immediately rendered me astoundingly unhip at school, and locked me into a time warp that engulfed me until I left radio for TV, but I wouldn’t trade for anything the musical education I absorbed by osmosis during that period. I just sat in the room, ran local commercials during breaks in the satellite schedule, and sleepily intoned the weather forecast twice an hour, and spent the rest of the time listening intently. Sure, there were plenty of songs that got on my nerves, but one of the songs I loved more than most was The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee”, a string-drenched, Beatlesque pop tune with great vocal harmonies and an instantly memorable hook. So, when I happened to spot a single (and actually very inexpensive) CD purporting to be the complete recordings of The Left Banke, I picked it up pretty quickly.

Despite its seeming aspiration toward a British Invasion-inspired sound, The Left Banke was based in New York, and barely recorded two albums. I say barely because, according to the CD’s extensive liner notes, the band had practically broken up by the time “Walk Away Renee” hit the charts. The group’s second album was a cobbled-together monstrosity consisting of songs recorded by various combinations of the band’s members, including at least a couple that would’ve qualified as solo recordings. Thus, the band’s entire catalogue of 26 3 out of 4tracks can be crammed onto a single CD.

“Walk Away Renee” still remains my favorite, and must surely be one of the best pop songs committed to tape during the 1960s. “Pretty Ballerina”, which was the next single issued, comes in a fairly close second with its catchy piano hook.

Order this CD

  1. Walk Away Renee (2:42)
  2. I Haven’t Got The Nerve (2:10)
  3. Pretty Ballerina (2:35)
  4. She May Call You Up Tonight (2:16)
  5. I’ve Got Something On My Mind (2:47)
  6. Barterers and Their Wives (3:18)
  7. Let Go Of You Girl (2:51)
  8. What Do You Know (3:02)
  9. Evening Gown (1:46)
  10. Lazy Day (2:23)
  11. Shadows Breaking Over My Head (2:35)
  12. Ivy Ivy (3:11)
  13. Men Are Building Sand (2:19)
  14. Desiree (2:42)
  15. Dark Is The Bark (3:28)
  16. My Friend Today (3:03)
  17. Sing Little Bird Sing (3:09)
  18. And Suddenly (2:05)
  19. Goodbye Holly (2:56)
  20. In the Morning Light (2:50)
  21. Bryant Hotel (3:24)
  22. Give the Man a Hand (2:33)
  23. Nice To See You (2:41)
  24. There’s Gonna Be A Storm (4:16)
  25. Pedestal (3:45)
  26. Myrah (3:21)

Released by: Mercury / Polygram
Release date: 1992
Total running time: 75:08

Raymond Scott – Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights

Raymond Scott - Reckless Nights and Turkish TwilightsThis amazing album of vintage late-1930s recordings by American jazz composer Raymond Scott will sound quite familiar if you’ve ever spent any time watching Looney Tunes. Scott, who was considered mondo bizarro in his own day, and was heavily criticized by his session players for asking them to perform his uniquely whimsical jazz numbers as written instead of improvising, lives forever in the annals of American music simply because Warner Bros. cartoon composer extraordinaire Carl Stalling lifted many of his pieces to score the misadventures of Bugs Bunny and friends. Though Raymond Scott’s original recordings of such pieces as “Powerhouse” and “The Penguin” aren’t as raucous and don’t soung as “big” as they later became with Stalling’s help, they are distinctly recognizable and charming in their own right. As the liner notes point out, Scott was something of a technological prodigy as well, recording his works on metallic discs instead of acetate, which means that the music heard here is not only 60+ years old, but is heard exactly as it was recorded (allowing for some audio spectrum limitations of 4 out of 4that vintage studio equipment). I have a feeling that it’ll be a while – probably not even in my lifetime – before Raymond Scott takes his place alongside such American musical luminaries as Copland…but after hearing this very unique music, I can’t help but feel that he will eventually attain that status. After all, thanks to Bugs, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and the Road Runner, who among us hasn’t heard and loved his music?

Order this CD

  1. Powerhouse (2:56)
  2. The Toy Trumpet (3:00)
  3. Tobacco Auctioneer (2:36)
  4. New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House (2:22)
  5. Manhattan Minuet (2:40)
  6. Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals (2:56)
  7. Reckless Night on an Ocean Liner (3:06)
  8. Moment Musical (2:17)
  9. Twilight In Turkey (2:43)
  10. The Penguin (2:38)
  11. Oil Gusher (2:39)
  12. In an 18th Century Drawing Room (2:39)
  13. The Girl at the Typewriter (3:02)
  14. Siberian Sleighride (2:52)
  15. At an Arabian House Party (3:21)
  16. Boy Scout in Switzerland (2:50)
  17. Bumpy Weather in Newark (2:51)
  18. Minuet in Jazz (2:51)
  19. War Dance for Wooden Indians (2:31)
  20. The Quintet Plays Carmen (2:40)
  21. Huckleberry Duck (2:51)
  22. Peter Tambourine (2:55)

Released by: Columbia / Sony
Release date: 1992
Total running time: 61:45

Simple Minds – Glittering Prize (The Best of: 1982-1991)

Simple Minds - Glittering Prize (The Best of: 1982-1991)Hey, admit it. You, like myself, probably remember Simple Minds mainly for “that song from The Breakfast Club” – right? Sure, we all do! You’ll be pleased to know that “Don’t You Forget About Me” is included, as are other frequent airplay fliers “Sanctify Yourself” and “Alive And Kicking”, the latter of which has always bugged me because of the way Jim Kerr sings “aaaaaaah-live and kicking.” It’s a weird hangup, yes, but it’s also an awkward emphasis on an 3 out of 4unusual syllable! Overall, it’s a good collection, including a lot of songs that casual listeners will find less familiar, but that’s compilation albums for you.

  1. Alive and Kicking (4:46)
  2. See the Lights (4:22)
  3. Don’t You (Forget About Me) (4:20)
  4. Promised You a Miracle (3:58)
  5. Order this CD Sanctify Yourself (3:55)
  6. Belfast Child (6:39)
  7. Stand By Love (4:06)
  8. Up On The Catwalk (4:06)
  9. Let There Be Love (4:42)
  10. All The Things She Said (4:16)
  11. Someone, Somewhere in Summertime (4:36)
  12. Waterfront (4:48)

Released by: Virgin
Release date: 1992
Total running time: 54:49