Archive | February, 2012

R.E.M. are the Best Ever American Rock Band and what that means about American Music

26 Feb

R.E.M. are Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers, legends and universally respected. They’re also established hitmakers, considered massively influential to the direction of alternative or college rock and have maybe 7-8 great records to their credit. However, it also seems wrong to give them a label as lofty as ‘The Best Ever American Rock Band’, yes? But as far as I can dicern not only is there an argument to made for it but I think it’s tough to argue against.

A large part of the reason for this lies in the phrasing of the honor I seek to bestow. In every word of it there are major disqualifier for artists who you might otherwise think might fit the bill.

When it comes to being the ‘best ever’ band and to me that comes with an expectation that you were very good for a meaningful amount of time. Nirvana is a great American rock band, with all the critical bona fides to at least nearly match R.E.M. but they have 3 records (only 2 meaningfully popular in their life time) and one well beloved live record – they seem more significant on some level but they aren’t objectively better.

And then we come to many a beloved American band that seems ‘imporant’ for their commercial success but who I have a hard time making an argument as being in any way objectively better than R.E.M., in my eyes, the eyes of critical opinion and in terms of being universally liked in general.

There are bands, such as The Eagles and Aerosmith, who have had many hit singles and a few ‘classic’ records. But both bands suffer from a lack of meaningful critical success and from the fact that they have a fairly wide base of detractors. Maybe I’ve got tunnelvision but it seems to me that R.E.M. are a band that even if you don’t actively enjoy, per se, is known to be or have been for a long period of time, a great band. I think my two above examples are bands that people know are famous bands and ‘classic’ bands but I don’t think they’re regarded as ‘among the best’ bands.

Then there are the other words. The first – American, gets to the root of what I believe this is really about. There are perhaps dozens of bands, rock bands, who have careers that either rival or easily outshine R.E.M.’s. But none of those bands are American.
The obvious choice for ‘Best Ever Rock Band’? The Beatles. Hard to argue it. But in addition The Rolling Stones. A band like U2 has bona fides that R.E.M. probably can’t touch (although I’d argue they aren’t as good, I think it’s an argument I’d be likely to lose with the majority of people, even if not critics) And the thing is, you don’t even need to go that big to find a band that compares favorably with R.E.M. in Europe – Radiohead, The Clash and several other could have a reasonable argument made for them. But they aren’t Americans.

How about ‘Rock’. Another category where there’s an argument and it’s two-fold but related. For one, is R.E.M. really, foremost, a rock band or a pop band and then if that’s up for question then isn’t it arguable that another band, say Van Halen, is inherently a better ‘rock band’.

I think R.E.M. are definitely a rock band and I think the argument boils down to how wide or narrow you define ‘rock n’ roll’. I have a wide pallet for judging rock n’ roll – Van Halen, for example is a good rock band but a) they aren’t ‘the best’ and b) they aren’t any more in the genre than R.E.M. just because they fit a better cultural shorthand for the term. There is an argument that there are several bands that are more rock n’ roll than R.E.M. but I think the spirit of the idea is the best band who is American and fits into the genre of rock, if you disagree and would take it as the most Rock n’ Roll band band that is good and American, however, Van Halen, among others, have a fair argument.

Then there’s the fact that if you take the qualifier of ‘rock’ off, as in the case of ‘American’ the whole argument falls apart. American has a great history of pop and R&B bands and there are even a few hip hop acts who’ve achieved the longevity that would make them a fair argument with R.E.M., perhaps.

For the sake of argument, some pop bands that come to mind as having a case against them (or outright beating them) include The Supremes (by a landslide in my mind), The Temptations and then the hardest to exclude – The Beach Boys.
If you are casting a wide net in terms of the rock, to avoid falling into the ‘Van Halen rock credibility’ trap then you welcome in scrutiny of several acts that could reasonably be described as ‘pop-rock’. Among the top contenders to make this argument moot, in my mind, is The Beach Boys. The thing is, wide net or not – I think the Beach Boys are a pop band in a way that R.E.M. is not.

R.E.M. was a popular band and The Beach Boys were seen as a rock band in their day. Both of these are true. R.E.M. has songs and even records that could be reasonably defined as more pop than rock. But at their heart R.E.M. is a band whose sound is based on guitars, drums and vocals and anything else in any given song is a quirk to the song outside of the their general mode, which is a guitar, a bass, drums and vocals. The Beach Boys, in my mind, are more defined by their vocals and I think, given their more psychadelic period aren’t entirely a rock band in the same sense.

I think the ‘Surfin’ USA’ Beach Boys are a rock band but I’m not convinced those records are what really makes the legacy of the Beach Boys, especially not in terms of continued appeal. ‘Pet Sounds’ is the #1 essential Beach Boys record and I think that’s absolutely a pop record. And given that fact I think they’re disqualified.

Finally, you have ‘band’ which, again, there can be disagreement to the meaning of and there are borderline choices but which disqualifies a large number of artists who reasonably are R.E.M.’s betters – Bob Dylan being an obvious one. But Bob Dylan is a solo artist – he isn’t a band.

Another obvious one and one that might be seen as dubious is Bruce Springsteen. The dubiousness springs from the fact that Bruce has The E Street Band. And thus, one might claim that the Best Ever American Rock Band is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The problem with this, however, is two fold.

For one: a band is a unit that, while the lead singer might get the lion’s share of the credit, is in fact a unit and are representing that fact by their name. The E Street Band is a band, but they’re a backing band for the solo artist Bruce Springsteen. And even if you argue that is enough, in spite of the fact that they’re unbilled contributors on nearly all the records on which they appear (in terms of the fact that recognized artist, on the front of the record, CD or tape will appear as ‘Bruce Springsteen’) there is also the fact that the legacy of Bruce Springsteen is not entirely dependant on The E Street Band. Several of his finest legacy defining records were recorded without them. My favorite Springsteen record, Nebraska (to be fair, not the consensus choice but a very widely acclaimed record) doesn’t include them, among several others. They’re a massive touring entity and they’re inclusion in a tour will allow Bruce to play slightly larger venues than he would otherwise but that’s hardly enough for me.

The problem I face in making this argument is the fact that despite my enduring love for R.E.M. I just simply cannot fathom this being a make-able argument. And yet, I just made it and I can’t see a good argument against it. Perhaps I’m missing something or perhaps this is something that says something about American Rock Music.

For one thing, to me, it says that quality is not paramount among American rock bands. The bands I mentioned at the beginning, The Eagles, for instance, are more famous and more likely to sell out a stadium. They’re also only a so-so band at best with a shaky critical reputation and who is largely derided by many listeners. There are plenty of famous American rock bands – it’s just that they’re either flash in pans (like Nirvana) or not good enough to cut it when faced with someone like R.E.M. who combine so many laudible qualities.
But also it says that America is despite what you may have heard, not the best place to find a great rock band – England has a premium on them. The Beatles and Stones blow away anyone American – there is no argument for R.E.M. standing up to them in nearly any category. Which consequentally means they blow away all American bands even more. And even if you make the Van Halen argument – try comparing them to either. And The Beach Boys, as a pop rock band aren’t a hundreth as consequental and not nearly as good as The Beatles. Even including pop they both handily rout The Supremes.

Where the argument comes in is solo artists, because Bob Dylan is in a class by himself and is definitely a challenger to The Beatles and Stones. Probably, on the basis of commercial success that I laid out, they have him beaten by a bit but given his longevity as a consequental artist it’s hard to rule him out of a more general argument.

To me, what this says is that the best American rock artist and perhaps best American musician is a solo artist. And in fact most of the most famous American musicians are at heart solo artists, be it Springsteen, Miles Davis or Dylan (among others). It seems to me that it speaks to, at the same time the spirit of America, the spirit of American individualism and to capaitalism as a whole – the communial experience of a band is valued less and less easy to achieve than success as your own person. There is a long, drawn out argument to made about this point that perhaps I will sometime come back to, but it’s strikingly persuasive to me.

Regardless of this, what it comes down to is, for whatever reason, when you pair those terms together, terms that seem like they would have a dirth of credible contenders, there is only a few and none of them, in my mind, match up to R.E.M. Try and prove me wrong, if you wish but arguments aside, there is no satisfying answer to this question and I feel that says something about American music and regardless of what you think it says I have a hard time feeling it’s something positive.

A Quick Look At: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

22 Feb

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

A Quick Look at: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Featuring one of the best screen performances of the year, Martha Marcy May Marlene was, sadly, shut out from the Oscars this year, but you should absolutely seek it out now that’s arrived on DVD.

Our titular character (Martha, but called by all 4 names played by a stunning Elizabeth Olsen) has just been through a harrowing ordeal as we enter the fold in this tense, affecting, and scattered film and is trying to get the gumption to call her sister in a scene that sets the stage for what’s to come without hitting the ultimate punch of the story till we’re far deeper into the rabbit hole.

At it’s heart this is the story of an aimless girl given direction by a charismatic man and his cult of worshippers but it’s able to make everyone real, if not sympathetic. John Hawkes also puts in an award worthy performance.

Shifting focus between modern day and the recent past at a whim the film holds together surprisingly well, for all it’s tricky editing. It’s worth noting that the score is top notch and it’s pulsating ambient sounds magnify the dread the surrounds a girl who isn’t quite sure how to live life anymore.

Grade: A


January 2012 Music Capsule Reviews

22 Feb

Spirit Night One Man Houses


This is the first edition of what I’m intending to be a monthly series of capsule reviews of new music from the past month. But to catch up I’ll probably do my February edition in just a few weeks.

But without furthermore to do, the reviews:

Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory
Grade: A-

This is a short record (and it should be), it’s uncomplicated (but it’s powerful) and it’s not what you’d expect if you’d heard them previously (it’s much better).
Formerly a lo-fi buzz band with decent hooks Cloud Nothings have transformed themselves into a classic first wave emo band and that suits them very well. And no, ’emo’ in this sense doesn’t mean sensitive strummed guitars – it means loud, emotional catharsis in the mold of something like Sunny Day Real Estate.

It’s been suggested that the titular attack is on whatever you may have remembered the band as being and if that was the idea, well, the attack has very much destroyed any memories of fuzzy lo-fi pop and personally this is a record that speaks to me as a disseffected not quite as youthful as I’d like to be type.

Songs like ‘Wasted Days’, a 9 minute wail that ends with a long screaming chant of ‘I Thought. I Would. Be More. Than This.’ plays as a mission statement of sorts and several more of the highlights here have that same agenda and feeling behind them. But they didn’t entirely leave behind hooks – ‘Fall In’ sounds like a rough around the edges Green Day in the best way possible and ‘Stay Useless’ is misenthropic as anything on the record but it’s damned catchy as well.

Chairlift: Something
Grade: C+

I had somewhat high expectations for this record, turned even higher when I heard the pre-release MP3s but this turns out to be only a minor step up from the band’s debut LP ‘Does You Inspire You?’, an album that itself was somewhat of a disappointment.

There is something, in the best parts of the record that sparkles with some deft production but as a full meal it’s just a bit overproduced and it goes down poorly. It’s worth downloading the best tracks (‘Sidewalk Safari’, ‘Amanaemonesia’ and ‘Take It Out on Me’), which are mix tape worthy pop nuggets but as a whole it falls just a little flat.

First Aid Kit: The Lion’s Roar
Grade: B+

A damned solid folk/alt-country record bolstered by several terrific songs and never falling below the level of good. It’s by turns rolicking and entertaining as well as having a solid emotional core.

The title track starts it strong and ‘Emmylou’ follows it up by delivering one of the best songs so far this year, referencing Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons and pulsating with a fun, flirtatious energy that shows the band, a pair of Norwegian sisters, doing something resembling Americana better than most any American in some time. It nearly hits peaks that high again with ‘Blue’ and the closer ‘King of the World’ which borrows a line or two from some old Bright Eyes tunes, before borrowing Bright Eyes himself, Conor Oberst for a verse.

One of the best records so far this year and it shows a band with a lot of potential.

Guided By Voices: Lets Go Eat the Factory
Grade: B-

In the first album that the ‘core line-up’ of Guided by Voices have released since 1993 we see them, well, doing a lot of the same tricks they were up to when they were cult favorites to the Buzz Bin set. Short, catchy and a bit silly songs show that the band is still good but something does feel missing. It’s solid, though lack the certain something that propelled the band in it’s prime.

of Montreal: Paralytic Stalks
Grade: C+
The latest from the Athens, GA band sees them continuing their weird vaguely Bowie-esque ways and continuing to make challenging records that seem to have peaked somewhere around the criminally under-rated by most ‘Skeletal Lamping’ in 2008.

There are a few gems to hold on to here, one imagines that Kevin Barnes could make something like ‘Dour Percentage’ in his sleep but it’s a fine, funky and fun little pop song. The rest of the output here, though, is, well… ambitious without ever reaching it’s goal.

Whereas ‘Skeletal Lamping’ was a pure id minefield of crazy hooks, seemingly like 4 songs at once oftentimes, this record sometimes leaves songs far too much time to grow and they start losing their weird and start growing stale at a certain point.

I would categorize this as ‘the sort of mediocre record that I can easily and happily accept’ but it’d be nice if sometime soon we might get another true masterpiece out of an artist whom has enough talent, flair and ambition to something special and often settles from something weird.

Spirit Night: One Man Houses
Grade: A-
Catchy and fun, Spirit Night’s second LP is a real treat. It’s a fun, messy bunch and what it lacks in polish it makes up for in satisfying hooks and catchy choruses.

When we last saw them Spirit Night was a little more stripped down and while that looked just fine on them as well, it seems like they’ve changed into something more muscular and that’s for the better because songs like ‘Better Off’ manage to be as big an earworm as anything I’ve heard this year.

Another standout is ‘Kerouac’ wherein dreams of running away are foiled by a certain strain of ennui. It’s an ode to being jealous of people breaking away when you’re, say, ‘too busy reading Kerouac’ to drive across the country. A tremendous little record. There is something to be said for it being a bit slight but I think it satisfies.

It’s worth noting that it’s available at the band’s bandcamp page for any price you wish to pay (including free) and it’s worth it to give it a listen.


22 Feb

Why hello there.

This is a blog. It’s my… fourth? If you don’t count LiveJournal, Tumblr and such, it’s about that. Why am I trying again? It’s a fair question and one that I will not answer without a lawyer, so sorry.

It’s my intention to write about the following things:

*Television Programs



*Politics, maybe

*Real life things, maybe

*Comedy stuff

I’m pretty sure it’ll be rad, because I’m pretty rad. And this time I’m EVEN PUTTING MY NAME IN THE URL! Clearly this means I’m serious and will not, as with the last many attempts, make 3 entries and then get frowny faced when there aren’t very many comments. Also, unlike the previous blogs this is going to be me writing about more than one thing, because, well, writing about one thing didn’t work, now did it?

So, welcome and hopefully this page will, in fact, have more content soon.