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Radiohead

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Pablo Honey

Willie's comments: Did you ever see that old, black-and-white Radiohead poster from 1993 where the band is standing around, looking like truant schoolboys (drummer Phil Selway still has hair!), and frontman Thom Yorke is giving you the finger? It just doesn't seem like Radiohead- so blatant in its aggression, so full of posturing. Is this really the band that would give us the tremendously subtle OK Computer, and who would be proclaimed the saviors of rock 'n' roll even as they seemed to abandon the entire genre on Kid A and Amnesiac? Well, as 1993's Pablo Honey confirms, it really isn't that band. At this point in their career, the ol' rock muse wasn't particularly kind to Radiohead, forcing them to churn out more complex variations on the noisy guitar sound that was all over the airwaves around this time, with Yorke coming across like a less detached Bono. Some of the crazier Radiohead fans will claim to find immense beauty and value in this album, but they're full of it- the album lurches from ravers like the sloppy "How Do You?" to the messy midtempo numbers like "Stop Whispering" and "Prove Yourself" (which is memorable for its rare use of non-Yorke backing vocals) without evincing any of the creativity or invention of their later work. The only keeper is the song which understandably got Radiohead pegged as a one-hit wonder (and which provided them with such an unpleasant touring experience that they were forced to prove themselves once and for all with The Bends): "Creep." Yorke's deeply emotional tale of the self-loathing that goes along with unrequited love is blessed with tear-inducing lyrics ("I want you to notice when I'm not around/ You're so fucking special, I wish I was special..."), amazingly powerful guitar work from Jonny Greenwood, and a cathartic chorus. But as we would soon see, all the "Creep"s in the world couldn't begin to foreshadow the lengths to which Radiohead's songwriting would evolve in a matter of a few short years... Grade: C

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The Bends

Ginny's comments: After discounting Pablo Honey (don't gnaw my arm off, Radiophiles- they are still my favorite band. I just prefer the more mature style), I say that Radiohead's career begins with The Bends. The Bends ushered in a new sound unlike any heard before in Radiohead's career, or anyone else's career, for that matter. This album is as psychologically stimulating as Pink Floyd's The Wall, as lyrically diverse and clever as Beck's Odelay, and could musically outdo a whole room full o' Dylans. "Street Spirit" is a gorgeous song with mind-blowing lyrics and a haunting rhythm that is one of Thom Yorke's best. "Just" is a fun song that has the best music videos of all time ("Just what IS that guy saying!?"). The rest of this album is just as mindblowing. I'd bet my life savings Radiohead couldn't top themselves after this one. Grade: A+

Willie's comments: Upping the ante on the generic but shrewd U2-isms that composed their debut album, Pablo Honey, Radiohead let down their protective fuzzbox shield a bit for classic songs like the deceptively fragile "Fake Plastic Trees" and the mesmerizing, wonderful "Street Spirit (Fade Out)." And when the band rocks, they are no longer content to merely ape the Nirvana (Pixies) quiet verse/noisy chorus formula as they did on "Creep"- songs like "Planet Telex" and "Just" squall and squeal like nobody’s business, simmering down only enough to let in Yorke’s gorgeous, plaintive vocal melodies. Great lyrics, too- Yorke is angry at our society and lets us know it. "Everything is broken, and everyone is broken," as he sings in the title track. Grade: A-

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OK Computer

Ginny's comments: Okay, so now I'm broke. But it was all worth it, however, to get a listen to OK Computer. I don't have many words to describe this album, other than it's one of the best (if not THE best) albums of all time. I don't have a single complaint about this album. Thom Yorke is a genius. And we hope that you choke. Now hurry along and read Willie's review, if you haven't. He's better at this than me. Grade: A+

Willie's comments: This is the best album ever made. A genius follow-up to The Bends, Yorke is just as disheartened with our technology- and materialism-driven society as ever, but now his lyrics portray a man who’s too weary of being ignored to lambast us any longer, and just narrates the misery that we have created for ourselves in everything from our jobs ("No Surprises") to our families ("Exit Music [for a Film]") to our own homes ("Climbing Up the Walls"). The wonderful thing about Yorke’s lyrics is that each line is so precisely phrased and packed with potential meaning that no two people will get the same thing out of it. "In a neon sign scrolling up and down/I am born again," for example, presents a reasonably specific image, but depends upon the listener's interpretation to complete it- much like Resnais's film Last Year at Marienbad. It’s the best conversation piece you’ll ever have, and it’s a joy to listen to, as well. Songs range from Pet Sounds-esque pop to carefully-crafted prog rock blasts, and every note is perfect. Words can’t describe it, and I have to stop myself from trying now or I’ll write a book. Grade: A+

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Airbag/How am I Driving? EP

Ginny's comments: I bought this for the booklet inside. It doesn't really offer any new worthwhile Radiohead B-sides, and I'm too lazy to go back to listen to it again, because it didn't really impress me the first time. However, the booklet is straight from the surrealistic world of Radiohead. Find a friend who owns this and look 'er over. Grade: C

Willie's comments: Contrary to what Jen says, I think the "Airbag" EP does contain two B-sides that are not only worthwhile, but are worthy of being singles in their own right: "Pearly," which is a straightforward, Bends-esque rocker, and "Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)," which is a squirmy, Pink Floyd-ian epic detailing Yorke's environmental concerns. None of the other songs achieve that level of perfection, pretty though they often are. As an appetizer between OK Computer and Kid A, this EP works fine, though. Grade: B

Seven Television Commercials video

Ginny's comments: Any semi-Radiohead fan will love this collection of music videos. Buy it for this reason alone: invite friends over, and as soon as they walk in the door, play "Paranoid Android" and watch it casually. They will squirm uncomfortably. Offer them some tea. Wink at them. Trust me- it's a big hit with tax auditors. My only complaint is that it's only seven television commericals... Grade: A-

Willie's comments: This videocassette contains the music videos for three songs from OK Computer and four from The Bends, and each one shows that Radiohead is capable of making videos that are every bit as fascinating, puzzling, and beautiful as their music. "Street Spirit" is technically amazing and as hypnotic as the song it accompanies, "Paranoid Android" is a cartoon that’s full of more humor and depth of feeling than most live videos, "Just" is an unspeakably brilliant riddle... Wow. If only two videos didn’t hinge on exploding cars... Grade: A

Meeting People is Easy video

Ginny's comments: Dark dark dark. Does Mr. Gee know any type of cinematography that isn't under-exposed? This long artsy romp into Boredomland hides under the guise of being a documentry– however, one walks away from it knowing no more about Radiohead then they did at the start, other than the obvious fact that touring is grueling at times. It has one chuckle-inducing moment where shots of houses are set to the music of "No Surprises," but we already know that Radiohead is anti-suburbia, so you might as well give up now. And yes, it shows how Thom filmed "No Surprises" blah blah blah but the technique is OBVIOUS to any film student with the most rudimentary knowledge. Sorry. I have to say that. I go to an art college. You try to go to one and not say things like, "The figure-ground relationship of this composition is mind-numbingly equivocal." Grade: C

Willie's comments: This is a documentary by "No Surprises" video director Grant Gee, chronicling Radiohead’s OK Computer world tour. Simply put, it’s a big, dumb misfire. Gee insists on playing snatches of Radiohead’s music over most of the poorly-recorded dialogue, rendering the band’s observations totally inaudible. The concert snippets are too few and too short (often, we see less than a minute of any given song), and the video is grainy. The blatant point of the film is to make the audience feel the horrible pressures put on a band as they tour, and the ennui comes through, but it's put together in an amateurish fashion that never lets you become involved in what's going on. The one truly compelling moment shows the filming of the "No Surprises" video, and Thom’s many attempts at holding his breath in that water-filled helmet as the song plays. Grade: D+

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Kid A

Willie's comments: Of course, after we all got up off the floor after OK Computer knocked us on our collective bum, the obvious question we asked about Radiohead was, "What can they possibly do for an encore?" This was a question that weighed heavily on Radiohead's mind as well, and they resolved to do something entirely different from anything that had come before. The result of that resolution is Kid A, a ten-song set that is as cold and forbidding as the mountains that appear on its cover. Whereas Yorke's previous lyrics have been blisteringly iconoclastic, here he mumbles inscrutable, numb mantras like "This isn't happening" ("How to Disappear Completely") and, conversely, "This is really happening" ("Idioteque"). The music, too, is less immediate than on The Bends or even OK Computer- Colin Greenwood's bass is often the only stable element among flying shards of computerized percussion, keyboard washes, and Yorke's heavily processed vocals. This isn't to say that the songs don't cohere into recognizable melodies; only that those melodies are constructed in strange, intricate, constantly evolving ways, like snowflakes.

The early word on Kid A was that it was willfully impenetrable and inaccessible, but I don't think that anyone who has fully immersed themselves into OK Computer at some point will find Kid A especially hard to navigate. The opening two songs are jarring upon first listen: "Everything in Its Right Place" is a weird triumph of ambient repetition, while the title track is a spare tribute to Can, consisting mainly of computerized beats and Yorke's unintelligible singing. Once your ears adjust, however, the songs are actually pretty easy to pin down, though musically far-flung: "The National Anthem" sounds like Mercury Rev covering a song by the Fall; "Optimistic" is R.E.M. filtered through a barbed-wire fence; "Treefingers" is an update of Brian Eno's Another Green World; and the brilliant "Idioteque" actually sounds like Yorke fronting Soul Coughing (this song demands to be listened to under headphones). The best track, however, is the dramatic "How to Disappear Completely." It features the band's most stirring melody since "Street Spirit," and Yorke's most piercingly disoriented lyrics ever: "That there isn't me," he mutters, resigned to what sounds like the worst fate ever foisted upon a human being. Kid A isn't nearly as perfect a musical statement as OK Computer, but it is nonetheless another essential work from the most fearless band on the planet. Grade: A

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Amnesiac

Willie's comments: The songs for this album were culled from the same sessions as Kid A, so it would be a tad premature to look for any sort of musical growth between that album and this one. However, Amnesiac nevertheless seems to follow the same thematic trajectory that Yorke's beleaguered narrator has been on for the past three albums: after warning the human race against their selfish actions (The Bends), chronicling their downfall (OK Computer), and finally withdrawing from society altogether (Kid A), he now finds himself the scapegoat of an angry mob because he dares to live his own life differently from everyone else- and is thus immune to the misery of the rat race. He self-righteously confronts his accusers in "You and Whose Army?" and "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" ("I'm a reasonable man/Get off my case," he mutters threateningly throughout the song). "Dollars & Cents" is one final rant against the materialistic nature of the Western world ("We will crack your little souls"), but the creepy instrumental "Hunting Bears" and the disoriented "Like Spinning Plates" suggest the inevitable, horrific lynching/brainwashing that befalls our hero. Finally, "Life in a Glasshouse" finds him bent into a form that society sees as reasonably acceptable... I guess we'll have to wait for the next album to find out what happens next.

A fine, 1984-esque story to be sure, but the music on Amnesiac isn't quite as unimpeachable. The best songs ("Packt Like Sardines," "I Might Be Wrong," and the transcendently weird "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors") finally provide the long-overdue link between rock music and the percussive techno experiments of the Warp Records crew, but in a way that's much less frantic than Kid A. The beautifully mournful "Pyramid Song" is a triumph of strange musical geometry as well, but the random emo guitars of "Knives Out," the annoyingly atonal vocals to "Dollars & Cents," and a skeletal reprise of "Morning Bell" from the last album seem like cop-outs from a band that is capable of much better. Still, when Radiohead marches into your ear, pulling hypnotic melodies and rhythmic patterns seemingly out of thin air (as they do for much of the album), you'll remember why you're willing to follow them anywhere. Grade: A-

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I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings

Willie's comments: Last summer, Jenny and I drove to Barrie, Ontario to see Radiohead perform live. After six hours of driving and several more of standing around in Molson Park, Jen got a kidney stone and we had to rush to the Queen Victoria Hospital. (According to Jen, Canadians have much more comfortable stretchers than we do in the United States.) We did get to see Radiohead play six or seven songs, but Jen doesn't remember anything but the blinding pain, and my enjoyment of the show was understandably blunted by the fact that she was writhing in pain on the blanket next to me. Lucky for us, Radiohead has accurately transferred the tornadic energy and musical fury of their live set to this new mini-album.

Admittedly, it's a long way removed from having Thom Yorke and friends performing in your living room, all the songs are from Kid A or Amnesiac (except the mediocre acoustic number "True Love Waits"), and it's only eight songs long to begin with. However, these songs are all recast with an aggressive immediacy to replace the mechanical distance of the studio versions: "The National Anthem" and "I Might Be Wrong" gallop along with a determined punk energy, "Idioteque" highlights Phil's laserlike percussive precision, and "Like Spinning Plates" is whittled down to an intimate piano number. "Everything in Its Right Place" trumps them all, though, by building seven minutes of trippy, swirling vocal interplay between Thom and a sampled version of himself (manipulated onstage by Jonny) that slowly spills into a sputtering, hallucinatory jumble of echoes, half-understood words, and sped-up vocals that might actually be more effective in your headphones than in person. I wish the band had included their pulverizing version of "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" instead of the still-abrasive "Dollars & Cents," but since this may be the closest I'll ever get to properly seeing a Radiohead show, I'll take it. Grade: A-

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Hail to the Thief

Willie's comments: It's kind of odd that an album that contains songs about kidnappings, predators, vampires, and hell otherwise breaking loose should sound relieving, but considering that Radiohead has spent nearly an entire decade stretching the medium of rock 'n' roll on a rack until it snaps, they seem to finally have become comfortable with just being Radiohead on the excellent Hail to the Thief. Even for those of us who found it thrilling to rassle with Kid A and Amnesiac until their numerous pleasures were revealed, the immediate gratification of songs like "Where I End and You Begin" and the slingshot opener "2 + 2 = 5" comes as a salve to our ears; it's as though Yorke & Associates felt as though they'd painted themselves into a corner with their last two headtrips, and rather than stressing over what to do next, just said, "Right- let's get on with it" and opted out of the box. As such, Hail to the Thief is a superb stew of all the band's previous incarnations, without ever seeming as though they're backtracking (though Thom does obliquely allude to doing so on the spirally "Backdrifts") so much as finally just settling down and letting the music go where it needs to go. When it needs a slow buildup from a dismayed-sounding glockenspiel to a bed of hummingbird electronics, that slow buildup is unquestioningly offered (on the album highlight "Sit Down. Stand Up."). When it needs an unfussy 3/4 chamber-rock arrangement to back Yorke's half-spoken paranoia, said arrangement is given (on the creepy "A Wolf At the Door"). When Yorke's muse fills out an acquisition form for a piano-based dirge that sounds inexplicably cult-like, the form is speeded through the bureaucratic process with a minimum of red tape (on "We Suck Young Blood," which you'll find either ecstatically scary or annoyingly poky, depending on your mood). They're in no danger of being mistaken for Counting Crows or anything, but even with moments like the flailing fuzz-rocker "Myxomatosis," this is the least uptight music the band has ever released, and although Yorke conjures some especially bloodthirsty imagery, Hail to the Thief almost sounds contented at times. Both unique and familiar, accessible and nuanced, it's everything a good little Radiohead fan could ask for. Grade: A

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In Rainbows

Willie's comments: Before we get to the review, I feel it necessary to document the backstory of In Rainbows before it's lost to the ages. Gather 'round, little ones. Cecil, fetch your Uncle Willie his ear trumpet and a gin and tonic. One day in autumn 2007, the phrase "Radiohead LP7" appeared on the Internet beside a countdown to a moment a day or two hence. Word quickly spread, and when zero hour finally arrived, the thousands upon thousands of salivating fans who'd been parked in front of their computer screen, myself included, were hilariously treated to Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" video. Two days later, the actual announcement arrived that Radiohead would be self-releasing In Rainbows the following week, available in two formats. The more noteworthy of the options was the digital release, wherein the band would allow fans to download the album in MP3 form... and the user could name her own price for the privilege of the download. (I think I read that fans willingly paid an average of six dollars.) Or, for $80, you could purchase a deluxe fancypants edition containing both CD and vinyl versions of the album, scads of extra artwork, and an eight-track bonus disc that acts as an appendix to the official album and ranges from dazzling (the complex and cinematic "Down is the New Up") to categorically awful ("Bangers & Mash," a tuneless stylistic tribute to the Liars' first couple albums). A few months later, a more traditional CD version was quietly released on Dave Matthews's ATO label, and I'm not sure what became of the bonus disc when that happened.

If its distribution sounds needlessly complicated, it's the only aspect of the album that is. Where Hail to the Thief was the welcome sound of the band unclenching and allowing themselves to have fun, In Rainbows may be their first record that audibly invites the listener to enjoy. Though unpredictable melodies and piercing downer lyrics still abound, they're balanced by appealing instrumentation that eschews dissonant studio manipulation in favor of spotlighting the guitarists' intertwining arpeggios and Selway's rhythmic talents. At first, I was somewhat disappointed by what I heard as comparatively conventional arrangements, but the lack of ostentatious eccentricity here doesn't mean anything except that Radiohead have become more subtly sophisticated in the way their songs are built. More than ever, it's the isolated details that matter on In Rainbows: the drum flam that's run through more and more delay effects throughout the last-breath suicide note "Videotape" until it sounds like some dodecapedal predator creeping up on Thom; the masterfully quivery style of harmonizing that Yorke and Ed O'Brien have perfected, twitching its way through the soaring "Reckoner"; and the distant cheers of children in the rear of the hopscotch shuffle "15 Step." The synth-bass figure that controls "All I Need" is a thing of particular beauty, landing the song on the precise halfway point between OK Computer's "Climbing Up the Walls" and Berlin's "Take My Breath Away." "House of Cards" is a sub-U2 ballad that's a bit of a drag, but it's the only weak spot on a remarkable album that aims only to satisfy the listener without challenging, upending, or otherwise discomfiting him. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

parodox237@aol.com writes: I'm a huge fan of Radiohead, great band and all,don't think they're the greatest of all time, and I prefer 'Kid A'/'Amnesiac' to 'Ok Computer'.... but I was just wondering about the comment pertaining to 'The Bends' which said that Radiohead "could musically outdo a whole room full o' Dylan's". Um, that's not really that great of an accomplishment, I mean, Dylan could occasionally write a melody which really stuck in your head (particularly his 'thin mercury sound' of the 'Blonde on B;onde' era, but, obviously, the main draw of Dylan was always his lyrical genius. I mean, he wrote derivative, redundant, meandering and at times practically nonexistent arrangements! Dylan's definitely one of my favorite musicians, but my deep affection for him has little to do with his musicianship...I mean, sorry about whining about that,its just nitpicking really and makes me sound like an obnoxious prig, and who's to say I'm not? Good reviews and all,didn't often agree with them, but I don't feel threatened by a difference in opinion.Guess I just felt the urge to comment on that one bit of information. What do you think of Television? I'm listening to 'Marquee Moon' at the moment, very cool guitar album which is able to keep the songs together for non-musicians, takes an almost jazz approach to it all. gah, goodbye.

Kartikeya Misra writes: You rated Radiohead's The Bends an A+ and the Beatles' Revolver an A.....wow, I just lost my speech....I gotta hand out to you, man....

LoadesC writes: I agree with your Radiohead reviiews and I agree that OK Computer is the best ever. Personally I made more sense of "Last Year in Marienbad" than the lyrics of that album but that doesn't weaken it.
My ratings:Pablo Honey. B-
The Bends. A
OK Computer. A+
Kid A. A
Amnesiac. A-
Hail to the Thief. A-

Spats Ransom writes: Hey, Will. It's your old friend Spats Ransom, and I believe I've mentioned before how much I like your music reviews (oh; and I listened to the two-minutes-of-each-song sampler of your record, and was quite startled by the diversity of styles, and very taken with "You Ruined Everything," which I'll now have to go to the inconvenience of buying). That said, I think your assessment of Radiohead might do with some fine tuning.

There is little doubt in my mind that The Bends and OK Computer will stand the test of time, and be remembered as two of the very greatest records of the 90's (I hate to take the "safe" route, but the greatest record of all time remains Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). Sadly, however, their output since those two masterpieces has been simply atrocious. Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief are lazy, pretentious records, without a single track amongst them that would qualify for consideration in either of Radiohead's preceding two albums.

This is kind of understandable, really, because (as you no doubt know just as well as I do) writing good rock songs is hard. If you could still sell albums without going to the trouble of it -- and after OK Computer, Radiohead was in that enviable position -- you might give it some very serious consideration, too. Despair and alienation are easy; framing them in songs as brilliant as "Airbag" and "(Nice Dream)" is incredibly difficult.

dark.arkive@gmail.com writes: Ah, Will, your section warms an old Radiohead obsessive's heart. Well done, both of ya.

Being somewhat meek myself, Amnesiac remains my favorite of theirs. I love all their works, with the eternal exception of Pablo Honey, but I've always preferred Kid A & Amnesiac to OK Computer & The Bends. This may have something to do with the fact that the former pair introduced me to some of my favorite artists (Can, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin) and got me into electronic music, while the inspirations for the latter pair (U2, Pink Floyd, the Smiths) I already knew and loved. But Kid A and Amnesiac have perhaps the one thing the others lack: subtlety.

The Bends is tremendously unsubtle, which does not stop it from being better than anything crafted by Blur or Oasis (those wankers). But its emotional nakedness can make it an exhausting and occasionally wince-worthy record--except for "Fake Plastic Trees", of course. Besides which, I've never really felt comfortable with Radiohead rocking out overmuch. I don't think Yorke's voice is meant for it, although Greenwood often is. Besides "Trees", my favorite song there is "Planet Telex". I'm a sucker for openers, and it provides an atmosphere worthy of its successor.

OK Computer, of course, is different. Unlike the straight up The Bends, it offers texture, space, and an increased level of sophistication. It's unquestionably their most consistent album, and in terms of rock instrumentation, it's unbeatable. My one complaint is that the songs are overstuffed. I love "Airbag", but that guitar sludge! It's like Soundgarden on a spaceship, and that can occasionally give me a headache. "Let Down" is beautiful but exhausting in the same way, and "No Surprises" would work far better if it were a tad quieter.

What makes Kid A (and more so, Amnesiac) the ultimate Radiohead experience lies in texture, variation, and space. Songs like "Everything in its Right Place" are cold, yes, but those synths, man, they're practically tangible. And Yorke's voice is at its BEST. That seems odd--they slice and dice it, give it only a few lines, remove its backing guitar...and yet I insist that his alltime best vocal performance is on "How to Disappear Completely", which is made all the better by its creepy, slightly seasick orchestral backing.

Kid A is a far simpler album than OK Computer--one peek at the lyrics will tell you that. The "difficult" rap comes not from complexity, but from the lack of a single, the lack of poppy, catchy, solo-driven megasongs. Not that I have anything against those; my favorite band is Guided By friggin' Voices. But Kid A and Amnesiac are textural pieces, cohesive wholes, more than OK Computer's 12 great songs.

If I was to assemble a "Best Of" collection for the band, most of the songs would come from their 90s albums. But if I was to pick between their earlier and later works as albums, as artistic statements, definitely the later.

Plus, Amnesiac has "Like Spinning Plates". Duuude.

SEE ALSO: THOM YORKE

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: TIBETAN FREEDOM CONCERT ALBUM; 120 MINUTES LIVE; ROMEO & JULIET SOUNDTRACK; CLUELESS SOUNDTRACK

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: UNKLE; BJORK; ZERO 7; NEIL FINN

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Joey Ramone

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Don't Worry About Me

Willie's comments: The day after Joey Ramone died last fall, Jen and I went into a Borders near her house (yes, I work at Barnes & Noble but I shop at Borders- deal with it). The music department in this store is particularly hip to begin with- it regularly stocks albums by A Silver Mt. Zion, for Pete's sake- but I was nevertheless surprised to find that they'd erected a tiny little shrine to Joey by the information desk, consisting of Ramones albums and the issue of SPIN with his picture on it that was coincidentally published that week. Even better, the in-store PA was running through All the Stuff (and More), Volume I, and I noticed that I wasn't the only customer stopped in his tracks, listening to Joey crooning "Eh-ess-eh-ell-you-ou-ou-gee!" in the middle of "Slug," and getting all misty-eyed. At least one guy was in tears. For me and for thousands of others who'd found comfort in the Ramones' relentlessly fun brand of punk rock while growing up as alienated teenagers, Joey's death wasn't just the shockingly sad passing of an idol; it felt like a defeat. Even though the Ramones broke up a few years back, and even though he was pushing 50, Joey still personified the rebellious, I-don't-wanna-grow-up spirit of punk that we'd always thought of as immortal. It helped that Joey's unapologetically optimistic approach to even his band's darkest lyrics ("Commando" comes to mind) presented him as more of an acerbic class clown than a bilious punk misanthrope like Johnny Rotten or Henry Rollins, and thus made us feel an almost brotherly love for him, but what made his death even more of an unspeakable tragedy was that it felt like the death of punk itself.

Joey's first (and, barring any Tupac-esque plundering of the vaults, only) solo album, Don't Worry About Me, makes a pretty fitting epitath for the movement, too. The album wasn't yet complete when he died, and the hurried polishing of demo tracks is pretty evident here, but at its best, the album presents a mature and thoughtful look at a punk's place in the adult world. The opening cover of Louie Anderson's "What a Wonderful World" is utterly, heart-meltingly brilliant, with Joey's backing band (including Marky Ramone) integrating elements from the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" into the song as Joey belts out his message of joy with inimitable sincerity. After that amazing launch, Joey updates us on the life of Suzy the headbanger (she's now "Susan," in a turn of events that made me a little sad) in "Searching for Something," writes an infectious ode to his favorite financial news reporter in "Maria Bartiromo," and shares his scared determination in the face of illness in "I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)." Musically, the second half of the record is really disappointing, with generic, mid-tempo rockers like the title track and "Like a Drug I Never Did Before" sounding half-finished, which they probably were. The first half of the album is packed with perfect, Pleasant Dreams-esque nuggets of serrated pop, though (check out the silly kiddie-rock of "Mr. Punchy"), and Joey's ultimate proclamation of hope for all of us punks, freaks, and pinheads in the new millenium is the best possible legacy he could've left for us. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: RAMONES

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Ramones

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End of the Century

Willie's comments: Following four classic (though largely interchangeable) punk albums- which nowadays make up the All the Stuff (and More) series- Sire Records teamed the Ramones up with weirdo uberproducer Phil Spector. Spector’s perfectionistic overproduction (horns, layers of guitar, etc.) fights the inherent simplicity of the Ramones’ songs, burying the catchy charm of songs like "Affected" and "Rock ‘n’ Roll High School" under the busy murk. "Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?" escapes unscathed, but the rest of the album is a lot like an ice cream sundae ruined because you put too many conflicting toppings on it. Grade: D

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Pleasant Dreams

Willie's comments: This is more like it. While the production is still more pop than punk (even Johnny Ramone’s guitar doesn’t have much of an edge), compositions like "The KKK Took My Baby Away" and "This Business is Killing Me" are strong enough to sound great even with a few superfluous backing singers (including some of the guys from Sparks). Singer Joey Ramone lapses into sappy, slow crooning a lot more often than he should, but songs by Johnny and bassist Dee Dee Ramone keep things pumping. Grade: B

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Subterranean Jungle

Willie's comments: More short, fast, noisy punk songs, but without all that overproduction mucking things up. The Ramones make melodic mincemeat out of classic rock, er... classics "Little Bit o’ Soul" and "Time has Come Today," while songs like "Psycho Therapy" and "Everytime I Eat Vegetables, It Makes Me Think of You" return to the band’s fixation on mental illness. Joey’s faux British croak is as snarly as ever, but a special bonus is the Dee Dee-sung "Time Bomb." Top-notch antisocial pogoing. Grade: A-

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Too Tough to Die

Willie's comments: Original drummer Tommy Ramone returned to produce this 1984 album, which explains why it sounds closer to the coarse guitar grinding of the first four albums than the most recent ones. However, the songwriting is sorely lacking on Too Tough to Die, from the stupid title track to irritatingly didactic numbers like "Danger Zone." The keyboard-drenched "Howling at the Moon" is actually a welcome distraction among this lot of uninspired, thudding misfires (and the aforementioned song’s transcendent "Sha-la-la-la-la" refrain doesn’t hurt it either), but the only real keeper is Dee Dee’s manic rant "Wart Hog." Grade: C

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Animal Boy

Willie's comments: Striking a balance between the unfettered production of their previous album and the tunefulness of Pleasant Dreams and Subterranean Jungle, the Ramones have their best album of the 80s in Animal Boy. About half the album is triple-time speed-punk (the title track, “Eat That Rat,” “Freak of Nature”), while the remainder consists of tuneful, surprisingly intelligent reflections on love (“She Belongs to Me”), life (“Something to Believe In”), and Reagan’s idiocy (“My Brain is Hanging Upside Down [Bonzo Goes to Bittburg],” arguably the band’s best song ever). Yeah, “Apeman Hop” is basically a retread of “Commando,” but that’s more than made up for by the ultra-catchy “Hair of the Dog.” Grade: A-

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Halfway to Sanity

Willie's comments: Ugh. Don’t bother. This is a horribly boring album that sounds suspiciously like a bunch of outtakes from Animal Boy. The only two useful songs are “I Wanna Live” and “Bop Till You Drop,” and both of those are included on Ramonesmania. I don’t even want to waste any more words on this one. Grade: D+

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Ramonesmania

Willie's comments: The perfect introduction for the Ramones greenhorn, Ramonesmania includes unfailingly great tracks from all their studio albums, nicely arranged in a manner that places dissimilar-sounding songs next to each other, emphasizing the evolution of the band’s sound over their career. Even if you don’t plan to delve any farther into the Ramones’ canon, you should own “I Wanna be Sedated,” “Blitzkreig Bop,” “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down,” and “Pinhead,” and where else are you gonna get it all in one place? Grade: A+

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All the Stuff (And More) Vol. 1

Willie's comments: Compiling the self-titled debut album and Ramones Leave Home, along with a handful of unreleased stuff, this is as essential as Ramonesmania. The songs on Ramones really are as earth-shattering as the critics would have you believe (though probably less now than in 1977)- simple, antisocial little ditties like “Beat on the Brat” and “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” do all sort of sound the same, but they’re as catchy as ebola, and this is where punk rock began, man. Ramones Leave Home is basically more of Ramones, but the songwriting is just as great- classic numbers like “Commando” are the rule rather than the exception (though the banned “Carbona Not Glue” isn’t on this edition, sadly). You probably won’t be able to listen to this whole album all the way through in one sitting, but it sure is economical. Grade: A+

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All the Stuff (And More) Vol. 2

Willie's comments: Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin are on here. Again, the Ramones don’t stray very far from the buzzsaw B-movie fantasies and simple, semi-romantic songs they spat out on their first two albums, and as such, this volume isn’t quite as engaging as the first two (been there, done that). Still, despite the one-note quality of the proceedings and the maddeningly smug liner notes by Kurt Loder, there’s really not one bad song on this whole CD, and there are quite a few excellent ones- “I Just Want to Have Something to Do,” “Slug,” and “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” to name a few. You might as well. Grade: B+

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Brain Drain

Willie's comments: Dee Dee’s final album as bassist isn’t quite as lazy or sloppy as Halfway to Sanity, but it’s still hard to recommend it. If Ramonesmania had come out after this one, it surely would’ve included the great, sinister “Pet Semetary” and the thundering “Zero Zero UFO,” and no one would ever have to buy this album for any reason. Sadly, actually buying Brain Drain is, as of this writing, the only (legal) way to get both of these songs for yourself. But it’s okay, I guess- a neat cover of “Palisades Park” and the jolly “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” don’t redeem dross like “Don’t Bust My Chops” and “Learn to Listen,” but... actually, nevermind. It is a pretty bad album. Grade: C-

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Loco Live

Willie's comments: The only function served by this live document from the Brain Drain tour is to make me not feel so bad that I never got to see the Ramones live. Joey, Johnny, Marky, and new bassist CJ plow through all their best-known songs, never coming up for air once. While the energy is impressive, the band seems intent on covering as much ground as possible in as little time as possible, and all the songs really do sound the same here (they’re all basically set to the same beat, for Pete’s sake!). It’s tuneless and boring. The one (minor) positive attribute is the unlisted inclusion of “Carbona Not Glue,” but it’s given the same hit-and-run treatment as everything else here. Grade: F

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Mondo Bizarro

Willie's comments: Mondo Bizarro benefits from the presence of five different songwriting teams contributing songs (including three inclusions from Dee Dee, even though he’s no longer technically in the band). It wards off the demons of boredom that had their toothmarks on the previous two studio albums. “Anxiety” and “Cabbies on Crack” are thrillingly noisy and fast, while Dee Dee’s “Poison Heart” and “Strength to Endure” manage to transcend the bare-bones limitations of punk. “Censors---” is Joey’s amusing diatribe against Tipper Gore, and a spiffy cover of the Doors’ “Take It as It Comes” is a tasty preview of their next album. Grade: A-

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Acid Eaters

Willie's comments: I love this album. The Ramones take 12 classic songs from the '60s and make them their own. CJ lends his voice to three songs, which also happen to be the album’s best: stripped-down covers of The Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” the Mamas and the Papas’ “The Shape of Things to Come,” and Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” benefits immeasurably from the Ramones’ no-nonsense aesthetic, as does The Who’s “Substitute.” Most of these are even better than the originals. If K-Tel’s compilation albums were like this, I might actually have some respect for them. Grade: A

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Adios Amigos!

Willie's comments: Not the bow-out the Ramones are capable of, but not a total waste either, their final studio album adds three bona fide Ramones classics to their oeuvre: a cover of Tom Waits’s “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” (such a perfect song for this band of eternal teenagers that Waits had to have been listening to the Ramones when he wrote it), a punky cover of the Spiderman theme song, and Joey’s breathtaking, heartbreaking “She Talks to Rainbows.” The rest of the album is substantially less destined for greatness. CJ sings a lot more than he should, to the point of covering two songs from Dee Dee’s disasterous punk/rap solo album (there are a lot of covers here), and songs like “I Got a Lot to Say” and “Have a Nice Day” are uninspired but energetic. This is not a very grand finale. Grade: B-

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Greatest Hits Live

Willie's comments: Basically, this is Loco Live, only with fewer songs and two new Ramones studio tracks (more covers: Motorhead’s boring “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” and a superb version of the Dave Clark Five’s “Any Way You Want It”). The band seems like they’re less angry and bored here than they were on Loco Live, but the songs are still indistinguishable from one another, and the album is still pretty useless. Grade: D

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We're Outta Here

Willie's comments: This is actually a package that contains a CD of the Ramones’ final show as well as a great documentary spanning the band’s entire career, including tour films, TV show appearances (Mr. Burns’s birthday party is on here), and interviews with the band. The live album is the same frigging thing as Loco Live again (special appearances by Eddie Vedder, the guys from Rancid, and other luminaries don’t make this any more interesting), and it gets an F, but the video is the whole point, and it’s fascinating. Grade: A

SEE ALSO: JOEY RAMONE

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: NEVER MIND THE MAINSTREAM... THE BEST OF MTV'S 120 MINUTES VOL. 2; SATURDAY MORNING CARTOONS' GREATEST HITS

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: RANCID; EURYTHMICS

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Rancid

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...And Out Come the Wolves

Willie's comments: Out of all the “new punk” bands, I have more respect for Rancid than anyone except maybe Bad Religion. Rather than stooping to moronic novelty lyrics like Green Day and the Offspring often do, Rancid’s words generally match the furious energy of their music, whether they’re singing about social outcasts (“Junkie Man”) or picking up girls (“Olympia, Washington”). While ...And Out Come the Wolves loses quite a bit of ground in the songwriting area after “Ruby Soho” and the vocals are sometimes distractingly off-key, “Roots Radicals” is the best song the Clash never wrote, and "Journey to the End of the East Bay" is relatively affecting- it's a song about the demise of Operation Ivy, the band from which two members of Rancid sprang. Grade: B

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: CHEF AID: THE SOUTH PARK ALBUM; TIBETAN FREEDOM CONCERT

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: RAMONES; BAD RELIGION

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT RANCID


Lou Reed

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Between Thought and Expression: The Lou Reed Anthology (3-CD set)

Willie's comments: This is an utterly horrible investment. Not because it’s a poorly-made collection or anything- it comes with a generous book of painstakingly detailed liner notes- but because so much of Reed’s solo work has been bollocks. The only entertaining moments in this 3-CD set come at the beginning of the first disc, with such genuinely catchy numbers as “Lisa Says,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Satellite of Love.” These songs, however, are followed by six interminable songs from Reed’s dismal Berlin album, and things never pick up again. Reed’s songs range from merely boring to objectionable (“The Gun” takes an almost sympathetic look through the eyes of a rapist), and Reed’s incorrigible penchant for writing squalid lyrics takes away from the apparent sincerity of horribly trite, jingoistic songs like “America” and “Teach the Gifted Children” (a distant cousin to Whitney Houston’s “I believe the children are our future” song). If I were you, I’d download the MP3 of “Walk on the Wild Side,” and buy the soundtracks to Trainspotting and Velvet Goldmine and leave Reed’s solo stuff at that. Grade: F

READER COMMENTS:

Neko Niku writes: Agh! I don't believe it. Lou Reed gets an F??  Alright, I'll calm down. Let me say first that  I really like your site, all the reviews are well written and you cover a diverse range of  music. I can understand that Lou Reed is not everyone's bag, but to dismiss him as boring and his career "bollocks" is f___ing ridiculous. So I had to write to defend ole' Lou.  

First off, I'll agree that most of his songs are not "catchy." But he wasn't intending them to be. His songs are meant to be more like stories, with the music adding a dimension of emotion that enables a listener to understand the characters in his songs. One of the distinctions for me between music that is art and music that is pop is that art offers understanding of the human condition. Lou Reed succeeds in creating art on the "dismal" Berlin album, as well as The Blue Mask, to name a few instances.  I'll admit that a fair portion of songs on this collection are not so good, but a fair portion of them are also outstanding. Nearly all of the first disc is outstanding, as well as Heroin, Street Hassle, The Gun, The Blue Mask, Waves of Fear, and Think It Over.

As for your dismissal of the Gun as objectionable, I'll just say that his songs are about the neglected ugly underbelly of society, and his songs give an understanding of this world and its populous as human beings, instead of dismissing them as trash.

Joe Friesen writes: You suck. =]

Seriously, though, based on those songs you listed that you like, you need to RUN! don't walk to "Transformer", because every song on that album (except "Goodnight Ladies") is just as good, and in some cases even better.

LoadesC writes: Lou Reed has had many great solo albums of which "Berlin" is the best. Here are my ratings for his best albums.
Berlin. A+
New York. A
Blue Mask. A
Legendary Hearts. A-
New Sensations. A-
Street Hassle. A-
Magic and Loss. B+
Transformer. B+

SEE ALSO: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: TRAINSPOTTING SOUNDTRACK; UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD SOUNDTRACK; FRIENDS SOUNDTRACK ALBUM; VELVET GOLDMINE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM; 120 MINUTES LIVE

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT LOU REED


The Refreshments

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Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy

Willie's comments: Like a Tex/Mex version of Cracker, The Refreshments are equally adept at playing sardonic, country-fried power-pop as they are at airy, twangy folk tunes that are hooky enough to remain rock. As amusingly goofy as songs like "Down Together" and "Banditos" are, "Interstate" is a gorgeous traveling tune, and "Mekong" is downright wistful. And who can resist lyrics like "We could all wear cowboy hats and pretend that we could speak Italian/ I could eat some gum and make my breath so minty fresh to kiss you"? Grade: A-

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE REFRESHMENTS


The Reindeer Section

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Y'all Get Scared Now, Ya Hear!

Willie's comments: This Scottish "supergroup" (led by Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody and containing members of Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, Arab Strap, Mull Historical Society, Eva, V-Twin, Hercules, and Astrid- most of whom I've never heard of, either) might have come on the scene a couple years late for the acoustic-chic movement, but don't overlook them just because this kind of low-key music is no longer trendy. With a supple whisper of a singing voice, Lightbody writes the sort of touching, rainy tunes that inferior mopers like Low and the Kings of Convenience can only dream about, and his infantry of a backing band contributes arrangements that can be as subtle or engagingly overblown as they need to be to wring the maximum power from any given song. "Billed as Single," for instance, requires nothing more than Roy Kerr's hypnotic drumming and Willy Campbell's harmonies to hold up Lightbody's pleading vocals, but that's followed by the electronica-scented "Tout le Monde," which opens all the floodgates (loads of harmonies, pounding rhythms, scorching guitar noise, etc.) for five minutes of slap-happy grooving. There's a congenial lightheartedness to the entire album- presumably the audible result of the fun that went into its recording- so that even moments of seemingly inconsolable beauty like "The Opening Taste" never become grim. Also a rarity with this sort of music, Y'all Get Scared Now has any number of tunes that are actually memorable as opposed to just being diverting and hitting a nonspecific tone of free-floating prettiness. The sweet "Will You Please be There for Me" is the most hummable of the lot, but nearly every song has tiny hooks buried just beneath its placid surface, like the awesome toy surprise hidden in a Kinder Egg. Ahhh... The Reindeer Section eases the pain. Grade: A

SEE ALSO: MOGWAI

SEE ALSO: BELLE & SEBASTIAN

SEE ALSO: ARAB STRAP

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE REINDEER SECTION


R.E.M.

Chronic Town EP

Willie's comments: A good, satisfying musical bubble bath, R.E.M.’s first real release is a mysterious blend of jangling guitars, superhuman hooks, and Michael Stipe’s ever-obtuse singing. “Wolves, Lower” and “Stumble” are documents of a band that is self-consciously beginning to find its voice, and they’re utterly charming. “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” and “Gardening at Night,” on the other hand, sound like products of musicians who’ve been playing together for years and have reached the point of effortlessly gelling with one another. Perfection. (NOTE: As of this writing, this EP is available only tacked onto the Dead Letter Office CD, unless you want it on cassette.) Grade: A+

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Murmur

Willie's comments: The production on this much-ballyhooed “debut” is the slightest bit less opaque than on Chronic Town, and the songwriting is the slightest bit less interesting. Guitarist Peter Buck shines on numbers like “We Walk” and “Talk About the Passion,” while “Pilgrimage,” “Catapult,” and “Moral Kiosk” find the entire band at the top of their game. However, the tiresome reworking of “Radio Free Europe” is a huge letdown, and some of the other songs don’t really connect. Still, Murmur is that rare important album that has stood the test of time. Grade: B+

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Reckoning

Willie's comments: This album is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Buck’s guitar chimes like 1,000 church bells, bassist Mike Mills spices things up with his keyboard playing, Stipe wails and pleads stunningly, and Bill Berry drums along competently all the while. And what great choruses on these songs! “Harborcoat” is cheerfully stormy, “So. Central Rain” is gorgeously bleak, “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” is really corny, but it’s catchy all the same, and the other seven songs are just as superb. The only thing that will keep you from singing along at the top of your lungs is that you still won’t be able to figure out what Stipe is muttering about. Grade: A

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Fables of the Reconstruction

Willie's comments: R.E.M. was going through some tough times when this album was recorded, and that shows through in the absence of consistency here. “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” is dark and bizarre in the most wonderful way, and “Driver 8” is an undisputed classic, but “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” is formless, and some of the basic folk numbers, like “Green Grow the Rushes” and “Wendell Gee” are surprisingly dull. Die-hard R.E.M. fans won’t be disappointed, but just about everyone else will. Grade: B-

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Lifes Rich Pageant

Willie's comments: Turning up their volume after Fables of the Reconstruction, Messrs. Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe rock like never before on this 1986 album. Stipe articulates himself clearly for a change, making clear the brilliant lyrics of songs like “Fall on Me” and “These Days." “Underneath the Bunker” is twisted balalaika music, while “Cuyahoga” is heartbreaking and anthemic, and “Just a Touch” is whimsical madness. Buck's guitar snarls and buzzes, without ever forsaking melody, producing some of the best melodic hooks of the band's career. This one is essential. Grade: A+

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Dead Letter Office

Willie's comments: As could be expected from a B-side/rarity compilation, Dead Letter Office doesn’t invite comparisons with the greatness of Lifes Rich Pageant or Reckoning, but it does make for good, lightweight fun. The three Velvet Underground covers are a lot prettier than the originals, while versions of “Crazy” by Pylon and “Toys in the Attic” by Aerosmith confirm that R.E.M. can interpret others’ songs just as well as they can write them. The unreleased originals aren’t quite as good, but “Burning Down” should’ve been a hit, and laid-back liner notes by Buck complete this package of second-run flightiness. Grade: B

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Document

Willie's comments: Document saw the beginning of Stipe’s obsession with ranting against Republicans, and he does it mighty well. “Exhuming McCarthy” is scathing without being heavy-handed, while “Welcome to the Occupation” captures assembly-line ennui. Musically, the songs aren’t as loud as Pageant, but they’re a lot rougher, most notably the perenially misinterpreted “The One I Love.” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” is breakneck free-association that is the most exuberant recording the band has ever made, too. Grade: A

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Eponymous

Willie's comments: R.E.M.’s last release for I.R.S. records, Eponymous is a well-chosen retrospective of the band’s career up till 1988. It’s a reasonably good place to start for “Losing My Religion” fans who are interested in investigating the band’s back catalog (though you'd probably do better just to buy Document or Pageant or Reckoning, all of which are mindblowing), but its main appeal is that it just gives you a dozen of their best songs all in one place. Well, maybe "Talk About the Passion" doesn't exactly qualify as "best," but it's not bad, anyway- especially alongside greats like "Fall on Me" and "Driver 8." Plus, the original, driving single version of "Radio Free Europe" that kicks the Murmur version's scrawny tuchus! A silly, horn-bedecked version of "Finest Worksong"! An alternate take of "Gardening at Night" with Stipe practically yelling the words! And the great, obscure soundtrack contribution "Romance"! Wow! I'm sold! Grade: A

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Green

Willie's comments: For the first five songs, Green sounds like another excellent R.E.M. rock album. “Pop Song 89” and “Stand” are incisive commentaries on pop music that work just as well on an ironic level as at face value, “You are the Everything” is a pretty ballad, “World Leader Pretend” is Stipe’s haunting tale of a stubborn, modern-day despot, and “Get Up” is okay power-pop. Starting with “The Wrong Child,” however, everything falls into the crapper. The rest of the songs are either ugly or boring and sometimes both, as in “Turn You Inside Out.” Wait for R.E.M.’s inevitable Warner Bros. greatest hits album rather than buying this clinker. [Four years later...] It's here! In Time! "Orange Crush" and "Stand" are both on it! Review below! Grade: C

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Out of Time

Willie's comments: With a spoken-word track (“Belong”), a rap/funk/rock song (“Radio Song”), an instrumental (“Endgame”), a Krautrock/country hybrid (“Country Feedback”), a ubiquitous string section, and two Mills-sung tracks, Out of Time runs the risk of being a bit too eclectic for all tastes. Danged if it doesn’t work, though. All of the above songs- “Endgame” excepted- are gorgeous, and “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” were deservedly huge hits. The album is a bit light on lyrical significance, but for unfocused, college-rock fun, this is the best thing this side of They Might Be Giants. Grade: A-

Ginny's comments: Out of Time, though it has the most unoriginal and boring title that sounds like it belongs in Hanson's repertoire, is a snug little album. It's got its cozy place smack-dab in the middle of REM's discography, with its cute little songs ("Shiny Happy People") and its funny little guest musicians (Kate Pierson of The B-52s with a voice straight out of Sesame Street ha ha ha, KRS-1 a rap artist bizarrely appearing on a REM album ha ha ha ha.) If Out of Time is compared to the experience of watching your dog have puppies, the masterfully genius "Losing My Religion" is the unexpected, misplaced, but nothing-short-of-a-miracle albino puppy. The rest of the album is good, (aside from "Radio Song" which leaves me scraching my head) though outshined by "Religion." "Low," in particular, deserves an honorable mention. GRADE: B+
Added Note:
For something extra fun, find the "Furry Happy Monsters" version of "Shiny Happy People."
Added disagreement of Willie's review:
"the album is a bit light on lyrical significance, but for unfocused, college-rock fun, this is the best thing this side of They Might Be Giants." The college-rock fun I'll give you, but the TMBG thing is way off base. This album is TOO light to be fun and TOO boring to be TMBG-esque. I'd revaluate your comparisons, mister. This album is closer to XTC's Skylarking than even resembling anything of TMBG. As far as I'm concerned, if you want TMBG, stick with TMBG. If you want REM, stick with REM. Oranges and lemons.

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Automatic for the People

Ginny's comments: I feel a twinge of guilt for being in love with an album that obviously succumbs to the whims of adult soft-rock, however, Michael Stipe is hot, so that's my justification. And bollocks to his questionable sexual-orientation. Ahem- okay, all silliness aside, this is a fine album that shows the softer side of Stipe (awwww) with a mischeviously dark center, such as "Star Me Kitten" and "Find The River." "Ignoreland" is fast, furious, perfect R.E.M. brand stream-of-consciousness and I dare you to sing along and get the words right. Even "Everybody Hurts" is sort of a guilty-pleasure, but the music video is a masterpiece. Even the Andy Kaufman tribute "Man on the Moon" makes you feel all good inside- it's one of my favorites. Grade: A+

Willie's comments: Who would’ve thought, listening to Chronic Town, that R.E.M.’s eighth album would’ve been their ultimate masterpiece? A dense, dismal record that drips with sorrow and regret, Automatic gets more affecting with each listen. “Try Not to Breathe,” “Drive,” and “Monty Got a Raw Deal” are majestically dour, while the wry “Star Me Kitten” is droningly pretty. “Ignoreland” is a hilarious anti-Reagan diatribe (“Up the Republic my skinny ass”), and “Find the River” closes the album with a chillingly hopeful anthem. “Everybody Hurts” is the best song here, though- the closest you’ll ever get to enlightenment through music is seeing R.E.M. play this one live. Grade: A+

The Automatic Box (4-CD set)

Willie's comments A German import which spreads 18 B-sides and rarities over 4 CDs, Box, like Dead Letter Office before it, is frivolous but great. More great covers include Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” and Iggy Pop’s “Funtime,” while “It’s a Free World Baby” and “Fretless” (Out of Time outtakes both) are unexpectedly weird songs for R.E.M. to have written. Grade: A-

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Monster

Willie's comments: It took me four years, another great album (Up), and an exhilarating live performance for me to fully forgive R.E.M. for this monstrosity. It’s a generic “alternative rock” album that effectively strips the band of any individuality in favor of distorted guitar noise, making them sound like some crappy post-Nirvana grunge consortium. Stipe has apparently let fame go to his head, sexing up his lyrics on the horrid “Tongue” and the draggy “Crush with Eyeliner,” while self-righteously insisting, “I’m not commodity” on “King of Comedy.” “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” rises above the dross, but the fuzzy guitars and simpleminded riffs wear thin real quick. Grade: D+

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New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Willie's comments: Much of this album was recorded during sound checks of the Monster tour, so tracks like “Undertow,” “So Fast, So Numb,” and “Low Desert” bear that album’s mark of lazy noisemaking. And a lot of the songs that don’t use that formula are either useless (“Zither”), disagreeable (“E-Bow the Letter”), or ruin a good idea by dragging it out for three minutes too long (“New Test Leper,” “Be Mine”). Scattered among the wreckage, though, are enough good hooks to partially redeem the album, such as “Bittersweet Me,” which is the bitter breakup song Stipe’s never fully realized until now. And “Leave,” with its claustrophobic, yelping tape loop and guitar line stolen from the X-Files theme, gives you hope for R.E.M.’s future. Grade: C

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Up

Ginny's comments: "Ick." I thought, when I listened to this album the first time. "How strange." A live concert and a few weeks later had me thinking, "Hmmm... how strange." As I watched hundreds of middle aged, overweight potheads rhythmically swaying in sync to "The Apologist," and as Stipe's vein pulsated with each emphasis, I had a sudden, overwhelming urge to romp, and I quickly changed my tune about Up. Infectious as it is idiosyncratic as it is gorgeous as it is depressing, Up is the most satisfying album to date, though not the best. "How can that be, sista?" You're thinking. Well, unlike other REM albums or other albums in general, each and every track is in some way satisfying, while not DYNAMITE on its own (save for "Daysleeper"). Even if the album ended at "At My Most Beautiful" (track 5) it would be a perfectly satisfying length, thus each additional track feels like getting TWO gumballs with one quarter. Another positive, Up is the most emotional album to date- it covers the whole spectrum, and I feel spritually cleansed by the time it's through. Quite a step Up from NAIHIFI. (okay YOU try to write a review of this album and not be tempted to use a pun.) Grade: A

Willie's comments: Bill Berry’s departure after Hi-Fi must have shaken Buck, Mills, and Stipe out of complacency, for they immediately set to work on this tremendously subtle collection of subdued, keyboard-based chamber music. From “The Airportman,” which sounds like a Yo La Tengo cover of an R.E.M. song, to the grand “Falls to Climb,” Up has infectiousness to spare, and Stipe’s lyrics have never been better. Nowhere is that more evident than on “Daysleeper,” which is a wrenching narrative about an unhappy late shift worker that includes the genius lines “The ocean machine is set to nine/ I’ll squeeze into Heaven and valentine/ My bed is pulling me/ Gravity/ Daysleeper.” Grade: A

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Reveal

Willie's comments: Because the vast majority of the record-buying public is very stupid, Up got a lukewarm reception from both critics and fans, and it tanked. Luckily, rather than becoming discouraged, R.E.M. evidently took this as a challenge, and set out to prove themselves again with Reveal. If Up's stop-start rhythms and self-consciously eclectic instrumentation made it seem a bit rickety- a masterful balancing act- Reveal is built like a skyscraper, fortified with instantly accessible anthems like "The Lifting" and "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna be a Star)." Musically, the band has never sounded fuller or more powerful. This is due, in part, to the fact that R.E.M. brought in two of Buck's Minus Five cohorts as well as drummer Joey Waronker to beef up the songs, but the songs themselves are more direct than they've been in 10 years. Even when the arrangements seem unnecessarily busy, as on "Saturn Return" or "Summer Turns to High," you can't accuse R.E.M. of not knowing where they're going. Songs are powered by simple piano chords, Buck's impeccably subtle guitar work, or sometimes Stipe's voice simply floats alongside washes of keyboard (shown to best effect in "I've Been High," the truly great song OMD never got around to writing).

As for Stipe himself, he's retained the engagingly simple style of lyric-writing that he introduced on Up, but instead of spinning harrowing tales of everyday fin de ciecle misery as he did there, here he tells uplifting stories about people who manage to escape the drudgery of their workaday lives. "She Just Wants to Be" is particularly inspiring, while "Imitation of Life" is just nifty ear candy. Actually, I can't remember ever hearing Stipe sound like he's been having such a heavenly time singing. Though maybe that's just me projecting my joy at hearing one of my favorite bands come through with flying colors once again. Grade: B+

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In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003

Willie's comments: I think it's fair to say that R.E.M. is generally considered more of an album band than a singles band. Huge hits though "Losing My Religion," "The One I Love," and "Everybody Hurts" were, their studio albums are (generally) so consistently delightful, focused, and self-contained that even casual fans would probably do better to pick up Automatic for the People or Lifes Rich Pageant as their "essential" R.E.M. purchase than a singles compilation such as this one. (I now admit that even my beloved Eponymous probably works better as a lovingly assembled R.E.M. mix CD for die-hards than a proper introduction to the band.) Besides, "casual" R.E.M. fans aren't likely to stay that way after getting a taste of the twenty-plus years of musical goodness that Buck, Mills, Stipe, and sometimes Berry have released. So why bother with this collection of singles from the seven albums they've recorded for Warner Bros. up to this point? Well, a few reasons. For one, the past 15 years have seen the release of three mediocre-to-crappy albums (Green, Monster, and Hi-Fi), and In Time does a fine job of liberating those discs' best songs from their unhappy homelands, if you don't plan on becoming a true R.E.M. completist. Furthermore, it's nice to hear many of their catchiest tunes all "ducked out in a row," to use a Stipeism, if you're not in the mood for the substantial-yet-sometimes-difficult deep cuts from Automatic, Out of Time, Reveal, or Up. (A word of caution, though: even at 18 tracks, In Time is an incomplete singles collection, since they've simply released too many singles to put on one disc. MIA: "Shiny Happy People," "Drive," and "Pop Song 89," among others.) Finally, there's the dangled carrot of four songs that didn't appear on any studio albums: the grand "The Great Beyond" from the Man on the Moon soundtrack, the supercharged "All the Right Friends" from the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, and fine new tracks "Bad Day" and "Animal," both of which sound like old, great, I.R.S.-era R.E.M. In short, it's a very generous package.

Also, there's a limited-edition version of In Time that contains a satisfying bonus disc of B-sides and rarities. It's a little more expensive, but I recommend you snag that version. The bonus CD is fairly evenly split between alternate versions of familiar songs (a slinky, slow rendition of "The Lifting," a live, acoustic performance of "The One I Love," etc.) and more great songs that had yet to be easily available, like "Fretless," "Revolution," and "It's a Free World Baby." While not all of it is gold- the "funk" version of "Drive" being a particularly odd train wreck- there are more than enough moments of splendor to make it worth the few extra dollars. Hell, I'd pay extra for just the roiling, intense live versions of "Turn You Inside-Out" and "Country Feedback" alone. (This seems as good a place as any to note that if you can locate the version of the latter song that R.E.M. performed on Later with Jools Holland, armed with a pedal steel guitar, you are in for one of the most delicious musical treats of your life.) Even this extended edition is really no substitute for owning at least seven or eight of their real albums, but if it's a compilation you're lookin' for, this one will make you do a few boisterous victory laps around the record store. Grade: A- (for the one-disc version), A (for the two-disc).

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Around the Sun

Willie's comments: While R.E.M. was still in the process of recording Around the Sun, I read an interview with Michael Stipe in which he said that the band was recording a lot of "fucked-up" songs. I'd been encouraged by the notion that we'd be getting an entertainingly weird album, but apparently, ol' Stipey meant it in the sense of "Dude, it's totally fucked up that R.E.M. has recorded an album of forgettable, timid lite-rock." Seriously, there's not a moment of power or tension on this record, with Buck's guitar parts all but unnoticable and Mills's ordinarily clever contrapuntal basslines (and backing vocals) absent. What's left is a bunch of floaty, wimpy arrangements that mix the slickness of Reveal with the minimalism of Up, without the hooks of the former or the enthusiastic quirkiness of the latter. Stipe's melodies therefore pretty much live or die on their own, frequently unable to fall back on anything but syrupy keyboards, and although he's more endearingly sincere than he was on the band's other unmitigated disaster, Monster, his vocal parts only rarely hit you the way they should. And even then, it's hard to call those songs unqualified successes: "Final Straw" is a splendid, moving call to arms against the powers that be, but a far gutsier mix of it appears on MoveOn.org's fine Future Soundtrack for America compilation. "The Outsiders" manages to make a stolen theme from Madonna's "Like a Virgin" into something truly haunting... but then they tack on an inexplicable and embarrassing guest rap by A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip. And "Leaving New York" and "The Ascent of Man" both manage great polyphonic choruses, but the songs themselves still lack the scrubbing power of, say, "Man on the Moon." Dreadfully boring songs like "Wanderlust," "Make It All Okay," and "I Wanted to Be Wrong" don't even manage that, and although it's all listenable in the sense that it's easy to tune out, it's more uninspired than merely subdued (compare it with Automatic for the People or Murmur, for instance). Given the band's admirable presence on the Rock for Change tour, I suspect that the three band members feel as though the greatest tragedy that could befall the United States in 2004 would be a re-"election" for Bush. (As of this writing, we've got two-and-a-half ulcerrific weeks to go.) If Kerry wins, however, the boringness of Around the Sun could very well claim that title. Grade: C-

READER COMMENTS:

Rich Bunnell writes: Have you noticed that every single fan of R.E.M. loves "Monster," yet it just so happens that every single critic who has a personal review page hates it? It's the same thing with Talking Heads' "More Songs About Buildings And Food," which people think is inferior to their debut album for some reason. I agree with the Monster-bashers, of course-- it's a terrible album. "Star 69" is great, "WTF,K?" is catchy, and "Bang And Blame" is passable, but everything else is horrible. However, "New Adventures In Hi-Fi" is a far superior, more concise album (even though it's longer), because they decided to drop that fuzzy wannabe guitar tone and pull it together into a bunch of actual songs. Regarding your comments on "Green," I pretty much agree with you, but what about "Orange Crush"????? Sure, the album falls into mushy crap after "World Leader Pretend" ends for the most part, but that song is genius. And sorry to say this, but "Automatic" is overrated. It's not a -bad- album by any means, but "Everybody Hurts" fails to move me in any way, and the instrumental, "Star Me Kitten," and even the well-respected "Nightswimming" bore the bejeezus out of me. Everything else is good, but the whole tone of the album makes it sort of dull for me to sit through.

I suppose I'll go into album-by-album ratings at this point-- Murmur: A, Reckoning: A, Fables: B+, LRP: A, Document: A+, Green: C+/B-, Out Of Time: B+/A-, Automatic: B, Monster: D, NAIHF: A-, Up: A-.

John Schlegel writes: Right on--Life's Rich Pageant rules. Actually, I guess this is no new sentiment. When I was a younger, more naive REM fan (a long period from Document to Up), I always thought that Pageant was their strongest record, but that it was horribly overshadowed by their '90s success, and that fans of older REM (like myself) generally disregarded it in favor of Murmur or Document. Much more recently, however, as I have been checking out various on-line music review sites outside the realm of All Music Guide (for the past year or so), I am finding that many internet critics hail Pageant to be REM's best (if not ONE of their best). Excluding a huge heavy metal phase I went through (years ago), Life's Rich Pageant has pretty much remained among my top 10 favorite albums, where it sits today. I am also a big fan of Document (very focused, but not compromising REM's sound) and Reckoning (dark, original, and altogether catchy as the Charles Dickens). However, I have actually not heard all of their earlier output, including Chronic Town, Dead Letter Office, and all of Fables and *gasp* Murmur! I can't say I'm a big fan of their later period, either, although Green, Out of Time, and Reveal certainly have some strong cuts. I will always respect this band, though, no matter how pretentious they can be. Some of their older records will probably always rest among my faves.

misterdummy@aol.com writes: I was falling in love with Willie and Ginny, until I got down to Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Upon first listen, OK, first dozen or so listens to Monster, I HATED it! "How could R.E.M. put out such crap?" but now I love it, it is simply brilliant. Granted the album is full of sex filled lyrics, but not every song. My favorite on the album has to be 'Let Me In' a brilliant tribute to Kurt Cobain, "He gathered up his loved ones and he brought them all around/to say goodbye, nice try." the lyrics are brilliant, and then there is 'Bang and Blame' which is a song about domestic violence, not sex, like many think, "You kiss on me, tug on me, rub on me, jump on me / you bang on me, beat on me, hit on me, let go on me / You let go on me." Other gems on the album include 'Circus Envy' which is a true rock song, and 'Star 69' which takes us back to the 'It's The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' days of asking "What _is_ he saying?" The album is loud, it is different, it isn't REM, but isn't what we love about REM is that they aren't afraid to try new things, I mean look at Up, brilliant, and freakishly different.

As for New Adventures In Hi-Fi, well, I think it sounds like 80's rock band REM more than anything else. It is a masterpiece, with another song about suicide 'Leave' and the beautiful, and creepy at the same time love song 'Be Mine' with lyrics like "And if you make me your religion. / I'll give you all you will need. / I'll be the drawing of your breath. / I'll be the cup if you should bleed." and then there is 'E-Bow the Letter' and no one knows what the hell that is about, but it is a gorgeous song with the legendary Patti Smith. The entire album is great as far as I'm concerned, Zither could be gone, I wouldn't cry, but the album is just fantastic.

So what have we learned here, well, we have learned that Monster deserves a B- and NAIHF deserves an A+.

cyshine@yahoo.com writes: I'm a big R.E.M. fan. I started with "Out Of Time" and then found out that every R.E.M. album was great. It's just a matter of time until you like each one (some take more time than others, like "Monster" and "Up").

About "Monster": when I bought it and heard it I hated it (after all, it was the follow-up to "Automatic For The People", their most appreciated album). I just couldn't see it as a R.E.M. album! It was too different from everything they've done before! But some time passed and the prejudice was gone. There are good songs in there: take "Crush With Eyeliner" and "Let Me In" (I took very long until I realized it was supposed to be such an emotional song) as examples.

And "Automatic For The People" is still my favourite. Each song is great. Every detail is marvelous. For example, in "Try Not To Breathe" bridge you can hear a distorted guitar which sounds actually beautiful! I mean, it was the first time I heard a distorted guitar sound beautiful (in the sense that was not noisy). "Sweetness Follows" is another great example (with cellos playing with a noisy, but really emotional and bittersweet distorted guitar solo). I saw an interview with Stipe saying that "Automatic" was supposed to be a noisy punk album... and I realized that OK, it isn't noisy, but it has some punk attitude (listen to "Ignoreland", for example).

Defending "Murmur" and "Fables": "Murmur" is one brilliant album for one reason: it is different from anything else. R.E.M. has it own signature sound and that's why I admire their music. And "Fables" is a very moody and in some way introspective album (OK, not as much as "Up" - why the hell they gave this name?), and it's beautiful. Stipe's lyrics had considerably progressed and the whole concept of the album is brilliant. It has, by the way, two different titles: "Fables of The Reconstruction" and "Reconstruction of The Fables" - the ladder is a reference to Stipe's writing and the first is a reference to southern history - in my opinion, it suits better because some of the songs are little tales, as "Old Man Kensey", for example. But, anyway, my favourite album in the IRS era is "Lifes Rich Pageant".

SEE ALSO: HINDU LOVE GODS

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: TIBETAN FREEDOM CONCERT ALBUM; CONEHEADS SOUNDTRACK ALBUM; UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD SOUNDTRACK; NEVER MIND THE MAINSTREAM... THE BEST OF MTV'S 120 MINUTES VOL. 2; THE LEONARD COHEN TRIBUTE ALBUM; RICHARD THOMPSON TRIBUTE ALBUM; A LIFE LESS ORDINARY SOUNDTRACK; SONGS IN THE KEY OF X: THE X-FILES SOUNDTRACK; FRIENDS SOUNDTRACK ALBUM; TOMMY BOY SOUNDTRACK; MAN ON THE MOON SOUNDTRACK

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: ROBYN HITCHCOCK; FEELIES; GRANT LEE BUFFALO; GOLDEN PALOMINOS; SONIC YOUTH; SPACEHOG

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Rentals

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Return of the Rentals

Willie's comments: Working with the Cars’ Ric Ocasek on Weezer’s debut album must have inspired Matt Sharp mightily. Return of the Rentals, the first album from Sharp’s side project, is stuffed with Cars-esque keyboard lines, ultra-cheesy melodies, and the sort of buzzy, insistent rhythmic underpinnings that could’ve been lifted directly from, say, “Shake It Up.” However, what’s unique about songs like “Waiting” and the terrific “Friends of P” are the Stereolab-esque harmonies and the idiosyncratic violin work of that dog’s Petra Hayden. Sharp trips up when he tries to slow things down, like on “My Summer Girl,” but a lot of this album is enjoyable, if terminally flighty. Grade: B-

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Seven More Minutes

Willie's comments: On an academic level, the Rentals' second album is an amusing study of what happens when a minor celebrity lets his tiny level of fame go to his head. By this point, Sharp had quit Weezer (apparently the band only has room for one megalomaniacal nerd getting off on his own "I'm a star!" recognizability), adopted a more aggressive singing style that sounds like the guy from Smash Mouth, and recruited a bunch of British rock stars like Damon Albarn (Blur/Gorillaz), Miki Berenyi (Lush), and Tim Wheeler (Ash) to play on his album. Not so much because he needed their particular talents, but just because he could get them, since Matt Sharp is a rock god. Now, if this all sounds pretty obnoxious to read about, imagine listening to Sharp's self-congratulatory party. The charm of Return of the Rentals lay in the intimacy of Sharp's geek-pop confessions as much as in the goofy Moog noises, but on Seven More Minutes, the boy/girl tales like "Say Goodbye Forever" are shot through with a fratboy arrogance. Even worse are rockers like "Getting By" and "Insomnia," whose generic punkpop arrangements as indigestably annoying as bands like Sum 41 or Saves the Day. It's not that the songs are poorly written, it's that they all feel like bragging. I do love the female backing vocals that are sprinkled throughout the album by a small army of singers, though. (Saturday Night Live's Maya Rudolph's contribution to "My Head is in the Sun" especially makes me melt.) Maybe they should all get together and make an album. Grade: C

SEE ALSO: WEEZER

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BLUR, LUSH, ASH

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Replacements

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Tim

Willie's comments: “The sign says, ‘Thank you very much for not smoking’/ My own sign says, ‘I’m sorry I’m smoking.'” Such is the bratty wit of Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg, who is equally adept at writing goofy songs insulting airline stewardesses (“Waitress in the Sky”) as he is at writing semi-serious reflections on guys who spend their lives in bars (“Here Comes a Regular”). But what do the Replacements sound like? The Goo Goo Dolls, only better. See, the Goo Goo Dolls ripped off their entire sound from the ‘Mats, but they don’t have Paul Westerberg’s wobbly charm or rugged energy. As pretty as ballads like “Swingin Party” are on Tim, the real meat comes in powerful rockers like “Bastards of Young” and “Left of the Dial.” Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

John Schlegel writes: Tim is the only 'Mats album I have purchased to date, and I think it's quite good. Of their other stuff I've heard in scant pieces, I can't say I really get into their typically jagged, punk-infested brand of indie-rock. But this LP, the band's major label debut, displays some truly impressive songwriting from Mr. Westerberg. Tim has a little something for everyone, successfully mixing that rough alt' rock edge with enormous pop hooks. "Hold My Life," "Bastards of Young," and "Left of the Dial" are all rip-roaring, '80s underground rock classics, and "Swingin' Party" is the ballad with the utterly beautiful melody. And that silly "Waitress in the Sky" divvy is just endlessly catchy and likable. "Dose of Thunder" and "Lay It Down Clown" are worthless clunkers, though. As much as I love '80s alternative rock, I can't say the 'Mats are my favorite band from that era--but I really haven't given them the chance to grow on me yet. As for Tim, it is a classic, and I agree with the A-.

Joe Friesen writes: This was the soundtrack for my high school years. Paul Westerberg is what an emo singer would sound like if emo didn't completely suck.

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Gruff Rhys

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Yr Atal Genhedlaeth

Willie's comments: Because I don't do my research, it's not clear what possessed Gruff Rhys, the sweetly dorky frontman of the magnificent Super Furry Animals, to release a solo album of Welsh-language tunes that sound like home-recorded demos... when SFA already has their great Mwng, a stripped-down Welsh-language album that (compared to the rest of their electro-psych-glam-pop catalog) sounds like a bunch of home-recorded demos. There's no question that Rhys can write a great melody, and the tunes here do exhibit his folksier side better than SFA's spotty classic rock homage Phantom Power, but too often, the arrangements on Yr Atal Genhedlaeth aren't just skeletal, they're freakin' osteoporotic. While "Gwn Mi Wn" is a propulsive treat that consists of nothing but Rhys singing his polyphonic harmonies atop a drum loop, that same formula leaves "Caerffosiaeth" sounding wan and annoying. Furthermore, "Ni Yw Y Byd" is just one (admittedly catchy) verse that's run through about a dozen key changes, and a couple more songs stick to an unimaginative guitar-drums setup that doesn't obscure Rhys's vocal talents, but doesn't build on them at all either. It's much nicer when Rhys develops things more fully, as on the yearning folk-skronk of "Pwdin Wy 2" and the shimmering, Chicago-the-band-esque "Ambell Waith." With a running time of less than half an hour, at least half of which consists of nothing more than pleasant throwaways, the contents of Genhedlaeth would've been put to better use either on one of those bonus CDs that SFA is fond of packaging with their proper albums, or as a starting point for the entire band to work their peculiar magic. It's really not something that stands on its own, unobjectionable though it mostly is. Grade: B-

SEE ALSO: SUPER FURRY ANIMALS

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Zoogz Rift

Island of Living Puke

Willie's comments: MAN: "Oh, fuck! Not another God damned Zoooooogz Rift album!" WOMAN: "It's the Island of Living Puke, you asshole!" Thus begins the tenth album from Zoogz Rift, a hilarious and incomprehensible mishmash of musical styles, scatological skits, and experimental noise (ranging from mid-'80s sampler collages to guitar abuse that would give Helios Creed nightmares) that still contains enough songs to keep dragging you back, no matter how much of the disc may fall flat. And I'm going to be up-front with you: there's a chunk of this album that really goes nowhere, whether Zoogz is stapling together dialogue snippets representing the taunts of those who'd have him conform, recruiting a woman to recite an obscene Dada anecdote, layering intentionally bland hipster dialogue over a distant tape of his band playing live, or being the millionth artist to cut tape together in a random fashion. Those bits get his point across and they're iconoclastic and all, but they're not very interesting, instead playing like Frank Zappa outtakes that were too undercooked even to go on The Lost Episodes.

However! Ignore that filler and you've got a handful of absolutely fascinating- and addictive- compositions that can't be compared to any other single artist. (An adequate description would require a Bret Easton Ellis-style feat of namedropping like "Early Zappa crossed with the Butthole Surfers crossed with NoMeansNo crossed with Devo crossed with Yo La Tengo crossed with the God Bullies crossed with...") For instance, "A Very Pretty Song for a Very Special Young Lady" starts as a semi-genuine pop ballad (think Frank Black's "I Don't Want to Hurt You [Every Single Time]"), adds a heavily-delayed guitar that is seemingly struggling to escape the song, and then throws in a woman making sex noises for a minute or so before she starts spouting hippie new-age philosophy, and her partner interjects dopey boasts like, "I'm the hottest thing on wheels, bitch!" For another instance, my favorite song on the disc, "Shiver Me Timbers," opens with a tightly-written stumble-step that finds a guitar and synth playing odd patterns in no familiar (or, perhaps, existent) key, which are then utterly assaulted by Zoogz's guitar making a racket that morphs from technically skilled soloing to thrillingly bizarre noisemaking and back again, followed by Zoogz launching into a pirate monologue: "Shiver me timbers! I got me pipe stuck in me eyeball! It blew out humorous bubbles from me pipe!" In short, Zoogz isn't one of those artists whose idea of "experimental" is a backwards guitar and maybe some ambient feedback; his idea is all but undefinable. And if only 2/3 of Island of Living Puke connects, that's a pretty good success rate for some of the most brutally far-flung experimentation that can reasonably be classified under the "rock" umbrella. Grade: B

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Rilo Kiley

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The Execution of All Things

Willie's comments: Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis is a former child star who you might remember from such films as Troop Beverly Hills or the feature-length Nintendo commercial The Wizard. (Yes, she was the one who yelled, "That man touched my breast!") That doesn't matter, of course; it's just fun trivia. What you need to know about Rilo Kiley is that they perform excellent, anthemic indie-rock on their sophomore album, The Execution of All Things. (Their first album, Take Offs and Landings, is okay but not worth buying. Or reviewing.) The band is signed to the Saddle Creek label, so you can naturally expect the same sort of inextricably Midwestern-sounding, lo-fi-but-lushly-arranged indie-pop-isms as Bright Eyes, Cursive, or their other labelmates, but Lewis can sing, man, in the same piercingly plain manner as Barbara Manning, which pushes this disc from typical Saddle Creek, an-album-only-an-emo-kid-could-love fare into the realm of the truly blissful. Old-timey keyboards, chunky guitars, and variations on Pachelbel's "Canon" abound, but the meat of songs like "Spectacular Views" and the driving "Paint's Peeling" comes in the form of Lewis's sublimely sincere vocalizing. I guess you could read the influence of Lewis's child actor past into some of the lyrics, but that doesn't stop songs like the masterpiece of lost innocence "A Better Son/Daughter" or the vicious title track ("Oh God, come quickly for the execution of all things/Let's start with the bears and the air and then mountains, rivers, and streams/And we'll murder what matters to you and move on to your neighbors and kids") from achieving a universally sympathetic portrayal of the capacity of this world to smother the good-hearted. The former makes me cry every time I listen to it, and its addictive, carnival-waltz opening is all the more poignant for being so gentle. Guitarist Blake Sennett's voice shows up for a couple nifty Elliott Smith homages on "So Long" and "Three Hopeful Thoughts," but Lewis is the star here. If you don't respond to her consistently catchy, detached melodies, you're missing out, because there's a lot of all-encompassing, lilting joy to be had here. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

Joe Friesen writes: Excuse me, bro, you know I love you, and you are much, much more often than not right on in these reviews you do, but I gotta be a straight-shooter here.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Dang it, you wouldn't believe how many friends I have that are totally captivated by this stuff, and now I have to count you among them. Not that that means diddly-shit, it just means that an abnormal number of people I know and like seem to love an album I can't stand.

The problem is very likely with me, as I can't really stomach any of these acts. Cursive, Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes, pretty much all of the Saddle Creek guys... yeeeesh. This is the folk music of my homeland (Portland, OR for anyone who doesn't know), the very manifestation of my beloved town's damp, tortured hipster soul. Yet I detest it so much.

At least I like the Microphones.

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE POSTAL SERVICE

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Rinocerose

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Installation Sonore

Willie's comments: Ask anyone who knows me personally about my prevailing mental state and outlook on life, and they'll tell you that I'm an upbeat, happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care rogue who carries life's burdens lightly. As it happens, I have some very sarcastic friends, but this debut album from French house music consortium Rinocerose would be an ideal soundtrack to the day-to-day operations of anyone who actually does have the cheerful attitude I just described. Installation Sonore is a personal, joyous set of 10 organic techno numbers, and while the songs do tend to rely strongly on a repetitive bassline and beat to keep the dancers happy, they're all marked by a fondness for musical exploration that's immensely pleasurable. Guitarist Jean-Phillipe Freu sets up a Jenga tower of interesting guitar structures on songs like "La Guitaristic House Organisation" and "Mes Vacances a Rio," while funky mood enhancers like bongos splay about the proceedings like friendly monkeys. Furthermore, the occasional appearance of Franck Gauthier's creative, buzzy flute playing gives the entire project an enjoyably chilled-out atmosphere. (How do floutists get those cool, twittery, buzzy sounds, by the way? Using more spit or something? Because it always makes me feel nice.) If you're not a huge house music fan, you might still find this music strangely boring (though probably less so than other house acts, as Rinocerose actually stuffs their songs full of hooks), but if, like me, you find comfort in the simple grooves and rhythms of this style, Installation Sonore can be your Songs in the Key of Life; it's so warm and inspiring. Grade: A

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Music Kills Me

Willie's comments: Hey! Disco beats! In a non-ironic and also non-cheesy way! Well, alright, some of the newly-minted vocal parts are a little cheesy (I would rather these songs were all instrumentals, because the occasional singing bits on tunes like the title track and "Lost Love" distract from the generous interplay the band has going), but that doesn't matter, because these songs are even fuller cornucopias of fun than were present on Installation Sonore. With less emphasis on textured solos this time around, Rinocerose frees up some space for what sounds like an immensely enjoyable game of seeing if each member can come up with a stand-alone hook that can be played simultaneously with all the awesome hooks his bandmates are playing. Added to that are the aforementioned disco elements (most blatant on the opener, "Le Rock Summer," but prevalent throughout) and the occasional string section, but it's really just a more refined, disciplined take on the energized house music we've already grown to love. Titles like "Dead Can Dance," "No, We Are Not Experienced!" and "Dead Flowers" (not a cover of the Stones tune) really don't have much to do with the songs themselves, but they have everything to do with the flirty classic-rock smarts these guys toss off just for kicks all over this album. In fact, it's really a bit of a stretch to even classify Music Kills Me under the "electronica" label by this point; Rinocerose has become something of a jam band that doesn't really jam. See? The French can be fun! Grade: A

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Ed-E Roland

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Ed-E Roland

Willie's comments: If you like crap, you're in for a treat. This unsurprisingly out-of-print CD is an impossibly bad collection of 9 rockers from the man who would eventually become Collective Soul's frontman. And even Collective Soul fans, who obviously have a high tolerance for boring fuzz-rock, will probably shake their heads in bewilderment at how horrible Roland was before "Shine" made him a ubiquitous radio presence. Rather than singing in the pseudo-Eddie Vedder voice we know him for (growl it with me: "Turn your head, now baby, just spit me out!"), Roland adopts an annoyingly quavery delivery reminiscent of Split Enz's Phil Judd, making songs like "Chris Can't Cry" intolerable. The music is similarly horrible, evoking ZZ Top's more countrified classic-rock leanings. Strangest of all, the first four tracks find Roland being overpowered by an uncredited female singer in the songs' choruses, and then she vanishes for the rest of the album. I've seen collectors shell out up to $30 for this album on eBay, so if you come across it in a used-CD bin, buy it and sell it to someone. It'll be a good lesson for them in money management. Grade: F

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Josh Rouse

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1972

Willie's comments: Oh, how much happier would I be if everyone who'd ever purchased a John Mayer album had purchased Josh Rouse's vastly superior 1972 instead? Well, granted, there are any number of albums whose presence in the world's CD collections should be supplanted by 1972 (say, anything by The Eagles), but as far as this genre goes, Rouse's take on non-threatening, seamless singer/songwriter pop is infinitely more intelligent and mature than Mayer's lame-ass, posturing pablum. For although Rouse's compositions go down as easily as Paris Hilton, with nary a ragged edge or a confrontational word in sight, the songs are approachable not out of focus-grouped cowardice, but out of learned, baroque pop craftsmanship. Like his contemporaries Beulah and The Autumn Defense, Rouse is unashamed to plunder the silken, ear-pleasing arrangement style of overproduced '70s bands like Chicago and Traffic, but for all the strings, call-and-response vocals, saxaphone solos, warm synth noises, and other nostalgic accoutrements these songs feature, Rouse's aesthetic stays humble enough never to get pompous or cloying. (The gospel choir on "Sparrows Over Birmingham" is the only instance in which the indulgent arrangements actually squash the singer's winsome charm.) That is, although 1972's contents are steeped in stylistic quotations from the titular decade, they still land in that important, Sgt. Pepper's-founded middle ground that's neither bland nor totally overdoing it. It helps, too, that Rouse has a way with a hook- just try to stop singing "Comeback (Light Therapy)," a witty tale of seasonal affective disorder set to a wonderful disco bassline and lush strings, the good-natured, stomping "Love Vibration," or the gorgeous falsetto chorus of "James." Never cliched or too easy, but also fully content in its own accessible simplicity, 1972 is a shimmering reminder that it's possible to be cozy without being toothless, poppy without being brainless, and smart without being heartless. It takes a lot of talent to pull that mixture off, and Rouse is a master. Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KINKS TRIBUTE ALBUM

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: LAMBCHOP

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Roxette

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Look Sharp!

Willie's comments: I'm man enough to admit I have an unironic fondness for Roxette. They're a big, stupid, early '90s pop band from Sweden who are content to fill their songs with unapologetically cheesy synthesized bass noises and lyrics that fall somewhere between "trite" and "grammatically atrocious," but that's why I love 'em. Take a listen to this 1988 album. Vocalist Marie Fredriksson wails emphatically- and infectiously- through songs like "Dressed for Success" and "View from a Hill," while guitarist/songwriter Per Gessle grumbles "The Look" and "Dangerous" in his inimitably flinty teddy bear voice. The tunes are utterly predictable, but they never become bland thanks to the sheer energy the duo puts into the music and to such canny flourishes as quoting A-Ha in "Chances" and Gessle's propensity to descend into an ominous growl as he sings. Yes, some of the songs are just boring, pseudo-Taylor Dayne dance pop numbers, but I defy any of you to deny the catchy charms of "The Look" and "Listen to Your Heart." Grade: B-

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Joyride

Willie's comments: Gessle's songwriting has improved greatly since Look Sharp! With the sole exception of the grating aerobicizing of "Soul Deep," every song on here has at least one serviceable hook. Fredriksson's voice is positively gorgeous on the moving, anthemic "Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)," while "Knockin' on Every Door," "The Big L," and the title track are good, naive fun. Gessle's lyrics have gotten substantially worse, yes, but in an endearing way- it seems the only parts of relationships he enjoys are when he's "making love to her," as he references this pastime in quite a few songs. So the lyrics are just as shallow as the music, but so what? When you stand Roxette up against any other dance-pop act from that era (say Paula Abdul), Roxette will stand the test of time much longer. Just you watch. Grade: B+

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Rush

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Chronicles

Willie's comments: Forget for the moment that Rush is the squarest of the square. Despite some of drummer Neal Peart’s overbearing sci-fi/fantasy lyrics, they actually wrote a handful of absorbing, entertaining songs, most of which are collected on this two-CD retrospective. You can forget most of the first disc, unless you’re interested in hearing their gradual evolution from a Canadian heavy metal band (it’s even worse than you think- Geddy Lee shrieks through songs like “Fly by Night”) into a skilled prog-rock machine. “The Trees” is great, but apart from that, CD one is useless. CD two, however, includes a lot more cool keyboards and involving songs like “Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” and “Red Sector A” (on which Peart’s futuristic penal colony lyrics are quite effective). It’s still very much a grab bag, though. Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

Adam Fuhrman writes: I also hate Rush. You didn't exactly say that you did, Ijust inferred it because you gave a C+ to a retrospective! Doesn't that tell all! However, I disagree w/ your opinion on 1 ground. Geddy Lee shriekes like a stuck pig on EVERY SINGLE SONG, not just a few.

Keep up the awesome work.

Brian Gillam writes: Maybe Adam Fuhrman should read a book on criticism so he could give us something useful besides his all-important opinion.

Nick Karn writes: I don't own this compilation, but I do have every one of their first 12 studio albums (up to Hold Your Fire) with the exception of their debut. I generally agree with you that the stuff they did in the 80s is better than their 70s era (particularly the classic Moving Pictures, Signals and Power Windows), but I wouldn't call those songs worthless or anything. Sure, Geddy Lee's voice was definitely an acquired taste for me, and the lyrics on their first five or six albums or so were patchy to say the least, but Alex Lifeson's riffs were great for the most part, and "2112" is the most amazing song they ever did in my opinion. As time went on, the music became more of an amazing background for Neil Peart's increasingly stronger and more thoughtful lyrics, and a lot of those songs are downright mesmerizing, despite some complaints people have about the synths, which I actually enjoy.

Anyway, my ratings for the Rush albums I own on this site's grading scale would probably be as follows:

Fly By Night: B-, Caress Of Steel: B+, 2112: A-, A Farewell To Kings: C, Hemispheres: B, Permanent Waves: B+, Moving Pictures: A+, Signals: A, Grace Under Pressure: B, Power Windows: A, Hold Your Fire: C

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Rushmore soundtrack

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Willie's comments: The problem with Rushmore the film was that, despite many great performances and sporadic moments of inspired satire, there really wasn't much of a point to it. The soundtrack behaves in a similar fashion: you've got a few great songs on here, but it feels bland and unfocused. About half the album is made up of forgotten rockers from the psychedelic era; either obscure nuggets from well-known acts (John Lennon's sappy "Oh Yoko," the Who's bloated operetta "A Quick One While He's Away") or recently unearthed gems (Creation's "Making Time," the Faces' "Ooh La La"). However, you also get nine tracks' worth of Mark Mothersbaugh's Mozart-as-spud-boy score, some jazz-by-numbers by Zoot Sims Handy, and some random French balladry by Yves Montand. As nice as it is to hear the Creation song or "Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worryin' Bout That Girl" by the ever-reliable Kinks, even the prospect of sitting through two Cat Stevens songs makes me antsy, let alone actually performing the act. As with the film itself, I have friends who swear by this album and can't understand why I don't like it just as much as I can't understand why they do. I don't know. Give me Brain Candy any day. Grade: C

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Rutles

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The Rutles

Willie's comments: This is the soundtrack album to a Beatles mockumentary put together by Monty Python’s Eric Idle in the ‘70s, and it consists of brilliantly-composed songs obviously “suggested” by the Fab Four themselves. Songwriter Neil Innes (late of the Bonzo Dog Band) hits all the touchstones of the Beatles’ career- “Piggy in the Middle” is a thinly-veiled run at “I am the Walrus,” “Ouch!” is derived from “Help!” etc.- but he somehow manages to make it perfectly clear which songs he’s parodying without sounding at all derivative. “Get Up and Go” is admittedly a little too close to the original melody of “Get Back,” but the original melodies and arrangements for the songs are just perfect! No Beatles fan would deny, for example, that “Cheese and Onions” could stand with the Beatles’ best work. It’s clever and masterfully poppy. Grade: A

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