Monthly Archives: October 2016

Rewind: Idlewild, 100 Broken Windows

[Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows]

Rewind takes a look at past reviews to see how they hold up today. The albums featured on Rewind were part of my collection, then sold for cash only to be reacquired later.

Back in 2014, I recounted how 100 Broken Windows by Idlewild departed my music collection, then returned. Thing is, I reviewed it back in 2001! I read that entry now and wonder, “Who the hell is this kid who wrote this?”

Name-checking the guitarists of Sonic Youth and R.E.M. pretty much revealed what little I knew of music while posturing how much I knew about music. I do find this paragraph anthropologically interesting:

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, deities bless, brought punk kicking and screaming into the mainstream but in doing so locked record moguls into thinking what America needed was an entire decade of thrice-removed punk pop mixed with — cough — heavy metal.

The A.V. Club wrote a takedown on 1996, the year alternative music died. Five years on, the situation in rock music hadn’t improved. In fact, Nickelback and Limp Bizkit were in their prime when I typed that paragraph, and it led me to conclude 100 Broken Windows was awesome because nü metal suuuuuuuuucked.

The snark against Blur in the second sentence of my review is pretty dated now, although I don’t anticipate I’ll ever find any appeal in Oasis.

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The ones that nearly got away: Depeche Mode, Singles 81 > 85

[Depeche Mode - Singles 81 > 85]

Youth can be such a humorless time.

The only reason this compilation of early Depeche Mode singles slipped my grasp was because I found them too bright and airy.

For the longest time, Depeche Mode were my brother’s band, so I felt obligated to feel ambivalent toward them, if not downright hostile. My opinion didn’t turn around till Meat Beat Manifesto, Hooverphonic and Rammstein nailed covers of Depeche Mode songs on the tribute album, For the Masses.

Singles 86 > 98 followed soon afterward, and it spurred me to buy Violator and Music for the Masses.

My first stab at exploring Depeche Mode’s early singles was, of course, Catching Up with Depeche Mode. The weak mastering of the CD left me unimpressed, so I decided to wait if a remastered collection similar to Singles 86 > 98 would follow.

It did. I remained unimpressed.

Depeche Mode’s darker sound locked my perception of the band, to which the Vince Clarke-era material failed to conform. The early singles also sounded crude next to the richness of Violator. State of the art for 1980 was no match for state of the art for 1990.

Seventeen years would pass before I would give Depeche Mode’s early work another listen. The same trip to Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Store that netted me True Blue by Madonna also caught me a vinyl copy of Catching Up with Depeche Mode.

I’ve mellowed out considerably since 1998.

I like the sunniness of those early singles now, and listening to them closely, they’re every bit as sophisticated as the later work. Perhaps more so, with synth lines in “Dreaming of Me” and “New Life” calling and answering each other in a post-modern form of counterpoint.

“Everything Counts” and “Shake the Disease” remain my favorite early singles, but “See You” and “Just Can’t Get Enough” join that list.

The second half of Catching Up is the point at which my brother foisted Depeche Mode on me. “Somebody” was pretty cringe-worthy when he overplayed it on the car stereo, and my opinion of the song has only dimmed with time. “Master and Servant” and “Blasphemous Rumors” thankfully wash out all that treacle.

Rather than remaster Catching Up with Depeche Mode for a CD reissue, the band’s label opted to give the UK-only Single 81 > 85 a proper US release. The result meant the loss of “Fly on the Windscreen”, which I prefer over “It’s Called a Heart”. (So too did the band.)

The remastering on Singles 81 > 85 do the songs justice, so skip Catching Up on CD and find it on vinyl instead.

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Vinyl find: Madonna, True Blue

[Madonna - True Blue]

I’ve been a Madonna fan since 1990, but it’s taken me 26 years to include True Blue in my collection.

I probably wouldn’t have if I didn’t find a decent copy on vinyl at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Store selling for $6. That was a price point with which I could live, and it was for charity.

I can’t disentangle the heavy marketing of the album at the time of its release with its critical reputation over time. The album contained only nine tracks, but 2/3 of them were released as singles, all of them played to within an inch of their lives on radio.

“La Isla Bonita” is the only track that really caught my imagination, and it’s still a favorite. The synth strings of “Papa Don’t Preach” also put it in a class above the other tracks on the album. Otherwise, I’m not entirely convinced the songs which have become Madonna canon really deserve their spots.

“Live to Tell” shows up on numerous Madonna compilations, but the track has always left me underwhelmed. Music from the 80s was often accused of being cold and robotic because of its over-reliance on synthesizers and MIDI. “Live to Tell” would certainly be guilty of this accusation.

Bill Frisell did a tremendous job infusing humanity in the song, replacing the brief, ambient middle section of the original with an extended downtown New York freak-out.

The title track is something of an ear worm, but it’s not the strongest song on the album. It didn’t even make the cut on The Immaculate Collection. Does anyone even remember “Where’s the Party?” being a single?

Unlike Like a Virgin, the non-single tracks on True Blue don’t attempt to be anything other than filler. I’m pretty baffled by the gangster movie samples in “White Heat”. They made more sense on I’m Breathless.

Marketing muscle made True Blue a success, but without it, I’m not sure its excellent bits are enough to make up for its middling moments.

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How Pulse magazine shaped the way I discover music

[Tower Records Pulse! magazine, Dec. 1989]

Steve Reich turned 80 years old on Oct. 3, 2016. I discovered Reich when he had just turned 50. He would be one of many discoveries I made through a magazine published by Tower Records called Pulse.

In 1986, I started high school. The popular radio stations played all the usual hits of the era — Madonna, Janet Jackson, Phil Collins, to name a few. Toward the right of the dial was a classic rock station and a light jazz station. On the other end, the classical music station played the war horses, while the University of Hawaii radio station couldn’t be heard beyond three miles of campus.

Radio’s insistence to overplay its most popular tracks spurred me to abandon the format in 1988. I replaced it with Pulse.

A shopping guide in the guise of an impartial publication, the magazine went wide with its coverage, including classical, jazz and world music with rock and pop. An interview with Sting ran next to an article about Buster Poindexter. Reviews of Bulgarian women’s choirs shared column inches with Throwing Muses and R.E.M.

The ads were as informative as the editorial content. Pulse offered a “No-Risk Disk” guarantee for Robin Holcomb’s self-titled debut album — return the album within 14 days if you don’t like it, no questions asked. That purchase would lead me down a rabbit hole of the Nonesuch catalog.

But I wasn’t just paying attention to band names in these articles. I scoured liner notes for credits, making note of producers and guest musicians.

In 1991, MTV ran a short feature on a band called Smashing Pumpkins and featured a snippet of “Siva”. It was enough to get me curious and pick up a cassette copy of Gish. It became one of the most played albums in my collection that year.

A few months later, an article in Pulse about a band called Nirvana mentioned Butch Vig, who I remembered produced Gish. So I bought Nevermind based on that connection. I showed the album to a friend of mine, who found the naked baby on the cover quite odd. It would another half year before he heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio.

Pulse ceased publication in 2002. By then, the Internet had edge it out as a source for new music.

Even before file sharing networks, word of mouth through online communities — Usenet groups, mailing lists, bulletin boards — served as recommendation engines. I also happened to live in Austin, Texas in the late ’90s, where Waterloo Records’ generous policy of allowing shoppers to listen to anything in the store verified those recommendations.

I kept picking up Pulse every month till the end, but format changes and shifts in editorial focus left the magazine gutted. File sharing put Tower Records on a decline, and the shuttering of Pulse was an early harbinger.

But Pulse helped me take responsibility for my listening choices. It taught me how to parse music reviews to make educated guesses on whether I’d like an album. I would apply the habits I developed with Pulse to other sources. It’s Japanese counterpart, Bounce, would guide my choices in the early 2000s, which I parlayed here on this site.


Looking ahead, October-November 2016

[Meredith Monk - On Behalf of Nature]

At first, I was excited to see my new release wish list starting to grow, but upon closer inspection, a lot of anticipated releases were just being delayed till October.

Mike Mills, Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and Orchestra, Oct. 14

Mike Mills was R.E.M.’s secret weapon. He was never content to anchor his bass lines with the tonic. Classical music from rock musicians always garners some amount of skepticism, but I might give Mills a bit of leeway.

Meredith Monk, On Behalf of Nature, Nov. 4

I’m pretty much picking up this disc because Sid Chen, who works with Kronos Quartet and has popped in the comments section on the site once in a blue moon, performs on this album. We’ve followed each other on social media for years, but we’ve yet to met.

Sting, 57th and 9th, Nov. 11

I have a soft spot for The Dream of the Blue Turtles and … Nothing Like the Sun. So I’m always willing to give Sting a chance, even in the face of a Mercury Falling or The Last Ship.

R.E.M., Out of Time (Deluxe Edition), Nov. 18

I’m not sure where Out of Time falls in the critical evaluation of R.E.M.’s career, but it was released in a pretty turbulent point of my life, which imbues it with a powerful pull.


Depeche Mode, 101, Oct. 21

I remember this album being a pretty big deal for people around me back in 1989, which makes me curious as to why.

  • Madonna, Ray of Light, Oct. 11
  • The Killers, Hot Fuss, Nov. 4
  • Enya, The Memory of Trees, Nov. 11
  • Duran Duran, The Wedding Album, Jan. 13, 2017