Automatic for the People marked the decline of my interest in R.E.M.
I’d been peripherally aware of the band since at least 1985, but it wasn’t until the local classic rock station put “Stand” on rotation that I was formally introduced.
I had recently become acquainted with 10,000 Maniacs at around the same time, and the music press made quite a deal of the relationship between Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe.
Green wasn’t the best introduction to the band, but Side A of the album set me on a course to play catch-up with R.E.M.’s indie work. By the time Out of Time arrived three years later, I was already well acquainted with Murmur, Document and Lifes Rich Pageant.
Out of Time was the soundtrack to my morning bus commute to the University of Hawaii, monopolizing my Walkman for months on end. At the time, I considered the album perfection. Everything seemed to be in balance — bright tracks (“Shiny Happy People”) offsetting darker tracks (“Country Feedback”), Mike Mills’ voice contrasting with Michael Stipe’s, Kate Pierson of the B-52’s adding a feminine touch the band was sorely lacking.
I was hopeful R.E.M. would always record albums this great.
Automatic for the People followed immediately afterward, and Rolling Stone magazine gave it a five-star review. The press leading up to the album’s release was breathless, and I bought into the hype.
I headed to the record store on release day and snagged my copy. I gave it every chance to burrow deep into my consciousness the way its predecessor did. It didn’t.
Months later, Bill Frisell and Duran Duran each released albums that fulfilled the jones I had hoped Automatic for the People would fill. I eventually concluded I was duped. It’s not a bad album, but it wasn’t five-star material.
Automatic for the People would not survive a purge for cash, and it went on my list overrated albums alongside Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got by Sinéad O’Connor.
The first pressing of the CD was housed in a jewel case with a translucent yellow tray. Back in November 2014, I ran across a used copy of Automatic for the People in excellent condition with the yellow tray. And it was selling for $1.
So I picked it up and gave it another spin. Would age and wisdom alter my opinion of the album?
It’s not as awful as I thought it was, and taking a 20-year break from the ubiquity of “Everybody Hurts” certainly helps soften my previously sharp opinion.
It still hasn’t been dislodged from the overrated list, but it was a good first lesson in skepticism. Being a fan of a band doesn’t mean blind worship for everything they do.
The last time my brother and I engaged in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race, we each were trying to stake claim on two albums: Basia’s Time and Tide and Enya’s Watermark. At the time, a radio format specializing in light jazz and new age put singles from both albums in regular rotation.
So he and I made a bargain — I would relinquish a claim on Basia if he relinquished his claim on Enya. Months later, we both came to the conclusion that I got the better end of the bargain.
I think that trade-off started the thaw in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. As our tastes started to splinter — he getting into Hawaiian music, I going further into avant-garde classical music — staking territory became pointless.
It became rarer when our tastes intersected than when they didn’t.
I kept a foothold in (what would become) alternative rock, which inhabited an orbit far outside my brother’s more mainstream tastes. So it surprised me when he took up Sinéad O’Connor and U2. And he didn’t mind when I took up Sting and Madonna.
We live in separate parts of the country now, but we both share a love for Japanese popular music. We’ve gone so far as to introduce bands to each other.
So now I’m at a point in life where the stigma of “eww, my sibling likes that!” has lost its potency, and I can explore what was once arbitrarily off limits.
Time and Tide wouldn’t have happened without Sade to prove the commercial viability of jazz-pop. Anita Baker, Swing Out Sister and Johnny Hates Jazz rushed through the gates opened by Miss Adu and her eponymous band.
It’s a rather well-crafted album, steeped in the analog MIDI automation of the time. I can, however, understand my brother’s disappointment in the album. It doesn’t exactly break any new ground, compared to Enya and her hundred-times-overdubbed chorus, which was incredibly new for 1988.
But Time and Tide is an enjoyable, durable album. I do have to confess I first thought Basia was Agnetha Faltskog from ABBA, refurbishing her sound.
Barely two weeks into 2015, and the release schedule for the rest of the first quarter looks incredibly busy. Some of them are Musicwhore.org favorites, and others ought to be.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love, Jan. 20
NPR First Listen has featured No Cities to Love in this week before the album’s release, and damn if it doesn’t sound like Sleater-Kinney never went away.
The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World, Jan. 20
It’s probably too much to ask for this album to be the best R.E.M. has recorded since splitting up.
Exposé, Exposure (Deluxe Edition), Jan. 20
For an ’80s radio pop album, Exposure is pretty enduring. A deluxe edition, though, means endless remixes of the album’s four hit singles.
Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones, Feb. 17
Cindy Wilson’s absence was sorely felt on the B-52’s Good Stuff, the follow-up to the massive hit Cosmic Thing. So it’ll be interesting to hear how Kate Pierson sounds without the rest of the band around her.
Gang of Four, What Happens Next, Feb. 24
That’s the question with only Andy Gill as the only remaining original member of the band.
Shiina Ringo, “Shijou no Jinsei”, Feb. 25
Post-Tokyo Jihen Shiina Ringo has been sparse with new music, but with a new single arriving barely three months after an album, does this mean the drought has ended?
Madonna, Rebel Heart, March 10
I’m so past hoping this album is anywhere within league of Like a Prayer, Ray of Light or, heck, even Bedtime Stories. MDNA was just plain forgettable.
Inventions, Maze of Woods, March 17
Now, that’s a quick turn-around.
Death Cab for Cutie, Kintsugi, March 31
Chris Walla is no longer with the band and consequently no longer at the producer’s desk. Codes and Keys is the closest Death Cab has reached to the sublimity of The Photo Album or Transatlanticism since signing to a major label. So this album is pretty much make-or-break.
Björk, Vulnicura, March 2015
The most interesting aspect of this announcement, for me, is the silence from Nonesuch Records regarding its release.
Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand, Jan. 27
On my list of Albums I Want Reissued on Vinyl, Bee Thousand resides in the upper echelon. Previous entries on said list included The Woods by Sleater-Kinney, The Photo Album by Death Cab for Cutie, the self-titled Metallica album and Floating Into the Night by Julee Cruise. All these titles appeared in 2014.
Sigur Rós, Ágætus Byrjun, Feb. 17
I’m also holding out hope for a Takk … reissue.
LOVE PSYCHEDELICO, ABBOT KINNEY, Feb. 18
All of LOVE PSYCHEDELICO’s albums are getting a vinyl reissue to coincide with a pair of retrospectives coming out the same day. ABBOT KINNEY, however, is the duo’s best.
I probably wouldn’t have remembered this album had I not spotted in a $1 bin at Sonic Boom Records. Given the shoddy condition of the record, even $1 was a bit steep. But I bought it anyway because, like any 8-year-old in 1980, I was enamored of Pac-Man, and “Pac-Man Fever” rode that zeitgeist to the upper reaches of the music charts.
I pleaded with my parents to let me get this album, but they considered video games no better than gambling machines. And they weren’t about to encourage anything that wasn’t practical or useful.
Pac-Man, however, planted a seed that pretty much resulted in the living I make today — computer programmer.
It wasn’t just about the thrill of gobbling up the pellets, powering up to eat the monsters and reaching even higher levels of skill. It was the artwork on the cabinet. It was the mechanics behind the game.
One of my siblings subscribed to a science magazine that featured Space Invaders on the cover, and it gave an overview on how video games work. There’s this grid, you see, and there’s some logic the computer calculates so when one object encounters another in that grid, the player earns a point and an invader gets vaporized. Or your ship goes kaboom!
I wanted to learn how to make that grid and those objects and those explosions.
But my parents could tell that if they bought me a computer to pursue that ambition to create my own video games, I would spend all my waking hours in front of that contraption. So they refused.
The video game boom eventually busted, and one day I wandered into the electronics section of the department store and was mesmerized by a miniature movie with music in the background. It was the same kind of movie I saw a few years back that fueled my craze for ABBA, only this time it was a band called Duran Duran. And the song was “Hungry Like the Wolf.”
Pac-Man Fever, like Uncle Vic’s “Space Invaders” before it, receded into memory. I don’t know if my parents were relieved that I wouldn’t take up gambling — remember, that’s what video games were in their mind — but instead, they bought a piano when I developed an interest in perhaps taking lessons.
They hoped I would learn songs from the Great American Songbook, the music of their youth. I wanted to be Nick Rhodes or Martin Fry.
So by thwarting my early interest in computers, my parents redirected that zeal to music, which would make them even more nervous a decade later when I declared music to be my major in college.
The Internet eventually steered me back into the world of programming, but it was Pac-Man that primed the pump. I somehow taught myself BASIC even without a computer, and I got solid B’s in the rudimentary programming classes in high school and college. The interest was there if the opportunities weren’t.
My parents’ prediction did come true. Once the Internet had its hooks in me, I’ve been parked in front of a computer ever since.
As for Pac-Man Fever, the album, I was quite surprised. Novelty albums usually aim for the quick laugh, but Buckner and Garcia have enough love for their subject matter to craft a set of tuneful songs. Synthesizers were still very much analog at that point, and new wave hadn’t yet made the jump from across the ocean. So instead you get some futuristic rock that serves as a pivot from Styx and Toto to Kraftwerk and the Human League.
Armistead Maupin, through his fictional character Michael Tolliver, proposed the idea that each generation has a male performer straight guys would go queer for. “It was Mick Jagger for a long time,” Michael explains in Significant Others, “and now it’s Bruce Springsteen.”
The cover for Born in the U.S.A. does nothing to dissuade this idea. Springsteen’s jeans certainly do his posterior justice, and the red cap could be mistaken for a handkerchief, which conveys some sort of code that modern day hook-up apps make obsolete. And the form-fitting white t-shirt? It’s the uniform of countless gay guys.
At the time Born in the U.S.A. was released, I wasn’t yet sexually aware enough to attach the word “homoerotic” to the cover’s unconscious vibe. Besides, “homoerotic” and “Bruce Springsteen” aren’t words strung together in sentences in, well, ever.
And yet, I was drawn to the cover despite the fact I really couldn’t stand all the radio hits Born in the U.S.A. spawned. Springsteen was the polar opposite of the new wave music that caught my fancy at the time. The effete sophistication of ABC, Duran Duran and Eurythmics rubbed against Springsteen’s middle American bombast.
Also, the title track of the album had that disturbing line about being “sent to Vietnam to go and kill yellow man.”
But Springsteen himself? His contract had a rider that a gym went with him on tour. Countless pictures showed off his guns, and the “Dancing in the Dark” video made it a point to display his crotch.
It’s pretty amazing that an Internet search yields no beefcake photos of him from the 1980s. Recent pictures of Springsteen pretty much demonstrate the man takes care of himself.
I couldn’t admit it at the time, but Springsteen joined Huey Lewis, Sting, Simon Le Bon and Roger Taylor on the list of male figures stirring my pre-teen sexual awareness. But I couldn’t bring myself to overlook his music to acknowledge his placement on that list.
About three hours before writing this entry, Born in the U.S.A. became part of my vinyl collection. It’s taken 30 years.
In 1995, Emmylou Harris entered my life, and with it, country music and its punk-inspired off-shoot, alt-country. If Springsteen had more twang and less literary chops, he’d be chumming it up with Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton.
In short, I’ve grown accustomed to songs Springsteen himself has inspired that listening to the original is no effort. “Glory Days” is playing on the record player as I type this sentence, and I distinctly remember thinking it exemplified what I dislike about Springsteen. Today, I realize I’ve written songs in the same style.
Of course what clinched the purchase for me was actually listening to the album on the streaming services. None of the annoyance from 30 years ago surfaced. In fact, I understood the album. Born in the U.S.A. was an album for grown-ups in the 1980s, not for teenagers. I hated it because it wasn’t meant for me.
And now, I can totally own that yes, I think Bruce Springsteen is hot. I can call out the cover of Born in the U.S.A. as being totally homoerotic. Most importantly, I can admit it’s a really good album.
Something I didn’t anticipate when I moved from Austin to Seattle in 2012 was a classical music scene with an audience receptive to modern works.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra includes a number of commissions throughout its season, and a chamber series focusing on modern works turns the lobby of Benaroya Hall into an informal setting. I got to hear Steve Reich’s Different Trains as part of a chamber music festival, and Town Hall has brought in the likes of Alarm Will Sound, Roomful of Teeth and NOW Ensemble.
So the year-end Favorite Edition for 2014 reflects my rekindled interest in new music. It’s easier to indulge when even the record shops make it a point to separate modern music from the common era.
A few weeks ago, I was flipping through the vinyl stacks at the Bellevue location of Silver Platters. This album by Stephen Albert caught my eye immediately.
I knew right away it was Nonesuch release. The typeface, the stark black and white photography, the clean design — the only other label with such a clear cover aesthetic is ECM. In fact, label president Robert Hurwitz worked at ECM before taking over Nonesuch.
I checked the back cover, and sure enough, there was a Nonesuch logo. Flower of the Mountain was released in 1987, the same year as Kronos Quartet’s White Man Sleeps and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances. But who was Stephen Albert? I hadn’t heard of him, and I know nothing of this album.
So I bought it without sampling it beforehand. Just one of those rash purchases.
Another remarkable aspect of this album is the title piece. “Flower of the Mountain” refers to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses by James Joyce. The Joyce estate can get pretty draconian protecting the author’s copyrights.
Albert, it seems, managed to secure permission to use this text, while the Joyce estate told Kate Bush no. So Bush ended up writing “The Sensual World”. Bush would later secure permission when she re-recorded the song and re-titled it … “Flower of the Mountain”.
Albert’s Flower of the Mountain is a fairly genteel piece, decidedly tonal but not exceptional. It’s the accompanying piece, Into Eclipse, that steals the spotlight.
Into Eclipse has more sharp edges with a much more striking orchestration. It’s also the piece that is more readily available of the two. Into Eclipse can be found on Julliard Orchestra recording (New World 80381) and on an Eastman Music Nova album (Albany 192). By contrast, Flower of the Mountain is available only on this out-of-print Nonesuch release.
So why hadn’t I encountered Albert till now?
It turns out Albert died in a car crash in 1992. His career was on the rise up till then. Two years before Nonesuch released Flower of the Mountain, Albert earned the Pulitzer Prize for his Riverrun Symphony.
Travis Higdon ran Peek-a-Boo Records out of an office we both worked at during the late ’90s. At first, I found that misappropriation of office resources distasteful. Then, the office politics pissed me off, and I thought Travis could have done more to misappropriate office resources.
But meeting him introduced me to his band, The Kiss-Offs, who attracted quite a bit of buzz in the Austin music press. The band’s debut album, Goodbye Private Life, became one of my favorites in 1999. They split up after releasing a second album, Rock Bottom, in 2001.
Peek-a-Boo had a pretty nice roster around that time. The Prima Donnas were reviving the ’80s at a time when everyone shat on the ’80s. Silver Scooter was a proto-Death Cab for Cutie with a bassist who really, really dug New Order’s Peter Hook.
But I missed out on the band Travis formed before the Kiss-Offs: The 1-4-5s.
A few months ago, a used LP of the 1-4-5s’ Rock Invasion showed up at Jive Time Records. I hadn’t thought about Travis or Peek-a-Boo in years till I saw that LP. I didn’t buy it right away because, as usual, I was cash-strapped. But it did afford me some time to find an EP Peek-a-Boo released called “Unsafe at 45 RPM“.
I’ve made my distaste of garage rock known, but I don’t mind garage rock from people I admire. So I eventually picked up Rock Invasion.
It’s fast. It’s bratty. It’s lo-fi. It has “rock” in the every song title on the album.
I particularly liked how there was a hidden track … on vinyl. Given the space constraints of an LP, the songs on Rock Invasion are pretty compact if a portion of groove real estate can be devoted to a gap of silence.
I can hear hints of the Kiss-Offs in the 1-4-5s, but the songcraft that would mark Travis’ later bands is not on display here. The 1-4-5s, like their name suggests, kept things rustic. At the tempos they played, there was no time for complexity.
Yeah, I’m old enough to have actually downloaded this album from the iTunes, and yes, I know exactly who U2 is. Giving away an album for free can really backfire if the album in question doesn’t spur a fan to buy a physical copy. I may drop the cash because Songs of Innocence is better than No Line on the Horizon. Unfortunately, it’s as forgettable as anything the band has produced since the end of the last century.
MONO, The Last Dawn, Oct. 28
MONO, Rays of Darkness, Oct. 28
I’m rather glad MONO has finally realized that their orchestral sound can only go so far, and I look forward to hearing the reportedly rawer sound. But two albums?
… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, IX, Nov. 4
What can I say? I’m a sucker for the grandeur.
Fugazi, First Demo, Nov. 11
As a latecomer to Fugazi, the news of a release of music I’ve so far not yet encountered is pretty much equivalent to saying it’s a new album.
And these releases just hit retail:
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean
Part of me was really tempted to catch the premiere of this work by the Seattle Symphony, but I’m not as familiar with John Luther as I am with John Coolidge. NPR First Listen previewed the album, and skeptic though I may be of accolades — including a Pulitzer — this one was well deserved.
yMusic, Balance Problems
I think my fascination with New Amsterdam Records has cooled off a bit, but the label still grabs my attention from time to time. This collection includes pieces by Nico Muhly, Timo Andres and Sufjan Stevens. What? No Bryce Dessner or Richard Reed Parry?
eMusic announced it would return its focus on independent music, thus taking major label content out of its catalog. WEA-distributed labels have already been taken down. Universal and Sony albums are still listed on the site, but no time table has been given on when those titles will disappear.
The decision to offer major label content back in 2009 sparked a lot of controversy among eMusic users, and it even resulted in a number of labels such as Merge and Beggars Group leaving the service.
I was most interested in the WEA catalog since a lot of the artists I like are signed to WEA labels. WEA was one of the last to sign on with eMusic, and now, they’re the first to go.
I had been saving this month’s quota to use on Sept. 30, when Nonesuch is scheduled to release new albums by Steve Reich and Nico Muhly. Well, that plan is shot to hell.
I signed up with the service in 2006, when iTunes still locked its files with DRM and Amazon was months away from launching its own music download store. I used eMusic as a way to preview albums before I made any decision to buy a physical copy.
The tenor of the site changed drastically when it started offering major label artists. The accounting system changed from credits per download to dollar amounts per album. Slowly, I found myself getting less for the same price I’d been paying.
In the past, I could download 50 files per month. Now, my subscription can net me half that number.
I realized a few months ago that eMusic had become a Columbia House for digital downloads. My subscription was just enough to get me an album or two every month.
But I’m a budget-conscious listener, and eMusic had consistently undercut iTunes and the Amazon MP3 Store on catalog titles. The only thing cheaper would be to buy a used CD. In some cases, even new CDs were cheaper than eMusic. Those bargains are now on their way out.
I plan on keeping my subscription because I’m still part of eMusic’s target audience — indie music fans. But the download market is declining, and this pivot may not come in time to rescue eMusic.