Monthly Archives: October 2011

#372 Silver Tongues – Ketchup

Black Kite is by no means a perfect album, but this debut from Silver Tongues shows skyward ambition, opening with a prayerful exhortation and closing with an angelic vision. In between, the effervescent vocals of David Cronin echoes through the songs, sometimes with the church hall ambience of a Fleet Foxes hymn, and at other times booming with the polished bombast of My Morning Jacket. It’s very much still a work in progress, with the band searching for its identity through the album, prompting the listener to look out for and witness the moments where they do find their voice. One such glimpse is offered on “Ketchup” – their most focused and intense but somewhat shortlived effort which perhaps because it ends so abruptly hints at greater things to come, be it through highways from above or stories told on shining, silver tongues. - Dan.

mp3: Silver Tongues – Ketchup

Black Kite is out now on Karate Body Records.

#371 Shabazz Palaces – Recollections of the Wraith

Clear some space out, so we can space out. Shabazz PalacesBlack Up, an album big on ideas and rich in detail, finds its sweet spot when the space is cleared and all that’s left behind is the barest and most essential of ingredients. Ishmael Butler’s crisp no-nonsense rapping takes its rightful place at the forefront, finding an almost hypnoptic rhythm buoyed only by a neatly sampled vintage chorus of meandering oohs. Meanwhile, Tendai Maraire’s agreeable beats flit comfortably between the two while giving generous room for stretching out. On paper at least, this may seem almost too formulaic, but the track cruises with such dogged style (“take a chance cos you know we got to dazzle“) and packs such a punch (“I’m dressing like I was at the Ali-Frazier fight“) that you’d forgive its uncharacteristic structuredness. - Dan.

mp3: Shabazz Palaces – Recollections of the Wraith

Black Up is released, also uncharacteristically, on Sub Pop.

#370 Megafaun – These Words

Listening to Megafaun reminds me of that magical feeling of hearing Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for the very first time, of marveling at its perfect balance of country-folk balladry and pop experimentation. While Wilco has since, for better or worse, moved towards solidifying their monolithic sound, Megafaun has in their recent eponymous album resisted the boundaries of genre in producing what must be the most playfully rewarding release of the year. “These Words” opens with half a minute of guesswork, with its storyline coming together in a dizzying whole through the course of the track. The band’s determination to experiment always nearly backfires if not for an assured commitment to their musical roots, which makes for a surprisingly grounded affair. These guys know what they’re doing, and boy do they do it well. - Dan.

mp3: Megafaun – These Words

Megafaun is out now on Hometapes.

Music Alliance Pact – October 2011 Issue

SINGAPORE: I’m Waking Up To…
EtcBig Girl’s Blouse
Etc is truly one of Singapore’s best-kept secrets. There are no fancy fashions or trends associated with the duo of Ben Harrison and Harvey Chamberlain, just well-written guitar-rock to a steady beat. Harrison’s jangle-raggedy guitar work is exciting and tasteful enough to balance perfectly atop Chamberlain’s near-primal approach to the beat, yet also easy enough for that slacker sway. They have an album in the works, but we’ll make do with their generous online singles in the meantime. – Brian.

To download all 35 songs in one file click here. MAP is published on the 15th of every month, featuring a showcase of music handpicked by bloggers from all over the world.

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Remembering R.E.M. – All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)

This is a hazy moment in my life. I can’t see clearly, the air stinks like Pulau Bukom and Kalimantan burning together, and I can’t locate the hotspots giving off all this smoke, let alone put them out. And then R.E.M. disbands. I go through their discography in this haze, music that I knew pre-haze, and continue to learn about. A darker, edgier fan favourite (“Star Me Kitten”? Or “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us”?) accompanied me as I brooded, but somehow this complacently shiny happy ditty shone through into my consciousness. It reminded me of how I used to be wide-eyed, earnest (“kick me” fastened on your sleeve) and carefree, how I would have gone the full distance to Reno on a whim.

Michael Moore shot the music video for this song in a Brooklyn high school, recalling the band’s halcyon days as they made a name for themselves on the college radio scene. The scenes of Buck, Mills and Stipe frolicking in a sea of earnest and excited young faces without a care in the world, lifted the gloom over me and made me feel hopeful. Surely I could be in that crowd too, breaking the rules, singing along to the ringing guitars and rallying chorus because I know what I’m gonna be. Struggle, self-doubt, ennui, the inevitable break-up of a great band – all part of this life’s rich pageant, and I must go through it writing my own directions and whistling the winds of change. - Eugene.

mp3: R.E.M. – All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)

This marks the end of our R.E.M. special. It’s been great fun!

Remembering R.E.M. – Leave

My affair with R.E.M. started when I was voraciously reading through interviews with Radiohead. Time and again, Michael Stipe’s name kept popping up and Thom Yorke would describe how he and Stipe were good friends. At the time, I decided that it wouldn’t be too bad to have an American version of Radiohead, and decided in 1998 to buy my first R.E.M. album that didn’t contain “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”.

I settled for New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), which was their latest album then. What greeted me was a sprawling mess of an album that almost didn’t seem to have any cohesiveness at all. It sounded like a band that didn’t know if it wanted to be experimental (“How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us”), or if it was going to be grungy alternative (“Wake Up Bomb”) or acoustic based (“New Test Leper”). Overall, I was a little unnerved by the whole experience, and ultimately, I was also coming to grips with my first time listening to an R.E.M. album in its entirety.

Looking back, I think it’s safe to say that this was a very transitional album, and was perhaps a milestone in chronicling the band’s sound up to that point. The question then was probably how they would take it further, or if they would simply keep doing what gave them the commercial success of Monster. As a young listener, I would constantly play the album on my stereo, trying to work out why there was something dissonant about it, a hidden layer of distress or signs of fatigue. I still knew nothing about the band in 1998, and I can’t even say that the album shaped my songwriting in any way.

However, there’s always something nostalgic about R.E.M. when I think about them today. I did go on to buy two more albums, Up (1998) and Reveal (2001), but I suppose their star was already fading then. Despite the shadow of these modern times, I sometimes find myself returning to New Adventures in Hi-Fi, listening again, trying to figure out the one album that never truly sat well with me. For once, as I’m writing this today, I think I know why – it’s rather bleak and melancholic. In fact, perhaps the saddest thing about it is that it sounds so tired. I think it’s in there somewhere, in the frequencies we can’t hear, the disquiet if you will, that reveals the strain of writing and recording the album.

“Leave” captures this perfectly, from the way the extended introduction starts and segues into a daring wah-wah riff that goes on for the entire song, to the faux ending that extends to one more cycle of the chorus, as if all they wanted to do was play that one chord they found explained everything they wanted to express, fade to black and just “leave it all behind”.

And so that’s R.E.M. for me. A rather nondescript band that was just able to empty out the bottom of their hearts even to the point of exhaustion and evoke some queer emotion in the unimpressed listener. Though it may not be for everyone, they’ve given everything they had to give and that is the triumph of the band’s 31 year career. - Brian.

mp3: R.E.M. – Leave

Remembering R.E.M. – Let Me In

My first introduction to R.E.M. was their 1994 album Monster. I had probably heard “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” enough times on the radio to finally decide – a few years later – to spend that twenty bucks at Tower Records for my own copy of the album. It was a limited edition gold CD (which was all the rage back then) commemorating the band’s tour of the region that generously included a Singapore leg. I can’t quite remember my first impressions of that album, but I followed up whatever interest garnered the years after by slowly trawling through their back catalogue.

Perhaps that was when I became more and more convinced that Monster really wasn’t the place to start listening to R.E.M. It just seemed so jarring and sinisterly out of place with everything else they had produced. I found myself falling in love instead with its immediate predecessor Automatic for the People (1992). It was (and still is) a gorgeous album, from the evocative ebb and flow of opening song “Drive” to the beautiful couplet that closed it, “Nightswimming” and “Find a River”. It seemed so much more sensitive and I suppose, earnest, even with all its lush embellishments.

It was only this year that I finally got round to listening to their first two albums Murmur (1983) and Reckoning (1984). Unlike some of their later material (like “Shiny Happy People”) which sound like a product of their time, these early efforts don’t seem dated at all even after a generation past. “Radio Free Europe”, the band’s first single, is still arguably its best: punchy and melodic, anticipating their career-long development of intricately crafted jangle-pop strung together by Stipe’s trademark enigmatic lyricism.

All they had built up through the years seem abandoned when we come to Monster, which plays like an anti-R.E.M. record. The upbeat pop that heralded the Warner years (“Me in Honey”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and, well, of course “Pop Song 89″) gave way to murky shades of cynicism (“King of Comedy”) and sleaze (“Crush with Eyeliner”). The delicate balladry of “Strange Currencies” and “Tongue” in the middle of the album prove to be but a brief respite before the ensuing feedback-laden onslaught that culminates in the darkly obsessive “You”.

Much has been made of this aberration in R.E.M.’s oeuvre, particularly Stipe’s adoption of various pathological characters in his songs. Most memorable is “I Took Your Name”, a song that lives out in first person a fanatical character thief’s chilling psyche. Beneath these layers of impersonation, however, lies a concern with authenticity: the tension between real and fake in “Crush with Eyeliner”, the yearning to “make it real” in “Strange Currencies”, and that crushing revelation in “Circus Envy”: “If I were you I’d really run from me“.

The only time Stipe lets down his guard to deal with his own personal realities is “Let Me In”, the song written to Kurt Cobain after his death, reliving his futile efforts to reach into the Nirvana frontman’s life. In the midst of the other monsters in the album, this track makes for the most painful listening as it’s Stipe’s voice you actually hear, not his development of someone else’s character. For me, realising this makes relistening to Monster after all these years not so much a exercise in nostalgia as I had originally expected, but one of the most harrowing experiences in watching fiction blend cruelly into the coldest of realities. To say goodbye? Nice try. - Dan.

mp3: R.E.M. – Let Me In

Remembering R.E.M. – Country Feedback

Out of Time (1991) sees R.E.M. at a point of reinvention. Their previous album Green (1988), their first on major label Warner Bros., featured relatively straightforward tunes and a consistent if conservative sound palette. On Out of Time, they incorporate baroque instrumentation, guest vocalists (including rapper KRS-One), spoken-word poetry (“Belong”), and Mike Mills even plays some slap bass on the funky opener “Radio Song”. A patchwork of genres and moods, the album arguably features R.E.M.’s most diverse collection of songs. With the band stretching out so far, and half the album being upbeat songs, it’s hard to imagine “Country Feedback” standing out with its understated, drowsy melancholia.

The title spells out plainly what the song sounds like – a duet and duel between Country-style slide guitar and electric guitar feedback; two instruments co-dependent on but fighting against each other, like the two protagonists in the lyrics. Michael Stipe has seldom been straightforward in his lyrics, and “Country Feedback” is no exception, but here he balances so expertly the cryptic and the confessional: “these clothes don’t fit us right, and I’m to blame.” The song sounds like a letter of hurt and regret, with Stipe delivering an extraordinary vocal performance via his stream-of-consciousness lyrics, repeating phrases with both dread (“you wear me out, you wear me out”) and desperation (“I need this, I need this”).

Bassist Mike Mills plays the organ here, padding the song with a funereal mood, while drummer Bill Berry takes over on bass, his rudimentary playing forging a solemn pace. With the rhythm section playing instruments outside their comfort zones, Peter Buck commands the show with his quivering, tremolo-ed guitar. I can’t remember him ever playing guitar like this, with a lead line throughout the entire song, snaking through the shaker and bells, feedback wafting through the air of regret.

While on tour, Stipe had introduced the song in various concerts as his ‘favorite’, and “Country Feedback” is truly engaging to hear in its live renditions. On various YouTube videos, it’s fascinating to see how Buck varies his solos at the end of “Country Feedback”, with every palm-mute, note bend, and vibrato swoop lending drama and poetry to the song. - Song-Ming.

mp3: R.E.M. – Country Feedback

Remembering R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)

This week, we pay tribute to R.E.M. by selecting tracks where we felt they were at their most beautiful.

And so the announcement came late last month that R.E.M. have officially called it quits, after 31 largely successful years and an expansive back catalogue of 15 studio albums. I must say that the news felt a bit like a twitchy wake-up bomb to some of us longtime fans, filling us with as much sadness and gratitude as bittersweet feelings, especially for those among us who honestly weren’t paying much attention to their music for quite some time now. The last R.E.M. record I actually bought was Reveal (a fine and rather underrated pop album released in 2001), and I’d readily admit that most of the songs on their final three albums felt more extraneous than they should. Perhaps we all took for granted that R.E.M. would always stick around to truffle out a catchy tune or two.
Like many second-generation fans, I only started listening to R.E.M. when they hit their commercial prime during the early nineties — my gateway to a long brewing R.E.M. obsession was 1992’s Automatic For the People, which remains one of my favorite records of all time — but was curious (and obsessive) enough to continue working my way back through the music they made in their fabled formative years. There is this air of perpetual mystery attached to the first five I.R.S. records, a certain mercurial quality that has always held a special appeal to me. Those early R.E.M. songs may not have the same commercial sheen and modern rock accessibility as later efforts, but such is the atmospheric wonder and sheer originality of albums such as Murmur (1983) and Reckoning (1984) that they still sound unique even today.
For no obvious reason, Reckoning is probably the one R.E.M. record that I have listened to more often than the others through the years. It’s worth noting that there was some sort of an unspoken affinity between the seminal jangle-rock sound that R.E.M. pioneered and the alternative rock scene that The Smiths was headlining across the pond — Peter Buck has alluded in interviews that he and Johnny Marr were probably listening to the same records. I have always felt that Reckoning was the album where the sense of purpose R.E.M. shared with The Smiths was most pronounced — both Reckoning and The Smiths’ equally influential self-titled debut were released in 1984, a year of living dangerously if your musical ambition is to reinvent what a contemporary rock band ought to sound like and yet be comfortably out of step with the times.
By Reckoning, the R.E.M. members have somewhat loosened up and shed some of the taciturn demeanor they affected like a statement of intent on their debut masterpiece Murmur — the musicianship sounded more assertive, the song arrangements more fleshed out, and Michael Stipe mumbling not as much as before. The subterranean sadness of “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” is R.E.M. at their evocative best, Stipe recounting a rather desperate episode of homesickness while the ringing and yet understated instrumentation adds to the mood of pensiveness and disconnection. These ten songs make a pretty persuasive argument for Reckoning to be the band’s most consistent and distinctively nuanced album, a pivotal second album that served notice of their early promise — they were only starting to warm up. - Keith.

mp3: R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)

#369 The Kinks – Sitting by the Riverside

A late afternoon conversation led us to the Kinks, which was a good enough excuse to relisten my beloved Village Green Preservation Society album. I remember buying a copy after reading a Kinks feature in BigO, which championed the band’s pioneering move in recording a concept album in the 1960s around their obsessive pining for the old English countryside. It was refreshing listening to the album again after all this while (itself a nostalgic exercise), and of course picking out new favorite moments (previously, the cheeky opening note on “Picture Book” or that infectious backing chorus on “Starstruck”). This time round, it was the charming “Sitting by the Riverside”. I had always loved its idyllic character, but today I was really taken by its spiralling detours which hijacked the song at all the right moments but also knew when to let go to restore some semblances of normalcy to an otherwise schizophrenic existence. Lovely. - Dan.

mp3: The Kinks – Sitting By The Riverside