December 8, 2012

Happy Hanukkah, Mom

Filed under: Music,Real Life — DB @ 2:07 pm
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We interrupt this blog’s normal programming of nerdy pop culture coverage to wish a Happy Hanukkah to any readers who will be lighting the first candle on the menorah tonight. Specifically, I’m addressing this post to my mother, who laments daily that I’m disconnected from my Jewish roots. True, I am known in some circles as The Fallen Jew. True, I may have been the one to start calling myself that. True, my non-Jewish friend who happens to be a pre-school teacher at the San Francisco JCC probably knows more about Jewish culture and religion at this point than I do. But if it makes you feel any better Mom, I have problems with all religion, not just the one you raised me in. So take some comfort in that. Or not.

Anyway, to show you that “Jewish things” do still seep through occasionally, I’m posting this video that I think you’ll enjoy. It’s a song called “Candlelight,” a recounting of the Hanukkah story performed by The Maccabeats, a Jewish a cappella group formed in 2007 at Yeshiva University in New York.

This was sent to me a few years ago by a friend, and I admit that my feelings were – and still are – slightly mixed. Part of me kinda wants to punch them all; I’m not sure why. But part of me admits the song parody is pretty clever and that it’s maddeningly catchy. And it’s not like we Jews have a lot of songs in our holiday arsenal, so we gotta embrace what we’re given. As to the catchiness, The Maccabeats can’t take credit. “Candlelight” is based on the song “Dynamite,” a 2010 dance/club/pop/electronic ditty by Taio Cruz. The video takes its cue from another source as well, inspired by a version of “Dynamite” performed by Mike Tompkins. (Mom, those words are red because they’re “hyperlinks.” If you click on them, they will open a new window on your computer and you’ll be able to see the source material. And by “new window” I mean…look, you’ll figure it out. You’ve nearly mastered the DVR. I have faith in you.)

I’m sure you’ll watch this video and wish that I spent time with a group of nice Jewish boys like this, who would be a good influence on me and introduce me to Jewish girls and maybe even convince me to give gefilte fish a chance. Sorry to disappoint you. You’ll have to settle for the fact that I will be lighting the menorah over the next week, and I’m even going to a Hanukkah party tonight. Candles will be lit, a prayer will be spoken, dreidels will be spun, potato latkes will be consumed (and possibly flipped in the air) and you can be at peace knowing that for at least a few hours, I will be the Jewish son you always hoped I’d be…the fact that I’m not a doctor notwithstanding.

So Happy Hanukkah, Mom (and Dad), and all the other members of the tribe out there. And for anyone who feels that The Maccabeats just aren’t your thing, here’s another Hanukkah song that might be up your alley.

* For the record, my mother never put pressure on me to become a doctor. I can’t say the same about meeting a nice Jewish girl.

**For you non-Jewish readers who don’t know from gefilte fish, it’s a disgusting staple of the Passover seder consisting of fish such as carp, whitefish or pike, mashed up into a tight wad and served out of a jar full of translucent jellyslime.

October 21, 2012

Music to Tease By

Showtime’s series Homeland returned for its highly anticipated second season a few weeks ago, freshly anointed with six Emmys including a fully expected and fully deserved Best Actress win for Claire Danes, a more surprising but also worthy Best Actor win for Damien Lewis, and the top prize for Best Drama Series, thwarting Mad Men‘s hopes for a five-peat. The season has kicked off with no loss of quality, and I’m confident it will progress just as thrillingly as last year’s.

None of which matters, because this post isn’t about Homeland.

It’s about the trailer for Homeland.

Sort of.

And before I can explain that, I need to jump back two years. So…bear with me here.

One of 2010’s best movies (many people would say 2010’s single best movie; it was #2 for me) was The Social Network. Not only is it a fantastic movie, it was backed by a fantastic marketing campaign with a standout trailer featuring a haunting cover version of the early Radiohead hit, “Creep.”

The musical assemblage of angels and demons responsible for that version of the song is Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgium-based group consisting of siblings Steven and Stijn Kolacny and a choir of 30-40 women ranging in age from 16-26. As detailed on their website, the brothers formed the choir back in 1996 and soon built up a following in Belgium performing  traditional classical music by the likes of Beethoven. It’s fitting that their version of “Creep” is what launched them to international fame, since the song was also what prompted Steven to consider adapting pop and rock songs in the first place. After what may have been a shaky start with this new, unconventional direction, the band’s vision quickly earned them a following around Europe, and additional fans across oceans, including Social Network director David Fincher. The prominent use of “Creep” in his film’s trailer led to a whole new level of curiosity about Scala & Kolacny Brothers. Their popularity expanded, and soon their music was being sought by other directors and producers. The BBC’s trailer for Season Two of Downton Abbey used their cover of U2’s “With or Without You”…

…and to bring it back to the beginning of the post, their version of The Police hit “Every Breath You Take” was used in the Season Two trailer for Homeland this summer. (Those who have yet to start on this show, don’t worry – nothing you see here will spoil things for you.)

While doing some research for this post, I learned that Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ “Every Breath You Take” was also used in the BBC’s trailer for the first season of Downton Abbey, which aired a few months after The Social Network trailer hit. A look at these makes it easy to understand why their music is so desirable. I don’t know about you, but I get chills up and down my spine at the marriage of their recordings and the compelling imagery and dialogue teasing us with the promise of what we hope will be great movies and series.

And that is, after all, the job of a good trailer: to tease viewers and create in them a desire to experience the full course meal. It’s not easy. How many times have you seen a trailer that gave away too much of the movie? It’s a frequent and valid complaint that trailers too often spell out exactly what will happen or at least spoil key plot developments. Still, they have always been one of my favorite part of the moviegoing experience, and when I think about some of my favorite movie trailers ever – and yes, I’m the kind of person who has favorite movie trailers, which probably tells you a lot about me – it is almost always the music that cements their status. Music may be the most vital ingredient of a great trailer. Consider Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Those aren’t words I say very often, as I tend to feel that the less time spent considering Michael Bay’s work, the better off we all are. But I have to admit, I love the Pearl Harbor trailer.

That movie looks fucking awesome!! Unfortunately, it turned out that there’s more heart, emotion, power and filmmaking skill on display in that nearly three-minute trailer than there is in the entirety of the actual three-hour movie. And it’s all about the music. Don’t believe me? Here’s the exact same cut of the trailer, scored differently.

Oh, the music swells and it tries to stir, but it just doesn’t get there. Certainly not when compared to the first version, which is so compellingly tied together by an exceptional piece of music called “Journey to the Line,” from composer Hans Zimmer’s Oscar nominated score for The Thin Red Line. An issue over the rights meant that “Journey to the Line” couldn’t be featured in the trailer that appears on the Pearl Harbor DVD, hence the alternate – and vastly inferior – version.

It’s common for music from one movie to be used in a trailer for another movie. You’re not going to hear something famous and instantly identifiable like Star Wars, James Bond or The Pink Panther used to promote a movie outside of those franchises, but anything else is fair game, and there are some tracks that have been used over and over again. You may never have heard of a 1989 movie called Come See the Paradise, starring Dennis Quaid, but if you attended even one movie in the 90’s, you probably saw a trailer featuring a piece of music from its soundtrack by Randy Edelman, titled “Fire in a Brooklyn Theater.” Here it is, put to great use for A Few Good Men.

Did that ring any bells? According to Soundtrack.Net (an indispensable resource for all things soundtrack-related, and the place to go if you ever hear music in a trailer and want to know where it came from), music from Come See the Paradise was used in 27 theatrical or TV trailers (for 24 films) between 1990 and 2003, including Clear and Present Danger, The Chamber and Rob Roy (all 27 may not have used “Fire in a Brooklyn Theater” specifically, though I’d guess most did).

Among the other soundtrack cuts that have been used most frequently in trailers are James Horner’s “Bishop’s Countdown” from Aliens, Wojciech Kilar’s “Vampire Hunters” from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and David Arnold’s score to Stargate; I can’t pin down exactly which track(s), though Independence Day is among the trailers to feature it.

Sometimes a trailer will utilize an alternate version of a different movie’s music, as when Clint Mansell’s score from Requiem for a Dream was reinterpreted for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trailer. The preview begins with music from the series itself, but around the 1:38 mark, the Requiem variation kicks in, to magnificent effect.

This is actually my favorite version of the Requiem theme, though I do love the original pieces as composed by Mansell. The theme recurs throughout the movie, in various forms, through cuts on the soundtrack such as “Summer Overture,” “Hope Overture,” and the title under which the piece is most frequently identified, “Lux Aeterna.” It was rearranged and performed anew specifically for use in The Two Towers trailer, becoming so popular and inciting such demand from fans that it was eventually released commercially under the name “Requiem for a Tower” …a fact I was unaware of until writing this post. I’ve always wanted to get my hands on it, and I’m pleased to say it now lives in my iTunes library…and if you’re a fellow film score geek/film geek/generic geek, it can reside in yours to, courtesy of iTunes or Amazon. (Oddly, the initial release of “Requiem for a Tower” was done in three, less-than-a-minute movements on an album alongside original music by the composers who revamped it. The continuous piece of music, as it appears in the trailer, became available later.)

The trailer for the next movie in the franchise, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, went a step further, raiding its own music by concluding with a stirring version of the film’s Gondor theme that was never actually featured in the movie. After using some different selections from The Two Towers, the trailer introduces a melding of composer Howard Shore’s Gondor theme with an original piece commissioned just for this, written by Simone Benyacar (who had a hand in “Requiem for a Tower”) and Craig Stuart Garfinkle. Yup…Simone and Garfinkle.

Simone and Garfinkle’s piece, titled “Epicalypse,” can be heard here, sans Shore’s Gondor theme, while the trailer excerpt can be heard in isolation here. It’s not clear to me whether this piece is available commercially, though one ray of hope for us geeks is a rarities CD from the Lord of the Rings recording sessions, which accompanies the book The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films by Doug Adams. The CD track list includes a piece called “The Return of the King Trailer.” Hopefully that means this piece.

Trailers are usually produced so far in advance of a movie’s release date, that the movie’s own score is not recorded yet, and may not even be written. Rare is the trailer that features music written for the movie it’s advertising. But one exception was the first teaser for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. For a world besieged in Harry Potter mania, the first glimpse of the first movie adaptation was massively anticipated, and I remember watching the trailer upon its release and thinking afterward, “What is that music from?!?” I was surprised when I learned that it was actually the movie’s theme. John Williams had done it again. I can’t even tell you how many times I watched that teaser online over the next few weeks, but I know that it soon became less about my excitement for the movie and more about just hearing that music again.

Of course, there’s no rule that trailers have to use music from other movies. There are companies that produce original music specifically to be licensed out for use in movie trailers, one of the most well-known within Hollywood being Immediate Music. Their work has been used in countless trailers over the last 20 years, with two tracks in particular – “Redrum” and “Code Red” – ranking with “Fire in a Brooklyn Theater” as among the most popular for trailer use.

Established classical music has proven great trailer accompaniment as well. Another of the most oft used pieces of music in trailers has been “O Fortuna,” composed by Carl Orff as part of his Carmina Burana cantata. The instantly recognizable composition has been used in such trailers as Glory, Cliffhanger and…

One early 90’s trailer that stood out for me at the time was the Stephen King adaptation Needful Things, and what made it pop was a piece of classical music I hadn’t encountered before that I came to love: Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from his Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46.

Nothing special as a trailer, and I’ve still never seen the movie, but I couldn’t get enough of that music.

Lest we think effective trailers rely on instrumental music, or choral pieces like the work from Scala & Kolacny Brothers, rock and pop songs can make an equally strong impact. The trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Casino has always lingered in my mind, for its use of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” The trailer tries to convey Casino‘s rise-and-fall structure, with “Gimme Shelter” accompanying “the fall.”

The song is a Scorsese signature, having been featured in GoodFellas, The Departed and Casino itself. He described it in Entertainment Weekly at the time of The Departed‘s release as “dangerous,” saying that when you hear that song, “you know something’s going to happen.” The Casino trailer definitely sells that, especially in the great shot with the camera gliding across Joe Pesci’s menacing face, full-frame. You really can’t go wrong with “Gimme Shelter.” It’s currently featured in the trailer for the Denzel Washington drama Flight, and its use there, combined with how the trailer is edited to cast mystery around the events of the story, makes for another solid coming attraction. Note that just as in the Casino trailer, the song kicks in after a more lighthearted opening. Danger indeed, Marty.

Another favorite trailer of mine is for 2002’s Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaboration, Adaptation. It employs Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” which is an upbeat pop song befitting a comedy such as this. But the trailer also hints at the movie’s sadder themes, and to my surprise, the song seemed to fit those just as snugly, forever changing how I hear it. Now I always think of this trailer when it comes on, and its generally buoyant sound is tinged with a sense of longing and regret.

But that’s probably just me.

I’m not alone, however, in proclaiming that last year’s best trailer was for David Fincher’s follow-up to The Social Network. The dynamic teaser for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo consisted of a pulsing, dialogue-free montage cut to Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” It set the tone brilliantly.

There’s really only two words to say after watching that: Fuck. Me.

What the pieces in all these trailers have in common is not only that they’re melodic and memorable or just great songs, but that they contribute so effectively to the sensation the trailer attempts to present. When matched well, music is often a trailer’s best tool for creating mood, suggesting suspense, getting your blood pumping or tugging the heartstrings. The performances by Scala & Kolacny Brothers are ideal for having that effect. The combination of vocals and instrumentation are haunting and powerful on their own, and when laid over images of characters crying, howling in pain or anger, running across a battlefield amid explosions or seeking a connection across cyberspace, they can take on entirely new depth or be seen in a different light. Last year, NPR ran a piece about the making of movie trailers, illustrating that trailer and TV commercial production is most definitely its own industry within the movie industry. And while hearing trailer producers refer to their work as an art form may make you snicker, every now and then a trailer like The Social Network or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes along and shows that even these two-minute advertisements can indeed be artistic achievements in their own way. And in almost every case, the music is essential in the difference between a great trailer and an average one.

Then again, a little self-awareness can be all it takes to do the job well.

June 18, 2012

Bringing Out the Dead

Filed under: Music,Real Life — DB @ 4:27 pm

Maybe because fear and anxiety about death are so hard-wired into the human brain, we find ourselves fascinated by the concept of life after death. If so, it might explain our culture’s obsession with vampires and zombies (not that the latter really constitutes life after death, but that’s irrelevant for now). The last several years have found us particularly attached to these creatures. True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight (books and films) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (book and imminent film) have sucked in scores of enthusiasts, while Zombieland, Left 4 Dead, The Walking Dead (comics and TV show) and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies have frenetically dashed or raggedly ambled their way into our hearts…and intestines. These movies, TV shows, video games and books that I mention barely scratch the surface of the surface of the offerings available to sate our cravings for bloodsuckers and brain-munchers.

Lately though, things seem to be taking a turn for the bizarre. Vampires remain safely confined to fiction, but a recent slate of disturbing incidents make a compelling argument that we are at the beginning of a zombie plague. In response to the rise of these occurrences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement denying the advent of a zombie apocalypse…though what they actually say is that they aren’t aware of any “virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).” Just cause they aren’t aware of it doesn’t mean it can’t be real. But for now, I’m going to accept the CDC’s declaration that these chilling acts are unrelated, and not indicative of the impending end of days.

There is, however, one upsetting example of the dead rising from the grave that has been gaining a lot of attention recently as well, and unfortunately this one is all too real. I’m talking about the holographic resurrection of deceased entertainers.

It started in April at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, when Tupac Shakur took the stage in hologram form and sang with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. You might remember Tupac from his hit songs including “Keep Ya Head Up,” “Me Against the World” and “Dear Mama,” or from films such as Poetic Justice, or from his September 1996 death after being shot in Las Vegas. Yes, the man died 16 years ago, but the world couldn’t let go. Songs and albums continued to be released years after his demise, and now the hologram has kicked things up to a new level of creepy. Dr. Dre oversaw the resurrection, which was constructed by the visual effects company Digital Domain and staged at the concert by AV Concepts. It was the first time that such an effect was accomplished without using old or repurposed footage. This was a newly created, original performance by Tupac. How his vocals were achieved remains a mystery.

It’s not like we haven’t seen forms of this before. Fred Astaire was brought back to dance with a vacuum cleaner in a Dirt Devil commercial, John Wayne was worked into an ad for Coors Beer, Natalie Cole sang a duet of “Unforgettable” with her late father Nat King Cole, and Celine Dion sang with Elvis Presley on a 2007 episode of American Idol.  But in each of these cases, previously existing footage (or recordings, in the case of Cole) was used. Tupac’s performance was brand new. And it has kicked off an alarming trend. Setting their sights higher than just projecting old footage, CORE Media Group – which owns the branding rights to Elvis – is partnering with Digital Domain to bring him back for newly created performances. Apparently they envision Elvis returning for new concerts, TV shows and movies. In addition, holographic versions of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Marilyn Monroe might be on the way, and Michael Jackson’s siblings seem to like the idea of bringing Michael back for a big tour.

Yeah, I’ll bet they do. Cause the world is clamoring to see just Tito, Jermaine and the others in concert again.

Haven’t we already seen what happens when Michael Jackson returns from the dead?

Sure, it’s all smooth moves and funky choreography until he chases you into a spooky house with all his friends and eats your innards.

We may be in the 21st century, but old-fashioned hucksterism is alive and well. The fact that these efforts amount to insensitive cash grabs are the least troubling thing about them. The responsible parties can talk all they want about bringing thrilling new experiences to audiences and how magical it will be, but the magic they’re espousing is of the dark variety, and anyone who’s played around with voodoo or horcruxes can tell you that dark magic doesn’t end well. The artists in question have no say in how their likenesses are being used, but even more crucial is that they aren’t responsible for their own performances. When Elvis, or Tupac, or Hendrix were alive and performing in concerts, they were engaging with their audiences, feeding off real energy and giving it back in return. If Presley thrust his hips, it wasn’t because a computer program told him to do it. He did it because he decided, “I’m going to thrust my hips now. And then I’m going to walk over here and bend down and sing directly to this girl in the blue T-shirt, and now I’m going to cross over to the other side of the stage and fall on my knees and sing to the rafters.” He decided to do those things in the moment, because he was feeling the song and the vibe in the room. Hendrix didn’t smash his guitar, light it on fire or play it behind his head because he was being manipulated by a puppet master. He did those things because he was Jimi fucking Hendrix and that’s what he wanted to do.

Those experiences can not be replicated. A hologram has no soul. It’s a cheat. Tupac’s Coachella stint can be viewed in isolation as “a moment,” but in the end it was just an impressive lightshow. You can’t take a gimmick and turn it into an industry. Or hey, maybe you can…Hollywood seems to be doing it with 3D. But a gimmick is a gimmick, and it doesn’t provide or replace an authentic experience. Tupac, Elvis, Hendrix, Morrison, Marilyn, Janis, Michael, Whitney…they’re dead. They all died too young, with more to contribute to their art, but they’re dead, and for any of us who loved any of them, their deaths became part of our relationship with them. The mourning and the memories became as important a part of the way we relate to them as the concert we saw them perform during their lifetime. And if we never got to see them perform, a hologram will give us no more truthful an experience than we would get from an impersonator. It will just cost a lot more money. And where does this digital-age grave robbery stop? Will performers like Astaire and Wayne be brought back to “act” in movies again? Will politicians resurrect late party champions like Reagan or Kennedy to speak at their conventions and endorse a current candidate? It’s not hard to imagine this getting quickly out of hand.

Look, I’ve got nothing against a good hologram. But let’s use them appropriately. Here are some acceptable uses for holograms:

1. Intergalactic government agent/construction worker killing his enemies

2. Imprisoned princess recording plea for help

3. Humanoid alien communicating with dead parents

4. Starship crew members escaping the rigors of space exploration and hostile encounters with Ferengi by enjoying a little R&R in simulated 19th century London

5. Actors participating in theme park rides based on their movies

6. Backup band for glam rocker Jem

7. Whatever Bill Murray wants (as long as he’s still alive and directly responsible for the usage)


Elvis, Tupac, Marilyn…the legacies of these stars have endured for years after their deaths. There is no lack of interest in their work or awareness of their lives, and that seems to be going just fine. This line doesn’t need to be crossed. Bringing someone back in hologram form and placing them into whatever venue some promoter or greedy estate manager decides is not only a shallow act of self-interest, but completely disrespectful to the artist. Death is a natural part of one’s life, and carrying the memory of the dead is a natural part of life for those left behind, whether it’s the deceased’s intimates or legions of admirers. So I’m hoping that soon enough, all his Tupac-inspired enthusiasm for rock star holograms will die down and that logic and sense will prevail.

But it probably won’t. This is show business, after all.

June 5, 2012

Earworm Attack: Little Talks

Filed under: Music — DB @ 6:52 pm

Now that the Gotye/”Somebody That I Used to Know” earworm has dislodged itself (not that I’m over the song; I’m just not humming or singing it every waking moment of the day), a new little bug has slithered inside my head and is rapidly consuming my attention. If this one hasn’t come to yours yet, then proceed at your own risk. This song will fuse with your brain. If you’ve heard it already, then you know what I’m talking about.

The song is “Little Talks”, and it comes from an Icelandic band called Of Monsters and Men. I first heard it on KFOG nearly three months ago, while driving. I immediately noted the time, so that I could pull up KFOG.com when I got home and find out where this four minutes and fifteen seconds of goodness had come from. I didn’t hear it again for a while, and even an earworm as dastardly as this one requires more than a single listening to take hold. Before too long, a friend emailed it to me. That did me in. Having a link to click on resulted in my playing it with increasing frequency. Now I am its prisoner.

When you hear the female vocalist, you may be inclined to assume that it’s Björk. Because she’s a female singer. From Iceland. But it turns out there are other female singers from Iceland, and the gal you’re listening to in this song is one of them. Her name is Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir. It’s a mouthful, so really, unless your name is Griffin Mill, no one could blame you if you just choose to call her Björk. (By the way, 100 points to the first person who can explain that obscure Griffin Mill reference, which I felt compelled to make even though it has absolutely nothing to do with this topic.)

According to the band’s tumblr, the tale goes that Hilmarsdóttir was performing as a solo acoustic act when she teamed up with some other musicians for a one-time performance, and thought she made sweet music with male singer Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson. They began collaborating as songwriters, and with the other bandmates from that first show, christened themselves Of Monsters and Men. Things took off when the sextet won a Battle of the Bands competition in Iceland and started getting radio airplay. “Little Talks” soon migrated around the world, and now their star is on the rise. Their first album, My Head is an Animal, was initially released only in Iceland, where it hit number one before going global. It arrived stateside in April and is available on Amazon and iTunes. I’ve listened to a number of other songs from the album on YouTube, and I’m liking them all quite a bit. But it’s no surprise that “Little Talks” is the breakout. This thing is infectious as hell. Seriously, I defy you to listen to it three times in a row and resist exploding into a frenzy of jumping, dancing, bouncing or a misguided attempt at all three simultaneously by the time you’ve heard the chorus for the half-dozenth time. It’s an impressive feat, because while the jubilant performance makes you want to smile and float and shoot rainbows out of your fingertips, the lyrics are actually kinda sad. What devilry these confounding Icelanders have composed!

But enough of my build-up. You be the judge…

As if the song isn’t great enough, how cool is that video? Any clip that contains a multi-eyed Bantha-Direwolf hybrid in a Technicolor dreamcoat is pretty much gonna win my admiration, but I see all kinds of influences in this eye candy. It’s part Terry Gilliam, part Henry Selick, part steampunk Muppets, part Bollywood fantasy and all trippy shit. The piece was created by We Were Monkeys, who offer details on the making of the clip on their website. I gotta say that Hilmarsdóttir’s theatrical garb in this video is not helping her I’m-Not-Björk case, so we’ll just have to see if she shows up at next year’s Grammy Awards wearing a swan dress or frock of brightly colored feathers. In the meantime, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

The bands and singers I keep hearing about at the moment are Maroon 5 (or is it Train? Totally interchangeable…), Nicki Minaj, Fun., Carly Rae Jespin…well I’ve heard their singles, and none of them can touch this one. “Little Talks” is the first debilitating earworm of 2012. Resistance is futile.

May 1, 2012

Wait…R.E.M. Broke Up?!!?

Although this blog contains archived writing going back to 2005, many of you know that it only launched a few months ago. The bulk of that older writing previously existed as e-mails sent to small groups of friends. Prior to launch, I was moving all that content over to the blog, finding pictures, video clips, and generally trying to learn my way around WordPress. As such, some things that I might have been compelled to write about passed me by. In most cases, I’ve moved on. But one topic I knew I’d have to circle back around to was the dissolution of one of my favorite bands.

I don’t know when I got into R.E.M. My first vivid memory of their existence is the video for “Losing My Religion” (from the album Out of Time), which was all over MTV when I was in eighth grade. Some of you might remember MTV as a channel that used to air music videos. I think now they just play Jersey Shore and shows about teen pregnancy, but there was a time when Music Television actually was about the music, and in the spring of 1991, this video was in heavy rotation.

Aww, would ya look at those baby-faced kids? Michael Stipe still had hair! That video was huge. It won six MTV Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year. Truthfully, I don’t remember if I got into the band at that time. I seem to remember making fun of the video with some friends, particularly the flailing-arm dance style that Stipe exhibits at a few points. But secretly, I think I thought I saw his moves as kinda cool. It was sometime after their next album – Automatic for the People – came around in 1992 that I really became a fan. The first big single off Automatic was “Everybody Hurts,” but once I dug into the album, it proved to be an amazing collection of songs from start to finish. “Try Not to Breathe,” “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” “Drive,” and the achingly beautiful, album-closing double punch of “Nightswimming” and “Find the River.” By the time they released Monster in ’94, I had dug into the back catalog and they had become my favorite active band.

Monster represented the most radical shift in their sound up to that point. There were no fuzzy pop songs like “Shiny Happy People” (from Out of Time) or “Stand” (from Green). Automatic for the People had moved in a more somber direction from those two albums, but the connective tissue was still evident. Monster, however, was a whole different sound. Jagged, distorted, rough, electric. Their follow-up – 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi – was mostly written while the band was on tour supporting Monster. The songs were recorded during sound checks on the road, and the album balanced Monster‘s grungy rock sound (on songs like “So Fast, So Numb,” “Leave” and “Bittersweet Me”) with more dreamy and/or melancholy tracks (including “New Test Leper,” “Be Mine” and “How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us”).

By this time, the band’s wider popularity had started to fall off, though they had plenty of devoted fans who stayed with them, even as their sound shifted again. After the Monster tour was over, drummer Bill Berry departed the band, probably having reassessed his priorities after collapsing on stage one night due to a brain aneurysm. He insisted that Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills move forward without him, which they did, taking the opportunity to change things up once again. Their first post-Berry album was 1998’s Up, which is when I feel like many of their fans started to fall by the wayside. I loved the album from the start. There was a texture to it that was new for them. There was something…I don’t know, I don’t have a great vocabulary for describing music, but something psychedelic about it. The whole soundscape was sort of…swirly. That’s what always came to mind when I listened to it. The music was swirly, like the soundtrack to a kaleidoscope.  That feeling continued on 2001’s Reveal, which I also loved as much as any album they’d released even though it would generally be considered inferior. Their next album – 2005’s Around the Sun – is the only one in their catalog that I could never get into. I give it a spin every now and then to see if I can catch something that I missed before, but it doesn’t do much for me….with the exception of two songs that I love: “Leaving New York” and “The Outsiders.”

Two more albums followed before the band amicably called it quits last year. The first, Accelerate, recaptured a bit of the Monster feeling, though the songs were generally shorter, leaner and angrier. (R.E.M. were always open about their liberal politics, and this album came out in early 2008, near the end of Dubya’s second term.) Though the band was considered past its prime, Accelerate still debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts and earned great reviews from music critics. Their final record, Collapse Into Now, came out in 2011, and while I like it, I haven’t been able to soak it in yet as I have with the older albums. It’s a solid effort that I’m sure I’ll come to appreciate more over time as I get more familiar with it.

I was stunned when Stipe, Buck and Mills announced last year that they were disbanding. Maybe that’s why I didn’t write about it earlier. Maybe it’s taken me until now to process the news. R.E.M. has been a major presence in my life, and although they always will be, it was a blow to learn there would be no more new music. During my moody late teens and early 20’s, Automatic for the People, New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Up were the anthems of my angst. Those albums always provided an accommodating soundtrack for whatever emotional state I was experiencing, usually running a spectrum from doleful to glum. Of course, their music works for me anytime, in any mood, and they have a lot of songs which I’ve connected with personally for one reason or another. I’ll miss the promise of new material coming along every few years. I only got to see them in concert once. Bastards!

With R.E.M. off the scene, I had an opening for Favorite Active Band. It was swiftly filled by The Decemberists, and I’d like to think that if Stipe, Mills, Buck and Berry actually took the slightest interest in my musical habits, they would feel this choice is worthy of their own legacy. In fact, Buck guested on three songs off The Decemberists’ last album, The King is Dead, including the bouncy “Calamity Song,” whose opening chords invoke “Talk About the Passion,” and which in general sounds like it could be an R.E.M. tune from the mid-to-late 80’s.

My friends over at Rumors on the Internets have a recurring series called Deep Cuts, in which they proffer some less well-known tracks by popular bands. They dove into the R.E.M. pool in 2010 with a great list (supported by a nice write-up) covering the first half of the band’s career.  I thought I would take a page from their book and, as a way of paying tribute and belatedly bidding  farewell to a band that has meant more to me than most, offer up some of my favorite tracks from the second half of their repertoire. The ROTI team weren’t as enamored with this period of R.E.M.’s run, but as I said earlier, I thought they continued to do great work well into the aughts. The ROTI list goes as far as Monster, so we’ll overlap a bit while I start there and move forward into New Adventures and then the post-Berry era. I don’t know if these would be considered deep cuts, but I wouldn’t say they were big radio hits or got the kind of exposure garnered by the band’s best known songs.

Like I said earlier, I have no vocabulary for talking about this topic. I’m terrible at trying to describe music, so my comments below are extremely brief attempts to get at something about the songs that has made them favorites of mine. I’ve embedded YouTube clips, but for anyone who might be interested in listening to them all, I also created playlists in both Spotify (for those who’ve downloaded it or want to) and Grooveshark (for those who just want to stream it). Scroll to the bottom for those.

So if you’ll indulge me one lame R.E.M. reference: this one goes out to the one I love, with respect and thanks.

Bang and Blame (Monster)
Probably the best known of the ten samples I’m presenting, “Bang and Blame” is marked by that great throbbing bass line that underscores the whole song – flowing in, receding, coming back. Or maybe that’s not the bass line I’m talking about. I don’t know what it is, frankly. I just know I likes it.


Be Mine (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
Stipe is in sweet love song mode here, with the lyrics taking front and center as he sings of an overwhelming affection, offering himself up as, among other things, “the sky above the Ganges.” I see this song as a companion to “You Are Everything,” from Green. If that was an expression of gratitude to someone who has been the narrator’s Everything, this is an offer to be everything.


Falls to Climb (Up)
It’s probably good that I didn’t start with this one, because I’m not sure anyone who isn’t already a fan would keep listening. It’s not the band’s most exciting song, or their most melodic, but it’s a favorite of mine.


I’ll Take the Rain (Reveal)
There’s a sadness to Stipe’s vocals here that always spoke to me, yet the swell toward the end contrasts the wistfulness with something more hopeful.


I’ve Been High (Reveal)
The second song on Reveal, a great album that deserved much more praise and attention than it received. For my money, this is one of R.E.M.’s loveliest songs ever, from Stipe’s gentle, longing vocals to the richly textured instrumentation.


Leave (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
I love this one for the sudden tone shift, among other things. It begins with a slow, stripped down introduction. Then at the 1:00 mark, it suddenly goes schizo with what sounds kinda like record scratching before the sound fills out and the lyrics kick in. There’s an interesting alternate version, which appears on the soundtrack to A Life Less Ordinary, as well as on the B-sides/rarities disc of In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003. It has a more haunting quality, and is airy where this version is heavy.


The Outsiders (Around The Sun)
Phrases like “Knocked a future shock crowbar upside my head” and “promising volcanic change of thought” always stuck with me, as did Q-Tip’s rap at the end. I don’t know who the outsiders are or why they’re gathering, but the song captures a general sense of calm foreboding that intrigues me.


So Fast, So Numb (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
There’s a hard edge to this song that I dig. Everyone in the band is playing with a tinge of aggression, though the lyrics also express some regret. I couldn’t find the album version, but this live take is solid.


Strange Currencies (Monster)
More lyrically straightforward than a lot of R.E.M.’s songs, this is just a simple and beautiful tune about someone pining for a love that will probably never come to pass. Who can’t relate to that? Well…maybe really good-looking people. The rest of us might identify.


You (Monster)
There’s a poisoned-honey drip to Stipe’s vocal here, along with a high-pitched fragility that contrasts nicely with the heavy, dank guitar work, resulting in something darkly dreamlike. (For some reason, the only video I could find is set to scenes from the Elizabeth Taylor/Montgomery Clift/Shelley Winters film A Place in the Sun.)


There were four other songs vying for inclusion in this list, but in an effort to somewhat adhere to the “deep cuts” idea, I omitted them because they appeared on one or both of the band’s official greatest hits collections featuring their later work (In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003, and Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011). But I don’t think any of them – “At My Most Beautiful,” “Electrolite,” “Leaving New York” or “New Test Leper” – are widely known beyond the fanbase, or were played on radio as much as their true biggest hits. On the one in a million chance that this post is actually reaching people who aren’t familiar with the band or never considered themselves fans but are giving them a shot, I’ve tacked these tracks onto the playlists below, along with the alternate version of “Leave.” And what the hell, I also threw in the boys’ groovy cover of Tommy James’ “Draggin’ the Line,” from the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack.

If you want to read an R.E.M. adieu from somebody who actually writes about music for a living, here’s a September 2011 piece from Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield. Or if you’d rather just listen for yourself, click here to stream the Grooveshark playlist, or run it through Spotify below.

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