It is important to admit one’s mistakes. So I’ll start off with Roxy Music’s Avalon. I got lucky with Roxy albums two, four and five. Avalon unfortunately was eight, and eight, as they say, is often too late. MOR, AOR and EOR (elevator-oriented rock) all rolled into one, it was a horrible way to spend 300 bucks.
On the other hand, I did get hold of REM, Live at the Olympia. The story – already semi-legend in REM fan circles – goes something like this. Sometime after releasing Around the Sun, their worst album till date, REM decided that they needed to work themselves back into relevance. They devised an ingenious high-wire solution. Instead of going the traditional way and performing the new songs on stage once they have been worked over and perfected, why not perform them in their rudimentary stages and see if they click? The result was a serious of shows – which REM insists repeatedly from the stage, are not shows at all – which alternates songs dating as far back as their earliest demos to the jagged tunes that would go on to comprise the majority of their 2008 return-to-form Accelerate. For those who have heard that album, and wondered how they got there from Around the Sun, Live at the Olympia will play like a missing link.
The setlist is carefully chosen, many of the 39 songs being plucked from their IRS catalogue. There seems to be a very deliberate attempt to get back to their roots – they perform nearly all of their debut EP, Chronic Town – and to redefine them. There’s an urgency in the air which is invigorating, and familiar to long-time fans. REM is capable of sublime delicacy on their records, but their stage act has always been charged with the energy of punk. Michael Stipe misses a few notes here and there but is still a driving, and playfully compelling frontman. Mike Mills’ backing vocals are upfront (at least as much as backing vocals can be) after a decade of neglect. And Peter Buck…well, one can only hope he gets his due someday. Like Kipling’s ideal man, he meets with folkie strum and powerchord riff, and treats those two impostors just the same. It’s also a rare opportunity to see an album take shape in front of one’s eyes. For instance, ‘Supernatural Superserious’ has little of the impact that made it the lead single on Accelerate – it's simply called ‘Disguise’ here and sorely lacks that mighty opening riff. You can tell from the band’s performance that they know it needs work. It’s one of the few weak spots in a remarkably charged up testament to REM’s song-writing and performing capabilities, and, let’s face it, their unprecedented act of bravery after 20 years in the musical arena.
Have been hearing a good deal of Wilco lately. Heard Wilco, the album, released last year, which tuned out to be a lot better than the temperate reviews it received suggested. Also heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, their celebrated 2002 effort. I’ll say this – it left me somewhat cold to begin with, but it definitely improves upon subsequent hearings. I would still question the critical hosannas which followed its release (and continue till the day) but that feeling could wear off with time. If you’re a fan, you should also try and get hold of a documentary shot during the making of YHF. It’s called ‘I am trying to break your heart’ and documents the troubled times which led to their being forced to leave their record label, Reprise, upon completion of the album, and also lays bare the friction between soon-to-be-fired Jay Bennett and the rest of the band.
It’s been an interesting month for singles (of the musical variety). I stumbled upon ‘Maki Madni’ at work – it’s a collaboration between the Derek Trucks Band and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and it’s quite brilliant. As is ‘Stillness is the move’ by the Dirty Projectors, a kind of R&B-art rock fusion that is very weird and very cool. ‘Losing my edge’ is dance-rock courtesy LCD Soundsystem; I don’t have much time for this sub-genre, but this one was so funny I kept playing it again and again just to hear the tone of the guy’s voice. Animal Collective’s ‘My girls’ was most critics’ choice for track of 2009; it’s a shimmering, glittering thing, decked up in electronica and complex harmonies, recalling the Beach Boys at their sunniest.
I go now. I make fire. I bring meat. You cook. Wait. Me feminist. Me cook. You do dishes.
In my car stereo: Beatles, Live at the BBC
In my CD drive: Tom Waits, Swordfishtrombones
In my head: Lady Gaga, ‘Poker face’ (damn…)