Two albums each from various artists over the last three decades.
R.E.M.: Lifes Rich Pageant (I.R.S., 1986). Not content to leave his lyrics in the dominion of obscurity, Michael Stipe finally enunciates and the result is not only an album that’s covertly political (Murmur), but one that’s overtly political as well. At the same time it’s also their most popular effort. But for all the accolades “Fall on Me” earn them – and they certainly deserve it – it’s the more blunt songs like “These Days” and “The Flowers of Guatemala” that boil my juices. Their socialism is real, as is their ambition, and while this is not quite as potent as their debut, for staying power, it's right up there. A-
R.E.M.: Document (I.R.S., 1987). For the record “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” is the finest song they’ve done, but for most of this “major breakthrough” I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. Sure “The One I Love” finally puts them on the charts like I’ve always suspected they’ve yearned to be, but too much of this album gets in its own way. I’m forced to admit, I liked them better when I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say! B+
The Ponys: Laced With Romance (In the Red, 2004). I’ll admit “Let’s Kill Ourselves” is not the best way to start off an album, but if that’s your mantra then I say go for it. Jared Gummere is the most unassuming and, sadly, anemic lead singer in rock these days. But don’t let that distract you. As I recall Tom Verlaine didn’t have the best chops in his day and he did OK. The sound is reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain, only somewhat less focused. As a pet owner, I’m taken by “Little Friends,” a song about their cats who can’t seem to find the litter box. And then there’s the lead in to “Fall In,” that’s lifted directly off the classic Crystal’s song “And Then He Kissed Me” that I hope doesn’t land them in copyright jail. A-
The Ponys: Celebration Castle (In the Red, 2005). Up and comers like Jared Gummere are always overcompensating for what they think others want; it’s the nature of the biz, even for indies. So if this follow-up doesn’t sound as firm / raw as their debut don’t fret. It wasn’t supposed to. They’re pioneers forging their own road. Don’t confuse their softness with a lack of spine. At heart they’re still the same garage band you fell in love with in album one. If anything I find this aims higher, which is fine by me. A-
Ani DiFranco: Not a Pretty Girl (Righteous Babe, 1995). Skirting the line between self-indulgent brat and ideological champion - whatever the hell that means these days – DiFranco has made a career out of deprecating on every part of her body from her face to her toes. But before you pronounce her the next Janis Ian, note that at least DiFranco goes somewhere with her pity. She spews, but she channels as well. Sure it may piss you off to no end that a 24 year old should be that concerned with appearance, but DiFranco is a product of her generation, as well as its spokesperson. Show me a 20 something woman who isn’t overly preoccupied with her looks and I’ll show you Tracy Chapman. A-
Ani DiFranco: Dilate (Righteous Babe, 1996). This is what Alanis Morissette could’ve been if she had stopped whining long enough. Sure, DiFranco is no stranger to pity either, but she transcends such indulgences better than her contemporaries. Here, she is finally comfortable in her own skin. At 25 she has eight albums to her credit and damned if this isn’t the signature breakthrough her fans have been swearing every album would be since she arrived on the scene. The highlights are a seemingly never-ending “Amazing Grace” and “Untouchable Face,” which sports the most cutting “fuck you” in all of popdum. She’s vulnerable and clever, and she has integrity, something a lot of singer/songwriters like her could use. A
Belle & Sebastian: The Boy With the Arab Strap (Matador, 1998). Like Dean Wareham before him, Stuart Murdoch's obsession with the Velvet Underground has earned him high praise from critics the world round. If nothing else, Murdoch sings better than Lou Reed ever did. And Isobel Campbell certainly holds her own against Nico. But its Murdoch's guile and cynicism that set him apart from his predecessors, not to mention his contemporaries. Few artists paint such intriguing, yet caustic, lyrical landscapes. "He had a stroke at the age of 24 / It could've been a brilliant career," is how the opening track starts. And his love affair with strings - "Dirty Dream Number Two" - proves it is possible to successfully merge the guitar with the cello, something the Moody Blues failed miserably at. Beautiful and mystical both at the same time. A
Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Sanctuary, 2003). The first pass over this album brought skepticism from my already skeptical heart. I smelled sellout, and for a group like this, that could mean the end of everything. After all these guys don't really have a plan B. But when I played it a couple more times, it started to creep up on me. The "lo-fi" sound that served them so well over their first three releases has been replaced with a more uptempo, livelier sound. The lone exception "Asleep on a Sunbeam" a pleasant retreat for old times sake. For those looking to categorize this entry call it The Velvet Underground meets The Left Banke. Original grade A. A-
Tom Waits: Alice (Anti, 2002). Ever since Closing Time, Waits has been trying to recapture the sentimentality he's always desired, while mixing in a bit of his naturally sardonic wit. He's nailed it once - 1983's Swordfishtrombones - and almost had it with 1999's Mule Variations. Trouble is, Waits doesn't pull off sentiment very well; he's about as genuine with a love song as Robert Plant is with a doo-wop tune. True, his wife and co-producer, Kathleen Brennan, whom Waits calls the love of his life, is as much responsible as anyone for his artistic success. Most, if not all, of these songs date back to 1992, the year he released Bone Machine, another aborted attempt to recapture a nostalgic past he can't seem to rid himself of. But that has always been Waits' problem and, when it works, his vehicle. He still loves that "Ol' '55" as much, if not more so, than that girl in "Johnsburg, Illinois." He just can't help himself. His fans may forgive him and allow him that retreat into nostalgia. Me, I like my love songs a little more current. B.
Tom Waits: Blood Money (Anti, 2002). When he isn't penning some of the corniest love songs known to human kind, Waits dabbles in another of his time-honored traditions: despair. The man knows how to crash a party better than anybody I know. Where Alice paints a hopeless romantic lost in a world he doesn't seem to have the courage to blow up, here his sights appear to be less grandiose. He seems so much more comfortable in his own skin with the knowledge that life sucks. And why shouldn't he? He's made a career out of it. No matter how many dedicated devotees swear that Alice is his great, long-awaited, masterpiece, pound for pound, this is a far more consistent album. I'll take his "Misery is the River of the World" any day over his "Poor Edward." A-.