Tag Archives: R.E.M.

Rocks In The Attic #811: Pearl Jam – ‘MTV Unplugged (1992)

19075921591_JK001_PS_01_01_01.inddAnother year, another Record Store Day: Black Friday event. These have always been hit or miss for me in the past. Most years I’ve stumbled into my local stores on the weekend following the Friday and picked up one or two things, and some years I’ve disregarded it completely. Back in 2012, I walked into Real Groovy on the Sunday following Black Friday and picked up their only copy of the super-limited 10” pressing of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, now highly sought-after but evidently not by Auckland folk at the time. Last year, I think my only purchase was a rainbow-coloured vinyl pressing of the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing.

The continued rise of soundtracks has meant that the last couple of RSD events have seen some interesting releases. Earlier in the year, at the main April event, I picked up soundtracks to the Knight Rider TV series, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Lost In Translation and Howard Stern’s Private Parts: The Album. This Black Friday, I was lucky enough to pick up soundtracks to Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and Bill Conti’s score for 1987’s woeful Masters Of The Universe.

One of my non-soundtrack purchases from this year’s Black Friday event is this 1992 classic: Pearl Jam’s entry to the MTV Unplugged series. Strangely, considering the band’s stature during the grunge years of the early ‘90s, this marks the first time that the performance has been officially released on vinyl (several bootleg releases have made it to market in 2016 and 2017, but this one’s the real deal). R.E.M., Nirvana and Alice In Chain’s respective entries into the Unplugged cannon have slowly crept into each band’s back catalogue as essential releases, and so it seems like this will do the same for Pearl Jam. Now, if only they would release Stone Temple Pilot’s performance officially, so I can retire my bootleg copy.

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Comprised of six songs from their debut album Ten, plus one of their contributions to the Singles soundtrack (State Of Love And Trust), Pearl Jam’s set starts off slowly with the slow-burning Oceans. ‘A little love-song I wrote about my surfboard,’ Eddie Vedder tells the audience, as the applause dies down. There isn’t a great deal of communication with the audience, and very little of the surprisingly amusing banter you can hear on Nirvana’s Unplugged performance (‘What are you tuning? A harp?’). It’s this earnestness which turned me off Pearl Jam from the start, and which I’ve only been able to look beyond over the last decade or so.

All the big hits from the band’s debut are covered – Alive, Jeremy, Evenflow – but if anything it feels a bit too short. The seven songs featured are the same as those which were broadcast in the original 60-minute (including commercials) TV special. Their cover of Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World is omitted, plus any rehearsal and off-screen performances.  I have a bootleg of the full Aerosmith unplugged performance from 1989 which is almost twice the length of the version that was broadcast. I wonder if the same can be said of Pearl Jam, particularly when we’ve just recently seen a reissue of Nirvana’s unplugged set containing previously unreleased rehearsal takes.

The one thing I can’t stand about these early ‘90s unplugged releases is the amount of whooping and hollering from the audience. I can appreciate the applause when a song ends, but the ‘realisation’ sounds of approval from the crowd, one or two bars into each song really irks me. It reminds me of ITV’s Stars In Your Eyes when the studio audience would give a complimentary round of applause one line into the first verse of Rocketman when they suddenly realise that yes, that tubby little IT consultant from Walthamstow really does sound like Elton John.

Hit: Jeremy

Hidden Gem: State Of Love And Trust

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Rocks In The Attic #722: The B-52’s – ‘Cosmic Thing’ (1989)

RITA#722The B-52’s fifth studio album, Cosmic Thing, has just been reissued for this year’s Record Store Day – Black Friday event. It’s a nice little release, on rainbow-coloured vinyl to match the album’s cover art.

Cosmic Thing marks a point of transition in the B-52’s career. Up to this point, they had been a quirky new-wave act, a cross-breed of surf-rock and thrift-store aesthetic. They looked and sounded like they had walked out of a John Waters film, and aside from a #1 single in Canada, they had barely troubled the pop charts.

In 1985, the band lost original guitarist Ricky Wilson to AIDS-related illnesses, and drummer Keith Strickland took over guitar duties. The last album they recorded with Wilson, 1986’s Bouncing Off The Satellites, reached #85 in the US album charts – a new low for the band – and you might have been forgiven for thinking that the band’s days were numbered.

A new record contract with Reprise led to the band’s resurgence, and they delivered Cosmic Thing in June 1989. With production duties shared between Nile Rodgers (6 songs) and Don Was (4 songs), the album sounds bigger and slicker than anything they had put out previously, and commercial reception was similarly positive.

The album reached #4 in the US, #8 in Canada and the UK, and #1 in Australia and New Zealand. Singles Love Shack and Roam both reached #3 in the US Billboard Top 200, and the more ubiquitous of the two, Love Shack hit #2 in the UK, and took the top spot in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand.

One has to wonder what level of influence Nile Rodgers had on the guitar sound of the album – his clean, funky guitar tone is all over the record (although he only plays on one track), and Love Shack benefits greatly from the production of Don Was, sounding more like a madcap Was Not Was offcut than the more two-dimensional output of the B-52’s first four records.

The B-52’s will always make me smile. They’re a fun band anyway, but two reasons specifically stand out for me. Firstly, vocalist Kate Pierson has one of the best female singing voices of the 1980s. Powerful, raucous, and lush, it’s hard to imagine R.E.M. crossing over into the mainstream as effortlessly as they did without her contributions to 1991’s Out Of Time (on Shiny Happy People, Near Wild Heaven and Me In Honey).

The other reason I love the B-52’s is for one of the best male singing voices of the 1980s – Fred Schneider. Fred’s campy, over-enunciated hollering over the band’s work is truly unique and has provided much amusement over the years as I’ve walked around the house randomly shouting “Funky little shack…FUNKY little shack.”

Hit: Love Shack

Hidden Gem: Dry County

B-52's & Wilson, Cindy & Pierson, Kate & Strickland, Keith & Sch

Rocks In The Attic #642: Nirvana – ‘In Utero’ (1993)

RITA#642Last weekend I found a pair of perfectly good speakers on the side of the road. A handwritten sign – ‘FREE’ – was standing next to them. I did a quick u-turn and threw them in my car. New Zealand’s attitude to freecycling occasionally delivers gems like this. You could probably drive around all weekend and furnish your entire house with kerbside treasures that people are throwing away. The speakers are a lovely pair of Technics, standing 18” tall and my vinyl-collecting friend at work, who’s far more knowledgeable about hi-fi equipment, assures me they’re a very, very good find.

That’s if they still work, of course, because who in their right minds would throw away a perfectly good set of speakers? A quick trip to the local electronics store to get some speaker cable, and I can rest assured that not only do they work perfectly, but they also sound fucking awesome. It makes a world of difference to the set of (perfectly good for purpose) surround speakers I was running my turntable through previously.

Whenever I’m testing a new set-up – be it a new turntable, or a new amp, or a new set of speakers – the album I always turn to is Nirvana’s In Utero. My clear favourite of their three studio albums, it towers over their unripe debut, and their too-slick crossover follow-up. Steve Albini’s production sounds more like what I imagine the band’s natural sound to be, and it was the record I turned to when Kurt died as it was their final studio album.

The reason it’s so good to test hi-fi equipment is that it’s so dynamic, and so well recorded that it doesn’t sound like the product of pro-tools. After Albini’s initial production (foreshadowed by a great letter to the band), Geffen Records attempted to fix what they saw as an uncommercial record by employing Robert Ludwig to master it. Still unhappy, the master tapes were then given to REM producer Scott Litt, who remixed the singles alongside Andy Wallace (who had mixed Nevermind). With so many cooks in the kitchen, the album should sound conflicted, but to my ears it sounds perfect.

RITA#642aThe hi-fi recommendations in the inside cover of the CD booklet, something that you just don’t usually see in liner notes, have always made me chuckle. I suspect that rather than being a genuine instruction to listeners (unlikely), it’s an irreverent poke at the casual music fans the band were attracting (a more obscure jab than the lyrics to In Bloom).

RITA#642dAlthough I own a late ‘90s reissue of In Utero, I jumped at the chance to get the Steve Albini mix of the record, released to mark the album’s 20th anniversary. Running at 45rpm, and split across two discs, it’s a wonderful package. But while it’s very interesting to hear, I think I’ll always prefer the original version. Albini’s mix of the singles sound so much more in line with the rest of the album, and if anything the contrast shows how much the Scott Litt mix of those songs sounds like the range of dynamics you would hear on an REM single.

One thing I really liked around the 20th anniversary re-release was a memo that did the rounds on the internet, mocked up to look like a letter to record store owners, pleading with them to get behind the album’s reissue. I seem to remember some discussion at the time around whether it was genuine or not, but it’s clearly a joke – it’s dripping in cynicism, and reads like something that Kurt Cobain might have composed from beyond the grave.

I don’t usually pay much attention to the ‘thank you’ lists in liner notes, but there is one particular name on the In Utero sleeve that is deserving of a mention. The band listed Quentin Tarantino in this section – in 1993 a relatively cult director with only one film, Reservoir Dogs, to his name (and Pulp Fiction yet to be released). When the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction eventually saw the light of day in September 1994, Quentin repaid the favour and thanked the now-departed Cobain.

Hit: Heart Shaped Box

Hidden Gem: Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

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Rocks In The Attic #558: Foo Fighters – ‘The Colour And The Shape’ (1997)

rita558Foo Fighters’ sophomore album The Colour And The Shape marks the true beginning of the empire of Dave Grohl. The band’s self-titled debut album had been released two years earlier, but that was something else, a solo record of sorts with Grohl playing everything on the record.

Foo Fighters wasn’t even intended as the name of the band when that debut was being recorded. It was just the name of the album, the name of the project – in the same way Grohl has subsequently done with ventures like his metal project Probot. In 1995, Grohl employed a group of musicians – guitarist Pat Smear, formerly of the Germs and the latter days of Nirvana, and bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, both from the recently defunct Seattle band Sunny Day Real Estate. He called this band the Foo Fighters – why not, that’s what the album was called? – but lived to regret this as bad idea much further down the line. To be fair, it is a terrible name for a band.

The recording of the band’s second album included one unsavoury moment that would prove to characterise the band over the rest of its lifetime. Unhappy with William Goldsmith’s drum tracks for the record, Grohl re-recorded them himself, behind Goldsmith’s back. As a result, the hired drummer understandably quit the band. Here was the thing – the Foo Fighters weren’t a democracy, they were a dictatorship, and Grohl was the man in charge.

As much as I loved the charm of the first record, I found its follow-up to be something else entirely. The songs were bigger, more bloated and Everlong pointed to the radio-friendly path the band would subsequently take. Even worse, I couldn’t even work out who a song like February Stars was aimed at – it was completely at odds with the rock band I thought the band was. This was only three years after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and the former Nirvana drummer was now recording weak material for album filler. It didn’t help that my roommate at University started to like them around this time, and he really only noticed big, mainstream acts like U2 and R.E.M.

Listening back to the record now, I like it much better than I did back in 1997. Perhaps it’s because that for all its differences to its predecessor, it actually sounds more like that first record than anything the band recorded later. Songs like Hey, Johnny Park! and Monkey Wrench are more in line with the Foo Fighters of 1995 and it’s just a shame there wasn’t more of this kind of material across the album. I tried my best in 1997 to like all of The Colour And The Shape, but for me its weaker points outweighed its strengths.

In fact, by the release of Everlong as a single three months after the album dropped, I had checked out. A band – or more fittingly, a recording – I had invested so much in back in 1995 had turned out to be something else entirely, and I just slowly forgot about them. I kept one eye on them, and was sickened by what seemed like a never-ending cast of musicians came and went – Goldsmith was replaced by Taylor Hawkins, formerly of Alanis Morissette’s touring band, and Pat Smear left to be replaced on guitar by Frank Stahl, who ended up being fired by Grohl before they recorded third album There Is Nothing Left To Lose. A stable line-up only came when Chris Shiflett joined as the band’s guitarist after that record was in the can. Pat Smear seems to come and go as he pleases, but generally the band’s line-up has stayed the same in the 21st century.

In 2011’s Foo Fighters: Back And Forth documentary, Grohl reasons that all bands go through firings and difficult line-up changes, it’s just that the Foo Fighters did theirs after the band was already established in the public eye. As much as I agree with this, I just wish that initial foursome of Grohl, Smear, Mendel and Goldsmith had survived. There’s a band picture included in the packaging of that debut record, of the four original members looking very happy – maybe I’d still be a fan of the band if this line-up was still intact? My mild OCD seems to think so – I tend to prefer bands with a measure of stability in their line-ups.

Hit: Everlong

Hidden Gem: Hey, Johnny Park!

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Rocks In The Attic #556: Blondie – ‘Plastic Letters’ (1978)

rita556Plastic Letters is album number two for Blondie, and starts to see them move towards more of a pop sound after their grittier debut. Their choice of covering Randy & The Rainbow’s 1963 hit Denis points to the direction which the band was going in from this point forward. I can’t help but think that early fans of the band in and around New York City would have felt a little disappointed in this gradual shift in direction.

It would be the equivalent in the UK of the Pistols or the Clash recording a cover by Gerry & The Pacemakers for their second album. Now, while I could imagine Johnny Rotten and company doing something like this, it would be too much like selling out for Strummer’s band. Some punk bands remained true to their original manifesto, while others like Blondie made a shortcut straight past post-Punk and New Wave, seemingly straight into the pop mainstream.

Isn’t this just what successful bands do though? The Beatles very quickly turned their backs on their rock and roll roots, opting to magpie the best parts of Motown, folk and R&B to produce their own “original” pop sound (one gets the impression that the rock and roll covers on the first couple of Beatles albums would have sounded old-hat at the time, whereas looking back they appear to come from the same era). Perhaps Debbie Harry and Chris Stein always had their eyes on the pop charts when they put Blondie together. Maybe when they were writing their early two-minute punk songs, they were really writing two-minute pop songs.

Alongside Denis, the album’s other big hit (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear features the couplet Stay awake at night and count your R.E.M.s / When you’re talking with your super friends. While Michael Stipe claims to have chosen the name of his band at random from a dictionary, could he have subconsciously heard these lyrics on the radio?

Hit: Denis

Hidden Gem: Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)

Rocks In The Attic #543: R.E.M. – ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’ (1985)

rita543I often wonder what would have happened to R.E.M. if things had not gone so well for them and their crossover into the mainstream in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They seemed to take such a long time to be the kings of alternative rock that it almost seems they would have been happy just churning out album after album of the kind of material that can be found on this record. I’m sure a lot of the early fans would have hoped that the band had continued on this track too.

For me, the two phases of R.E.M. can be summarised into two timeframes – before and after the introduction of Scott Litt as producer on 1987’s Document. Prior to that record, they’re very much like an American version of the Smiths, only with better harmonies. The sound is roughly similar from record to record, and from producer to producer, until Litt makes them sound like a different band altogether. The standard – although similar approach –  would be to split the band’s output between the I.R.S. years versus the Warner Bros years, which is different by only one record, 1988’s Green.

The one thing that irks me about R.E.M. is their refusal to spell some of their songs correctly around this time. Fables Of The Reconstruction gives us Feeling Gravitys Pull and Cant Get There From Here, and those missing apostrophes nearly kill me. Follow-up record Lifes Rich Pageant takes the same approach in its title, clearly placing this era of R.E.M. as the missing apostrophe years.

Hit: Feeling Gravitys Pull

Hidden Gem: Life And How To Live It

Rocks In The Attic #478: R.E.M. – ‘Unplugged 1991’ (2014)

RITA#478I’m glad that MTV’s Unplugged shows are gradually becoming more and more available on vinyl. Only the other day I picked up a bootleg of Stone Temple Pilots’ fantastic Unplugged set from 1993. Of course, the really famous ones are Eric Clapton’s Grammy award winning record from 1992, and Nirvana’s swansong show in 1993, also a Grammy winner.  Now if they would just release Aerosmith’s 1990 show, I’d be very happy.

As cynical as you want to be about the whole Unplugged thing – a soul-less cash-in by a corporate TV station only interested in producing programming content – it’s become a nice little time capsule of early ‘90s rock and alternative rock. Of course the show is still going to this day, but the last one recorded was by Miley Cyrus in 2014 which shows just how much it’s devolved over time. It’s just a ratings chaser and always has been. In the early ‘90s, it was Nirvana fans and Pearl Jam fans who were propping up the album charts, these days it’s tweens propping up the download charts.

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R.E.M.’s first Unplugged set (they recorded another one in 2001) is dated between 1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People – effectively smack bang in the peak of their career. They take the time to go as far back as their debut record Murmur( for Perfect Circle), and of their studio albums only Reckoning and Fables Of The Reconstruction are passed over. The set does lean a little more towards the later albums – Green and Out Of Time – which is understandable considering how the music videos from those albums had opened the door to the wave of Alternative Rock which would fill the station for the first half of the 1990s.

The sound on this record is superb, and my only gripe is that the guitars all sound a little too clear and bright. That’s R.E.M. all over though – jangly ‘80s pop guitars rather than an authentic dusty blues guitar vibe.

Hit: Losing My Religion

Hidden Gem: Rotary Eleven