R.E.M. • In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 [2LP]

It’s easy for us old school R.E.M. fans to dismiss the post-IRS Records era of the band. Those fabled times were unique in our music experience: Band comes out of nowhere – that is, Athens Georgia – and takes over the college radio airwaves, steadily builds a fanbase with their amazing records and compelling yet elusive videos (you had to look pretty hard to find them at first), and eventually signs to a major label. It’s also easy to say, “they were better before they sold out,” but of course, most of us also realize that R.E.M. didn’t actually do that, since their label switch was on their own terms. Still, I definitely prefer the albums up through Document over the Green-and-on elpees. I certainly didn’t stop buying their albums, though, but aside from Automatic for the People, I’d rate the post-1988 albums lower than those before that.

One listen to In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 tells you that Buck/Mills/Stipe(/Berry) & Co. didn’t really lose the plot – they just matured and morphed into a different monster. Their sonic palette got bigger, better, engulfing the scruffy, indie R.E.M. they once were. In this later personae the band gave us epics like “Man on the Moon,” “The Great Beyond” and “Everybody Hurts,” as well as burners like “Bad Day” and the absolutely gorgeous “At My Most Beautiful.” Even the band doesn’t quite know how to sum it all up; Peter Buck wrote the liner notes to each song and he himself is frequently unsure what the songs mean or where they came from. But one thing is sure: R.E.M. weren’t even close to finished having something to say when the ink on the Warner Bros. Records contract had dried.

In Time was first released in 2003, available in a few different formats (including vinyl), but the 2LP version was hard to find. It’s now been reissued by Craft Recordings in a standard double black vinyl version and a blue colored set offered exclusively by Barnes & Noble. The mastering job on this reissue was done well, and it’s nice to have the 18 songs spread over two records. But I do have a minor issue with B&N’s colored vinyl: the transparent blue could’ve been matched better to the color of the blue moon on the cover. It plays and sounds lush, though, so don’t pay too much attention to that part of my critique. The takeaway from this review is that R.E.M. were one of the great American bands of the ‘80s and In Time is the perfect summation of their latter days.

4/5 (Craft Recordings CR00166, 2003/2019)

 

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The Beatles • “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain” [7″]

[This review was first published 6/8/2010 on Skratchdisc]

Well, only two months after Record Store Day, the speed demons at Capitol/EMI have finally released the “special” “limited edition” 7″ single of my favorite BEATLES pairing, “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain”. Ummm, they knew RSD was coming up, I’m sure, and yet, they put this single out in a generic Parlophone 45 sleeve. It’s nice, for what it is, but why couldn’t they have put it in a picture sleeve? Over the years (and at the time of its inital 1966 release) it’s appeared in various pic sleeves (like the ones I have here). Hell, they could have even duplicated the original American generic sleeve and used the ’60s orange/yellow “swirl” labels. How come no one ever confers with me before doing these things? What they DID do was use the stereo masters of the songs (the original was a mono issue in most territories), which sound very sweet through the stereo.

Here’s a memo to the bigwigs at EMI: Next year’s Record Store Day is on April 15, 2011 (so I’m told). Start preparing now.

2019 addendum: And for that matter, stewards of The Beatles’ catalog, Abbey Road was released 40 years ago this year, so I assume that not only do you have a teaser release coming for RSD Black Friday 2019, but a deluxe extravaganza celebrating the entire album a la the Sgt. Pepper and White Album releases of the last few years.

4/5 (Parlophone/EMI)

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Nick Lowe • Love Starvation/Trombone [CD, EP]

NICK LOWE has latched onto a new way of making records in the last few years, and it’s a method that suits him. Instead of waiting until he’s got an LP’s worth of tunes, Basher has been releasing EPs of whatever he deems ready to record. Love Starvation/Trombone is his latest, another 4-song affair recorded with Los Straitjackets and released by his American label Yep Roc.

What’s great to hear is that Lowe has also landed on the perfect latter-day band to collaborate with. Los Straitjackets, those guys with the gimmicky Mexican wrestler masks, provide an expertly empathetic two guitars, bass and drums backing to Nick’s rockabilly tinged pop tunes. They’ve now appeared as his band on a couple of Christmas records and last year’s Tokyo Bay EP. Like those efforts, there’s nothing too slick or too raw here, unless you count the studio-enhanced “horn section” on “Trombone,” the co-title tune that features a ’60s almost-Tijuana Brass arrangement. “Love Starvation” itself is a typically Nick mid tempo rocker with some witty words, while “Blue on Blue” is a sleeper of a slower “blues” song, with some of his greatest, latest lyrics, like “I can’t sleep for all the promises you don’t keep / I wanna run but I’m in too deep, too deep for blue on blue” and “In my mind I’m on the end of a ball of twine / that she jerks from time to time, time for blue on blue.” Finally, “Raincoat in the River” is a cover of an obscure 1960 Sammy Turner tune (produced by Phil Spector, later covered by Rick Nelson) that nicely defies its title with a happy story of a guy whose gal is coming back to him. The song really fits with the other three original Nick Lowe-penned songs, which is no surprise because that’s a skill that the man has had for decades, dating back to his days in Brinsley Schwarz and later with Dave Edmunds in Rockpile.

There’s no telling whether the tracks from this Love Starvation EP and the aforementioned Tokyo Bay will turn up on a long player, but it would be a pretty safe bet. I’m sure Lowe and the ’Jackets  have either recorded more than what they’ve let out or they’re cooking up more tasty treats while they tour the UK and US this summer.

3.5/5 (Yep Roc YEP-2646, 2019)

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Wreckless Eric • Transience [LP, CD]

Our boy WRECKLESS ERIC is on a tear with this, his second album in a year. Transience is its name and “if you think that what you see is what you get / you haven’t seen the half of it yet.”

Out on his own Southern Domestic label, this lo-fi release is a worthy sequel to last year’s killer Construction Time & Demolition. On that album Eric and his conspirators laid down practically off-the-cuff recordings of the man’s musings about where he came from, where he’s been to and where he was then at. Transience (“the state of lasting only for a short time”) finds Wreckless Eric doing the same, and still trying to shake off the adjectivity of his stage name – something he apparently has been working on for a long time. Yet, the very fact that the cuts on these two albums have such a ramshackle (but riveting) feel make the task of trying to shake the stage name’s burden a relatively unsuccessful venture. Luckily, no one picking up one of his albums is going to give a shit about whether he’s now or has ever been wreckless. People new to his stuff will only wonder slightly about where the name came from, and those of us who remember “Whole Wide World” and “Semaphore Signals” (among others) are fine with it. Seriously, Eric: who cares? We love the semi-shoddiness of your albums, your quirky wit and cynical view of (the whole wide) world. Transience contains sarcastic songs like “Creepy People (In the Middle of the Night)” where Eric talks about having a predilection for suffering and the drag of “taking it up the ass” (figuratively), “The Half of It,” which hooks into subject matter first sung about by Ray Davies of The Kinks and Eric’s contemporary (and former Stiff Records label-mate) Nick Lowe, and six more tunes that show he’s still… if not wreckless, definitely wry and feckless. And yet, he’s still capable of writing engaging songs about whatever strikes him: tiny houses, dead end streets (hello again, Kinks), indelible stains, whatever.

Working with Wreckless Eric this time are Steve Goulding (of The Rumour) on drums, amour Amy Rigby on piano and backing vocals, Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson on the bass and Alexander Turnquist on 12-string. Transience has a full sounding, freckles ’n’ all vibe, with thick low end and raw guitar and organ that make for a fulfilling listen. I’m really digging his latest work and hope he not only tours the US again (saw him last year in Seattle), but maybe even with a full band. But whether he’s solo or accompanied, Wreckless Eric’s music is definitely worth delving into, if not devouring completely.

4/5 (Southern Domestic SD 008, 2019)

 

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Robin Lane & The Chartbusters • Many Years Ago: The Complete Collection [CD]

Blixa Sounds has been on a roll with their new wave reissues, and this one is a major release for the label. ROBIN LANE & THE CHARTBUSTERSMany Years Ago: The Complete Collection is a 3 CD set that pulls together pretty much everything the band ever recorded, plus some early Robin Lane solo outings.

Lane got her start in the music world in late ’60s L.A. but eventually found her way to Cambridge (our fair city), MA, where she formed The Chartbusters. They didn’t really do any chart bustin’ but they did make a name for themselves in the nascent new wave scene. By 1980 they’d gotten enough renown to get signed to Warner Bros. Records, where they put out two albums, a live EP and a few singles. This set presents their self-released 45, the eponymous first album, Imitation Life and the 5 Live EP, her solo Heart Connection EP and outtakes from those sessions, along with numerous demos and live tracks. If you’re a Robin Lane fanatic then you’ll want this, as it contains a whopping 28 previously unreleased tracks. Phew! Me, I like the band’s guitar-based “modern rock” sound, but I’m not too enthralled by Lane’s singing voice. I don’t know, she comes off kinda unremarkable to me. Like the Pearl Harbor release I already reviewed (here), Robin Lane & The Chartbusters epitomized the slick new wave vibe that was happening then but all these years later, out of context, they come off as your typical, generic new wave band. There’s nothing wrong with it or them, though, and they’re certainly not bad. But the girth of this 3 CD release is a lot to chew.

2.5/5 (Blixa Sounds ETA 818, 2019)

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Pearl Harbor and the Explosions • Pearl Harbor and the Explosions [CD]

With an era-appropriate band name, PEARL HARBOR AND THE EXPLOSIONS burst out of the late ’70s San Francisco rock scene with a slick, eponymous debut album that epitomized what “new wave” sounded like. Pearl Harbor and the Explosions was, indeed, the sole LP by the band. Warner Bros. put it out in 1980 and here in 2019, courtesy of Blixa Sounds, we have a tidy little reissue with bonus single and live tracks.

Pearl Harbor – who once went by the name Pearl E. Gates – formed the group after landing in San Fran from Germany (she’s of Filipino descent), joining an existing band called Leila & the Snakes and working with the Tubes. The experience led her to think that what she really needed to do was form a group of her own. She did so, changed her surname to Harbor, and issued the band’s debut single on SF’s indie 415 Records label. “Drivin’” b/w “Release It” earned enough local note and airplay to catch the ear of the A&R folks in Burbank and soon the band’s debut album was recorded and released. Both tracks were re-recorded for the nine track album, which also included the single “Up and Over” and “Get a Grip on Yourself” (not a cover of The Stranglers’ similarly titled tune). The four-piece band had a sound at once familiar and just modern enough to stand out. Peter Bilt’s twangy Tele guitar licks were clean ’n’ cutting, while the Stench Brothers contributed a tight rhythm foundation – perfect for Harbor’s slightly Lene Lovich-esque vocals. “Drivin’” and “You Got It (Release It)” are the best known songs from the album, and have appeared on numerous compilations on Rhino and other labels (such as 1994’s Just Can’t Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the ’80s, Vol. 3).

Altogether, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions is a neat little encapsulation of what the era’s upstart bands sounded like, whether from the Bay Area or some other new wave enclave. The sound hasn’t aged too badly, and this reissue is a perfect one to put on even if you’re only drivin’.

3/5 (Blixa Sounds ETA 820, 2019)

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Robyn Hitchcock • “Sunday Never Comes” b/w “Take Off Your Bandages” [7″]

This is getting to be a regular and welcome occurrence. ROBYN HITCHCOCK writes a couple of great songs, puts together an excellent band and records them, then treats us to a killer new 7″ single. In this case, Hitchcock recruited The Nashville Fabs, the very same group he took out on the road last fall, to accompany him. I saw them in Seattle at the Neptune Theater and it was a pretty good show, though the band was a little rough around the edges as it was the beginning of the tour. The Fabs apparently found their groove on “Sunday Never Comes” and its B-side because this slab o’ wax is definitely polished and ready for presentation.

Recorded in December 2018 and therefore a couple of months after I saw Rob & the Fabs, these two tracks show that the guys – handpicked by Hitchcock from players populating his current hometown of Nashville – are capable of heights only hinted at a couple of months earlier. Indeed, the members of the band have a pretty impressive collective pedigree so it’s not that surprising that “Sunday Never Comes,” a classic Robyn Hitchcock mid tempo groove, is such a satisfying record. The tunes sound similar to the arrangements on Robyn Hitchcock, RH’s eponymous release from 2017 (I reviewed it here), a fairly spare four-piece (two guitars, bass, drums) affair that recalled the records he made with The Egyptians in the ’80s. What’s decidedly different is that Hitchcock has mostly moved on from writing about animals, insects and frogs (though they weren’t so much the subject matter as the vessels for transport), and his arrangements lack a lot of the superfluous gloss. The A-side was written for the film Juliet Naked and had only been available as a demo for download (see the video below for what that sounds like; it’s quite nice played solo!), while “Take Off Your Bandages” is “a psychedelic manifesto for the current era, inspired by the activism of the students at [Marjorie] Stoneman Douglas High School.” Indeed, both songs have a psychy edge to them, as if The Egyptians were imported from their sarcophagi, sans the trappings of late Eighties record production. Quite fabulous, I must say.

The 7″ single – available only through Hitchcock’s website – is limited to a thousand copies and comes in a nice picture sleeve. You also get downloads of the two songs, plus a longer version of the B-side. In all, an enjoyable seven or eight minutes and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

3.5/5 (Tiny Ghost TG-02, 2019)

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Devo • Turn Around: B-Sides & More (1978-1984) [LP]

Limited to just 3,256 copies, the latest Run Out Groove release is a collection of semi-rarities from Akron’s finest, DEVO. Turn Around: B-Sides & More (1978-1984) features fifteen tracks on one slice of tomato red marbled vinyl and is something for the devotee who must have everything. I say this because most of the tracks here will be on the hardcore Devo collector’s record shelf and so this limited edition release would be superfluous if it weren’t for the album’s own likely future rarity.

About half of the tracks on Turn Around are B-sides, such as the title track, “Social Fools,” “Penetration in the Centrefold” and “Growing Pains.” A bunch more are remixes, either for single release or as extended mixes, such as “Snowball (Remix),” “Through Being Cool (Dance Velocity)” and my favorite, “That’s Good [extended version].” And then there’s “Working in a Coal Mine,” which is here presumably because it was originally released as a bonus 7″ single that came with the New Traditionalists vinyl album. It’s not very rare, at least not like “Mecha-Mania Boy,” which was the B-side to “Jerkin’ Back and Forth” and is new to me. (I’m not as hardcore as some Devo fans, for sure.)

Turn Around’s fifteen tracks make for an enjoyable listen, yes, and though it’s running time may seem a bit long for a one record set, the mastering job is good and the record itself was pressed at Record Industry in the Netherlands. Mine’s got some surface noise between tracks but that will presumably wear away after a few listens. The cover is definitely of a 1980 vibe, with a painting that looks like something from a 1930s WPA billboard (not counting the energy domes) and was “adopted for commercial release,” whatever that means. To purchase Turn Around – paraphrasing from “Nu-tra Speaks” – “…is not like spending money, but rather it is an investment in the future and a blow against the empire.” Or something.

3/5 (Run Out Groove ROGV-043, 2019)

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Alex Chilton • From Memphis to New Orleans, Songs from Robin Hood Lane [CD, LP]

Here are a couple of “reissues” from our favorite Big Star, ALEX CHILTON. Both From Memphis to New Orleans and Songs from Robin Hood Lane are compilations of previously released Chilton material, chosen thematically or chronologically to fit together nicely. It’s an interesting way to do it – take the best tracks of an era, for instance – and create one superior compilation, instead of reissue the entire albums or EPs themselves. Especially since Chilton’s discography is a little spotty during his solo years, this may be the best way to find the choice chunks of his solo stuff.

From Memphis to New Orleans pulls primarily from Alex’s mid-to-late 1980s releases Feudalist Tarts, No Sex and Black List. Those first two came out in the States on now defunct Big Time Records, and they were a comeback of sorts for Chilton. Buoyed by some great R&B cover songs (hence this new album’s title), this compilation is a gas. Not only do you get “B-A-B-Y” and “Thank You John,” a couple of horns-laden ditties, you also get Chilton originals like “No Sex,” “Lost My Job” and “Underclass,” the former being Alex’s humorous look at the calamities that were affecting people’s sex lives in the mid ’80s (when AIDS was still new and not at all understood) and the latter two funny, bluesy stabs at the kind of lifestyle our hero was leading at that point in his life. Chilton’s arrangements are really good ’n’ raw – definitely not the clichéd kind of slick ’80s production that would be a turn-off to fans of Chilton’s revered band, Big Star – and are part of why most of these songs stand up to the test of time. This one’s worth picking up.

Songs from Robin Hood Lane, on the other hand, isn’t a no-brainer. While the idea of Alex Chilton belting out selections from the “classic American songbook” might sound good on paper, the recorded results indicate that that doesn’t always translate to analog tape. Chilton’s unschooled, technically imprecise singing is a benefit when he’s doing rock, blues and R&B, but in this genre his slightly wavering vocals often miss the mark. In fact, there are a few clams here that would have never made the grade on a Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald record. I’m talking about seriously wrong notes. Granted, in 2019, with the truckload of artists who have extended their careers by releasing CDs of standards, the burnout factor for this kind of enterprise is high. At the time he recorded these (primarily the early ’90s), his Medium Cool and Clichés releases may have been fun curveballs to throw at a party (and the title of the latter was definitely a home run), but today they’re practically superfluous to Chilton’s discography. The arrangements themselves are spare and pretty listenable, yes, but Alex the singer is out of his depth here. I mean, kudos to him for giving it a go, but I prefer it when Alex Chilton stuck to what he did best: rock ’n’ roll.

3/5, 2/5 (Bar None BRN-CD-258 & BRN-CD-259, 2019)

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Arthur “Killer” Kane • I, Doll [Book]

[Edited version of a post originally published 2/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]

…Life and Death with the New York Dolls. Well, that’s what it’s about, all right. Told by ARTHUR “KILLER” KANE himself, this short read is full of all kinds of anecdotes—remembered or half-remembered—by someone who was there for all of it. I, Doll is told from 10-20 years of hindsight by the onetime New York Doll and later-on Mormon and star of his own documentary (New York Doll). Kane tells the stories in a very “I can remember it like it was yesterday” style, even when his memory fails him, due to age or, more likely, how stoned or drunk he was when the episode happened. And he doesn’t try to downplay anything, no matter how embarrassing it might be, so when he tells you the story about how all the Dolls were puking up Newcastle Brown Ale onstage in Birmingham in 1972 (pre record deal!), I’m sure he’s telling it like it is/was.

You don’t have to be a fan of the Dolls to enjoy this memoir (though if you’re not a fan, you’re no friend of mine!). Like The Dirt by Motley Crüe was about the Eighties, it is a fascinating view of what it was like in a rock band in the ’70s, pre-AIDS, pre-uptightness about sex, pre-major label slaughter of the lambs and their music, pre-everything that makes today’s rock ’n’ roll bands pale imitations of their punky, grungy, awesome forefathers.

I met Arthur in 2002 or 3 in Los Angeles at a gig my band shared with The Dogs in North Hollywood, and he was a very kind, subdued guy. At the time I wondered if that was his true personality, or if it was decades-ago ingestions and much more recent Book of Mormon teachings doing their thing on his 60-something year old body. My friend Loren assured me that that was Arthur. I wish I could have gotten to know him. Of course, not a week goes by that I don’t plop New York Dolls onto the turntable or into the CD player and crank it up, so in that sense I know Arthur, or at least his music.

By the way, on one very popular book ordering website, this book is noted as a “posthumous autobiography.” You mean Arthur wrote it AFTER he died? Wow! I knew the man was talented, but holy crap!
4/5 (Chicago Review Press, 2009)

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