Saturday, March 29, 2008

How I Helped Usher Change in the Audio and Music Industries

That's right. I kid you not...and I did it without even realizing it at the time.

...and the full effects of my contributions haven't really been felt yet, nor have they even been fully realized by the industry and the public at-large.

It happened when I purchased my Sony HDR-SR5 hi-def video camera last fall. That's all it took.

Try to follow the logic here; this is the deal...

When I purchased that high definition camera, I was a bit of an idiot; in that I didn't realize it supported a new hi-def format called "AVCDH." This format, when the user goes through the process of creating hi-def discs to play home movies on, is only compatible with Blu-ray video players...

...for those of you who don't know the context of what that means; Blu-ray has been in a format struggle, competing with HD DVD. Industry insiders and folks who pay a little bit of attention on the blogs (like me) know that one of the major catalysts in helping Blu-ray to win that format war in the last month was the consumer-driven sale of hi-def hard drive camcorders, which create the AVCDH files, which are only compatible with Blu-ray and not HD DVD.

So I was a dummy here on several levels...
  1. I bought the hi-def camera having no idea what AVCDH was or what it was compatible with. For all I know, it could have been compatible only with HD DVD, then I really would have been screwed.
  2. I bought it without a clue as to what software I was going to use to make home movies, or what precisely that entailed.
  3. I bought it not realizing that when I did figure out it was compatible with Blu-ray, that means I need to have a computer with a Blu-ray burner on it... ohhhh, now he gets it.
  4. ...and moreover, that means purchasing Blu-ray burnable discs (BD-Rs), which sell right now for about $15 a pop... yikes... might be riding the economics of that out for a few more months... YA THINK?!?
  5. Of course, none of this means anything unless I ACTUALLY OWN A BLU-RAY PLAYER, ALONG WITH A HI-DEF TELEVISION!!! HUH? YA THINK?!?
  6. While the knuckleheads at Best Buy weren't much help either, but in the end it was my fault for not doing my homework like I should have... I was just dazzle-blinded by the prospect of the hi-def camcorder.
Simply put, I got REALLY lucky... in a "Gilligan trips over the Skipper to fall into Ginger's tent to catch a look at her nude" sorta way... as much of the issues I just listed are on my radar screen to be purchasing in the near future anyway.

So anyway, let's get back to how I helped to usher in the end of the long format war with my purchase...

Once again, try to follow my logic here...

The end of the format war, and with the consumer market running out to grab every Blu-ray machine in sight, seems to put the music industry in a special position.

Hey, WAKE UP!!! We're talking about the music industry now... you know, those guys who made you revamp your CD collection in the last 15 years with "remastered" CDs? Uh huh, we're talking 'bout those guys.

The music industry has been having an identity crisis in the last 5-10 years, as it can't decide how it wants to move into the world of better quality recordings... and it hasn't known what to do with the format known as the "CD," otherwise known as the compact disc... until now.

The CD will soon be obsolete. The higher quality picture definition of Blu-ray carries with it the capabilities of 5.1 and even 7.1 surround sound... and that also means it raises expectations not just for video, but also for audio. The music industry is going to need to start pushing its product into an arena where it can offer a quality of product that is comparable to where video is headed.

That means moving into an absolute market world (eventually) of 5.1 surround sound recordings... which means going to the DVD audio format and abandoning the CD, simply because the CD can't hold enough information on the disc. Blu-ray players are reverse compatible, meaning that they can also play DVDs and CDs... but NOT SACDs (super audio compact discs).

The SACD format has been another hi-fi offshoot from the CD, and while it presents uncompressed sound quality through a 5.1 system, it can be copied, especially the hybrid discs... and moreover, a Blu-ray player won't be able to play it and give it the 5.1 SS experience. Which means, in my opinion, that the SACD format will soon be abandoned, because folks who are on a budget with their audio-video setup at home aren't going to go out and purchase an additional disc player - in addition to their Blu-ray player - just so they can play SACDs.

Confused now? Uh, yeah.

So, my point again was that the camera purchase helped Blu-ray win the format war, and will push the music industry to adopt the DVD audio format so that folks will only need to purchase ONE player (because that's all they're willing to purchase) for their home systems to play it all at the quality they expect.

Allright, enough of that... good luck and good night. S

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ISSUES FOR IDIOTS -- Keyboards & synthesizers according to Sweva, Part 1

It's a very long and complicated debate.

They have the power to enhance a listening experience to ethereal levels that defy description, and can also come in from left field to obliterate a perfectly crafted song like a bulldog in a china shop.

They're called 'em or hate 'em.

There's a wide variety of "synth" out I'll put my spin on what is "cool synth" versus "cheesy synth."

...and don't think for a minute that there isn't a difference.

THERE IS A DIFFERENCE, DAMMIT! Don't question me, gentle reader, until you read what I have to say.

Generally speaking, the following are "cool" synth instruments that tend to have a minimal cheese factor:
  1. The piano. Classic, elegant, beautiful, indisputable.
  2. Most organs, specifically the Hammond B3. Not the one at the ballpark.
  3. The mellotron. Some may find it a bit dated, and yes it's out of the 60s, but I think it sounds really cool. It can bring great emotion to music; it's sorta the cello of the electric keyboard family.
  4. Most electronic synth since the 1990s. I don't know if the sound improved, or if it was the way bands employed the use of synthesizers since the 1990s...maybe a little of both...but the cheese factor seemed to essentially go away around the mid-90s. The emergence of hip-hop and post-grunge alternative rock bringing the use of some more obscure keyboard sounds into the mainstream may have helped to eliminate the stigma that cheesy synth was associated with prog-rock bands in the 1970s and 80s. You could probably draw several variations on this from many variables...ask me again in 10 years; perhaps I will have changed my mind on this.
The following synth instruments tend to "bring the cheese out" in any artist, for the most part:
  1. The mini-moog. Sadly, this instrument has destroyed more songs than I care to name. Whoever invented this should be shot.
  2. Most MIDI mechanisms from the 1980s. That thing that makes a song sound like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
  3. Most loops and sequencers out of the 1970s. Generally I'm not much of a fan of these, due more to the fact that they stifle creativity and show laziness on the part of the musician, unless they have NO hands and feet free, then using them sparingly might be understandable. Generally, however, they annoy too...especially something out of the 70s.
The following are examples of "cool" synthesizer use.

  1. Anything by Jimmy Smith. The jazz master of the Hammond B3... he's the one who brought the instrument into the jazz forefront, which in turn heavily influenced other music mediums.
  2. "The Speed of Sound" by Coldplay. Great example of colorful synth use that adds incredible depth and mood to a song.
  3. "Lazarus" by Porcupine Tree. Modern song using the good 'ol piano...beautifully and artfully, I might add.
  4. "Good New First" by Rush. A good example of the mellotron being dusted off and brought back into modern rock for great effect. It's in the background, but adds to the dark flavor of desperation in the tune.
  5. Voyage 34 by Porcupine Tree. I hate to bring up a band twice in the same example, but Porcupine Tree's 1993 album focused almost completely on synthesizers, in a new age sense. An excellent example of well-crafted synth as it was emerging out of the 80s and into new frontiers in the 90s.
  6. Enya's catalog. I can think of no other artist who helped to "de-cheese" electronic synth in the 1990s more than her. Enya gave key instruments an almost ethereal quality.
  7. "Green Onions" by Booker T. & the MG's. A perfect example showcasing the soul of the Hammond B3, and how it works in a classic rock setting.
The following are examples of "cheesy" synthesizer use.

  1. "Magic Man" by Heart. The best example I can think of where a great song is rolling along minding its own business, and BOOM! It gets broadsided by a tidal wave of dated synth cheese that makes a Packer game at Lambeau Field seem like mere topping on nachos. My only question to Ann and Nancy Wilson would involve this and something to the effect of "WTF?!?!"
  2. "In the Beginning" by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Another perfectly good song - a LOVE SONG to boot - and then it takes a turn for the worse as this cornball outer space synth jam takes over the outtro like flying saucers square dancing across the sky.
  3. "Dream Police" by Cheap Trick. A perfect example of a cheesy loop and artist laziness. Not that the song is that great, but... Why? Why use this? Whenever I hear this all I can do is mock the synth loop and pretend that there's actually a keyboard player in the band by having my fingers dance over whatever's in front of me at the time...otherwise I'd probably go nuts and chew on plastic flashbulbs.
The jury is still out on the following examples... mainly because these are classic songs. I would argue that part of what makes these songs classic is good songwriting, and the fact that in most cases the synth is used sparingly.

  1. Elton John. The best example I can think of. There was a definite display of cheesy synth that he employed in the 70s, and he seemed to relish in it...this is where showmanship trumps everything else, obviously (see photo at top).
  2. "Baba O'Rielly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who. These are classic songs, and Pete Townshend was an innovator. He employed something unique in those tunes, but they are a bit dated, no argument there.
  3. "Tom Sawyer" by Rush. Two debatable issues here... there's the opening "meeoooow" (as a good friend of mine likes to refer to it), which appears through out the tune. I actually find that to be very cool and unique. Then there's the synth jam right before the guitar solo, which was actually taken from Geddy Lee's old warmup routine. I could take it or leave it.
  4. Duran Duran's 80s catalog. 80s MIDI was the central part of their sound...but this is the ultimate 80s band, so it's hard to imagine the D's (and the 1980s, for that matter) without this sound.
  5. Bon Jovi. I'll try to keep a straight face here, as the name conjures up scary imagery of metal hair band members running rampant. Yes, it's the 80's once again, but in more of a metal sensibility (just a bit). Again, this was the synth decade, and the keys are part of the Bon Jovi sound, but sheesh. Arguably OK, but still barely tolerable. "Livin' On a Prayer" brings back memories of a friend in college who used to grab the mic at parties when he'd had too much, and a terrifying version of The Wedding Singer would ensue...I think I have permanent brain damage from that...
  6. Yes' catalog. It's a big part of their sound, and some of it does in fact sound cheesy, but Rick Wakeman and many of the other keys players in Yes were masters at their craft so it's hard to knock them. This is one of those rare cases where the virtuoso element trumps much of the cheesyness, and many of Yes' thematic elements were enhanced with the use of the cheesy synth...listen to Tales from Topographic Oceans...thematically it's a total brain melt, which tends to trump the way synth is used. It actually blends in with the overall music very well.
So let me know your thoughts on this critical issue. This post was inspired by constant ribbing over the years from various people in my life who find my pet peeve with cheesy synth to be amusing... especially one person in particular, who insists on harassing me with voice mails and text messages to the Shindog, this is for you.

...and thi
s debate has ONLY JUST BEGUN, so I'll leave it here. To be continued...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Rush & The Foo Fighters jam together at Toronto's Air Canada Centre

Here's something that was unexpected at The Foo Fighters concert at the Air Canada Centre the other night. At the conclusion of the drum solo - as the beginning chimes to "YYZ" were ringing in - guess who decided to show up. Hometown boys Geddy and Alex. The two bands know each other through the same producer, and Rush is actually rehearsing for the 2008 leg of the Snakes & Arrows tour. So for folks in the Rush camp, it wasn't that surprising this occurred...but if you're a Foo Fighters fan, I'm sure this was a most unexpected treat. Here's a clip of it. S

Friday, March 21, 2008

THE REVIEW CORNER -- Miles Davis: Kind of Blue. Orig. issued 1959. Columbia, 2004 DualDisc reissue.

Here it is. The ultimate jazz masterpiece sounding better than ever.

The album is available in the DualDisc format, which means that it's one disc that's two sided. On one side is the remastered CD version of the album, and the other side is a DVD with the 5.1 Surround Sound version.

Usually the DVD music discs have other goodies on them, and this one doesn't dissapoint as it has a mini-documentary Made in Heaven - The Story of Kind of Blue, in which there are interviews with Bill Cosby, Herbie Hancock Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Q-Tip, Shirley Horn, Jackie McClean, John Scofield, Jimmy Cobb and others. There's also a historic photo gallery to boot.

The track listing goes as follows:

  1. So What
  2. Freddie Freeloader
  3. Blue in Green
  4. All Blues
  5. Flamenco Sketches
  6. Flamenco Sketches (alternate take)
I recommend hearing this work for the first time when you have some chill time.

The album is simply ethereal, with all the qualities that make jazz music great. It all begins with the mysterious first minute of "So What," where you don't quite know what direction the tune is going to take, and then it settles into a bluesy groove that's best described as a knife through soft butter. The rest of the opening track, and the album for that matter, follows with too many twists and turns to mention. It's a journey. It's an experience.

Take a listen for yourself and feel the magic...and I can't wait to hear this monster on 5.1 Surround Sound.

I give this 6 OUT OF 5 STARS. An ESSENTIAL recording that should be on any desert island list...and if you ever own ONLY ONE jazz album in your lifetime, this should be it.

Hopefully you'll own more than one, however. We'll keep our fingers crossed for you. S

FILLER FOR AUDIOPHILES -- 5.1 Surround Sound investment is worth every penny

I was recently doing what I do best with my exceptionally valuable time; perusing through the racks of a used CD store...what can I say, it's a pastime of mine.

While some old habits die hard, some other habits will never die...God willing.

For those of you who are new to the 5.1 Surround Sound format, you've all heard it in the theaters - especially if you're into sci-fi stuff like Star Wars. It's where the sound seems to journey around the room and spin around your head.

Some out there think the term "5.1" is some sort of secret industry code, as if it needs to be actually means "5 speakers, 1 sub woofer." Meaning 1 speaker at front center, 1 front right, 1 front left, 1 rear right, 1 rear left, and the sub usually goes to the side of the entertainment center (or even behind it if it's in the way).

Some of you may have heard it on a friend's home stereo; but again, it's been geared mainly towards the viewing of movies...your friend's media collection probably reflects that unless you know someone who is a total audiophile and has a collection of 5.1 Surround Sound music CDs (actually they're technically DVDs)...then why bother reading this article, right?

Uh, yeah...right. Sure. Yabetchya. Whatever.

Well it so happens that those DVD players that are set up for 5.1 Surround Sound movies will also play the music DVDs, which are set up the same way. That all being said, most consumers these days know to purchase a DVD disc player since it plays both DVDs and CDs... the only remaining question at the time of purchase, of course, being whether or not the unit also plays HDCDs, but that's "audiophile filler" for another day...

So at this time I have no 5.1 Surround Sound system set up at home, nor have I ever had one set up, period. Ever. I'm in the middle of packing the condo for a move into a house, which hopefully will occur sooner rather than later. The most hi-fi I'm getting is through an old bookshelf stereo system with one CD player and two cassette decks, my computer, a trusty 160GB iPod, a SwimP3 I use for doing laps at the pool (a very very cool little gizmo, made by Finis), a 6 CD changer in my 13 year-old vehicle with blown out speakers that occasionally bark at me, and the speakers of the standard television in the living room...a real hi-fi experience, I must say.

Completely apathetic for someone who dedicates a blog solely to the subject of music. meanwhile, back in the CD racks...this all being said, I decided to take an investment risk. I picked up a copy of Porcupine Tree's 2002 release In Absentia in a 5.1 Surround Sound DVD format. Remember, I don't have a 5.1 Surround Sound arrangement at home.

Yes, I'm a dummy.

I decided that when I move, the killer stereo setup is inevitable and therefore will happen; and when it does, looky here...I'll have a handful of discs that can play to the 5.1 format.

Actually, I'm a genius. Thank you very little.

Now that I think of it, so far I've purchased two 5.1 DVDs without ever having heard what a 5.1 DVD sounds like.

So scratch the genius thing, I'm back to being a dummy again.

A Circuit City was nearby the record store, so I decided to stop by there to play my new disc and see what it sounded like...and I was COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY!!!

5.1 Surround Sound is everything I've dreamt of, and more. It makes you feel like you're on stage with the band. I hear acoustic guitars coming out of the rear speakers, voices coming out of the front, and electric guitars in the middle with the drums...I have information coming at me from all over the room.

For you old school folks out there who once thought you were hearing Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on what was called "quadrophonic sound," this is essentially what that myth claimed to be... needless to say, I highly recommend this format, but only if you're set up for it... Unless, of course, you're going to be set up for it "soon," then go ahead and buy 5.1 Surround Sound music DVDs and haul your friggin' collection around audio stores and play them on friends systems around town.

Yeah, that's it!

Then you'll get raised eyebrows wherever you go, and they'll say: "Hey look, there goes the 5.1 Surround Sound Music Fairy." S

Thursday, March 20, 2008

THE REVIEW CORNER -- Remaster of U2's Joshua Tree album brings old memories & the mythical American Southwest to life

In my opinion, it was the most significant music project of the 1980s, by any rock band.

The Joshua Tree, U2's 1987 epic, just got even better when it was released last November in a remastered edition to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of its release.

You can pick it up in a single disc version, a 2-CD version with B-sides, outtakes and different versions of songs from the album sessions, or a 3 disc boxed set with the 2 CDs and a concert DVD from the tour that followed the original album release...

So there's something for everyone; just have your pick and enjoy the superb remastered sound quality! It's a big improvement, in my opinion. A HUGE improvement. Now they just need to release it in a 5.1 surround sound version, but that's another "filler for audiophile story" for another day...

For me, this recording has a very personal leaning. I'll focus on that right now and leave the other angles on the subject matter of the album to the next guy...

The album came out during a time of my life when I was in transition; graduating from high school and experiencing the gift and freedom of going out of the Seattle area, out of state to Arizona, for my freshman year of college. The summer of 1987, when I first heard The Joshua Tree, was also a bittersweet time for me as I'd lost my maternal grandmother the day after graduation. The music, with its southwestern themes, beckoned me and enhanced the possibilities that lay ahead as I got ready for the day I would fly to Phoenix to start a new chapter in my life.

The Joshua Tree helped provide a soundtrack for my introduction to Arizona and the American southwest as I began my first year of college at Arizona State. For me, the imagery of The Joshua Tree is the beautiful desertscapes of Arizona and the drive through the desert along Interstate-10 as you go west toward Los Angeles. I've lost count of the number of times I've spun the disc on that drive... it's a required listen on that stretch of I-10, and you can usually fit it in during the near-7 hour trip.

It brings back that summer after high school and my first year of college... the transitions that took place, and the people that affected me at the time. It's part of the soundtrack of my life.

If you're headed west on I-10, try to throw it on when you cross the state line into Arizona and the saguaros of the Sonoran Desert start coming into view... it will send shivers up your spine.

So those are my thoughts... here's an excerpt from the disc booklet that's of interest. S

The Joshua Tree made U2 into international rock stars and established both a standard they would always have to live up to and an image they would forever try to live down.

Both things have been very good for the band. With The Joshua Tree U2 reached the top of the mountain.

Some artists get to the top of the mountain and come back down. Some fight to stay there. U2 got to the top of the mountain and used it as a place to build a launching pad.

U2 were barely out of their teens when they released their first album, Boy, in 1980. October followed the next year and then War, with its fist-in-the-air anthems, alerted the guard dogs of the rock world - radio, press, and retail - that a big new act was blooming.

Bono has pointed out that U2 benefited here from the coincidence that most of the other bands who were ahead of them in the punk /new wave queue - The Clash, Talking Heads, Police, Pretenders - chose this moment to take a powder. An audience for new rock music had been building for more than five years and suddenly U2 were at the front of the line. They grabbed that energy and used it for rocket fuel.

But first they took a step sideways. The Unforgettable Fire (1984) was not the anthemic stadium rock monster that the group's label - and perhaps a lot of their fans - had expected and hoped for. Rather than go in and make a Who /Led Zeppelin record, U2 chose to work with the conceptualist producer Brian Eno and his confederate, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lanios to do something more subdued and experimental.

It turned out to be a smart move - it deepened U2's relationship with their audience before the big step forward and served notice that this was a band with ambitions beyond record sales. Unforgettable Fire was a bigger hit than U2 had enjoyed to date - the group's momentum was unstopped - and it contained their first big hit single, "Pride (In the Name of Love)."

"Pride" - a rousing celebration of the vision of Martin Luther King - was slightly out of place on The Unforgettable Fire, but it provided a blueprint for the broad-shouldered, big screen American visions of The Joshua Tree.

U2 had spent a tremendous amount of time in the USA in the first half of the eighties. What they saw through bus windows and in the gas stations, motels and theaters along the way shaped the new music they wrote. Bono and Edge were influenced by the wasteland western plays of Sam Shepard as well as the European lost-in-America imagery of films like Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas.

What came out were songs that dealt less with America the country than with a mythic America of the imagination. In that way, U2 were following in the footsteps of their fellow Irishman Sean Feeny - who as John Ford made films like Fort Apache, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that turned the desert vistas of the southwest into a landscape for stories about temptation, redemption, and the power of myth to ennoble or destroy.

The hit singles from The Joshua Tree - "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "With or Without You" all have titles that sound like lines John Wayne would say in a John Ford film. They suggest a quest, a journey out into the territories...and yet the heart of the album is two songs that were not hit singles, but which have endured over twenty years as the centerpiece of countless U2 concerts - "Running to Stand Still" and "Bullet the Blue Sky." One is a whisper, the other an explosion and together they demonstrated how deep U2 were prepared to go.

"Running to Stand Still" was inspired by an epidemic of heroin use in Dublin. The story in the song is of a couple who decide to risk everything on a big drug deal. They pretty much know going in that they don't have a chance of coming out. "Bullet the Blue Sky" is about the American-backed insurgency that was at that time trying to overthrow the leftist government of El Salvador. Bono and his wife Ali got caught on the edge of a firefight during a visit to Central America, and he came back with the idea for that song - an indictment of U.S. power turned against its neighbors. Famously, Bono asked Edge to put the war through his amplifier.

What makes those songs stand up twenty years later is that you don't need to know any of that history. "Running to Stand Still" is for anyone who feels trapped in an impossible circumstance by overwhelming responsibility. "Bullet the Blue Sky" is as true in Iraq as it has been in Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda or Darfur since the music was first played.

Produced by Eno and Lanois (with some umpiring by U2's original producer, Steve Lillywhite), The Joshua Tree sold more than twenty million copies, won the Album of the Year Grammy, went to number one around the world, and put U2 on the cover of Time magazine - but it did a lot more than that.

The Joshua Tree put U2 into a pantheon that very few bands of their generation ever reached and that no other band of their generation stayed in. It put U2 on the mountain with The Stones, The Who, Hendrix, Springsteen and Zeppelin. It put them on top of the world.

It is to U2's great credit that when they got to the top of that mountain, they refused to be set in stone. They wanted to see some other views. So after the victory lap that was Rattle and Hum, they headed for the new horizons of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. Asked what the sound of their new record would be in 1992, they famously said, "It's the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree."

by Bill Flanagan, 2007

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A video follow-up to the "21 Reasons" post

After all that babble in the last post, I thought I'd follow up with some video.

Think of it as your reward for all your hard work in reading my stuff...

It starts out with Rush performing "Freewill" at the SARS Festival in their hometown of Toronto in 2003, then to the Pink Floyd reunion with Roger Waters at Live 8 in 2005 and "Comfortably Numb," and finally to an acoustic Neil Young performance with "Old Man" in 1971.

After the videos play, you can surf the menu at the bottom of the video box to play other songs by the same artist.

Enjoy! S

Sunday, March 16, 2008

21 REASONS: My top 3 rock artists, why I chose them, and what they all have in common.

I first thought about this as I was waking up one morning from dreams spinning off the heels of the Neil Young concert in October of 2007.

I have a definite top 3 rock artists: Rush, Pink Floyd and Neil Young. They're all very different from each other and cover a wide spectrum of styles, flavors and sounds. Since I didn't have the privilege of noodling deeply through Young's cannon until the last couple of years, he's the most recent addition. Before him it was a solid top 2, but "Shakey" (Young's nickname) absolutely blows my mind.

Despite their differences in sound texture, general
mood, and band makeup (not talking about the KISS kind), there are definitely some common threads that draw me to these three artists.

What do my top three bands all have in common:

  1. They all stem from the 1960s. Neil Young started out with Buffalo Springfield around 1965, then went on to form a collaborative rotation between Crosby, Stills & Nash, then Crazy Horse, and as a solo artist with multiple lineups over the years... Pink Floyd incubated about the same time as Young; with Syd Barrett (guitar, vocals), Roger Waters (bass, vocals), Richard Wright (keys, vocals), and Nick Mason (drums). David Gilmour (electric/acoustic guitars) joined in 1968 and Barrett soon left thereafter (see photo below, a shot during the band's brief period as a quintet)... In terms of Rush; at the age of 15, Alex Lifeson (electric/acoustic guitar, top photo on the rt.) formed the first incarnation of the band in 1968 with Jeff Jones (bass, vocals) and John Rutsey (drums). The lineup went through several changes -- including as a quartet for some time with someone on keys -- before settling on the classic trio lineup in 1974 with Geddy Lee (bass, vocals, keys, to lft.) and Neil Peart (drums & percussion [lyrics too], center), and it shall remain that way as long as there is Rush, God willing... Hopefully I'm accurate in all that info...
  2. They uphold high standards of quality and musicianship. They're passionate about their art, and it's about very little else...and that passion is definitely contagious, as it spills over into the fan camp.
  3. A high majority of their core members are multi-instrumentalists. I won't bore you by listing all the instruments each band member can play, but I can assure you it's an unbelievably long list.
  4. They present incredible lyrical quality and depth...the kind that resonates with you to the point where you borrow quips from songs years later --- to the effect that the artist serves as some kind of guidance counselor, helping to make sense of a sometimes very complicated world... probably helping to form part of one's life creed. Hey, at least that's how it has worked for me.
  5. They're their own harshest critics. Despite some harsh critics out there (many times unfair) --- and despite some definite bashing and pot shots thrown in the direction of these artists (from fans, critics, and giants in the rock industry alike [ahem, can anyone say Rolling Stone?]) --- in the end THE ARTISTS are their own hardest critics.
  6. They're survivors and have shown longevity of at least 30 years (roughly) as active recording and live performing acts. To be totally precise, Pink Floyd made it to 28 years, but we'll fudge the numbers a bit and give them the benefit of the doubt---especially considering they reunited in 2005 for the Live 8 performances.
  7. They each have attained their own distinctive sound; to the effect that any rock listener would immediately recognize them.
  8. They've inspired a generation of musicians, with more to come.
  9. They each have great diversity in their catalog, which in the case of each band spans the course of at least 4 decades.
  10. They've built their careers on touring and the quality of live performance. Touring, touring, touring... and more touring... Between 1974 and 2007, Rush alone have released 19 studio albums in its career, and toured off every single release. With that many albums under one's belt, that's COMPLETELY unheard of... but it shows how much the artist values the live presentation of their material.
  11. They have all had the pleasure of performing live for ME. It seems like a foregone conclusion that I should see all of my top three bands live, but that didn't happen until last fall, when I saw Neil Young for the first time. Since I've seen Roger Waters live as a solo artist, and a "Rogerless" Floyd, I'll count that as seeing the classic Floyd lineup---although it's not the same thing---but I have the excuse of age working for me there (I was in 5th grade when The Wall came out, and my folks wouldn't let me attend my first rock concert until 9th grade... interestingly enough, my first concert was Rush, my favorite band, on May 18, 1984).
  12. They're constantly reinventing themselves and aren't afraid to take risks... and they've taken plenty of them.
  13. They're warriors. They've failed, picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and powered ahead. That was more tolerated in the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s... however the recording industry doesn't have tolerance for that anymore these days, which is really unfortunate. Artists sometimes learn and develop through mistakes they make, and classic albums can be born out of what's perceived as "erroneous experimentation."
  14. Their early catalogs are typically filled with a plethora of rawness and experimentation (and even some of their later material too). This tails off the prior two points a bit... these bands entered the music scene when they were still young, developing as musicians, and trying to "find their sound." So as a fan, to have the ability to track this sort of progress in an artist and hear the development not only presents a treasure trove of material and variety, but is unheard of anymore in the recording industry.
  15. They have lots of diversified material out there. To the effect of the last point, the works of these bands is VERY well documented.
  16. They've survived unthinkable tragedies... seismic shifts, to say the least, that would destroy most bands... ironically however, the tragedies survived by these artists have presented resonating long-term effects on these bands; with some good and some bad results.
  17. All these bands bring endearing, quirky elements to the forefront... qualities that turn most people away, but are preciously unique characteristics for their fan following... whether it's Geddy Lee's high-pitched vocals and Rush's 70s proggy period, Floyd's deep noodling into the avant-garde in the late 60s, or Neil Young "taking it into the ditch" in the early 70s (scrapping his polished sound for an out-of-tune, gravelly one)... only to name a few.
  18. They found success on their own terms... to the effect that all of them are rich beyond their wildest dreams... I call that out simply to make a point; any of these artists would humbly submit that the quality of the music is all that matters, that they are normal people who say they don't really matter (to the point of being self-depreciating), and you would hear them credit their success to their fans and others besides themselves.
  19. They each have enigmatic qualities and appeal... I'm not really sure why, they just do. That probably has to do with their determination to the quality of their craft, the lyrical subject matter that's tackled, perseverance, and a combination of all the other elements I've pointed out today.
  20. They show continued appreciation to their fans and don't exploit them. Perhaps this gives some insight as to why they've held on to their followings as long as they have, and why fans keep coming back for more... they WANT to support the artist... because the fans know the artist is dedicated to the quality of the product they put out and its live presentation... which trumps the element of making money (which is also nice)... the money was to come eventually, but that wasn't the focus... which is why Rush does things like paying $40K in use royalties to the Brazilian gov't to play 20 seconds of "The Girl from Ipanema" at a 2002 show in Rio de Janiero, during the filming of Rush in Rio.
  21. Oh, and of course they know how to rock and also have mellower acoustic abilities. Diversity is always a good thing.
So there it all is.

One rule I gave myself before publishing this post was that I had to own, and have deep familiarity, with AT LEAST 95% of the original material from these bands...

That was easier said than done with Neil Young's recordings, as there are projects out there that are out of print and very difficult to find... such as the CD EP Eldorado from 1989, Trans from 1983, and a couple other albums from the 80s only available on LP... oh, and even one classic album from his "ditch trilogy" that he hasn't released on CD, 1973's Time Fades Away...and that doesn't include the recordings he finished and shelved, never releasing at all. Then you're left having to either seek out pirated recordings or go search through online jukebox sites, the latter of which I prefer to do...

So, that being said, I tried to be as comprehensive as I could be... this was a tough post that involved several sittings.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

THE REVIEW CORNER -- R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (orig. issued 1992). Warner Bros. 2005 reissue (CD remaster + 5.1 surround sound DVD)

When it comes to reviews, I typically take it upon myself to spit out some rhetoric on what I like or dislike about this and that.

Not this time.

Noodling through and the R.E.M. reissues on Warner Bros., I decided to see what some folks had to say about
Automatic for the People, their early 90s classic.

All I can say is that there's no way I could ever dream of topping the assessment this reviewer gives the album. He/she points out things in the songs I would have never considered... some rather impressive insights. Knowing this recording pretty well, the assessments are dead on.

If you've never heard this album, it's worth every penny. ESSENTIAL for any rock collection.

A Guided Tour of the Soul
April 9, 2001
By Biker395 (Torrance, CA USA) - See all my reviews
AFTP is easily one of the best CDs of the `90s.
"Drive" sets the tone for the album. It sounds much like a funeral march. From the first five notes, it's direction is clear: dark, moody, and foreboding ... you know the this is no ordinary CD ... there are no "shining happy people" here ...
AFTP begins by tackling the decision to live or die. "Try Not to Breathe" is about deciding to die. It presents the thoughts of an old man who has lived a full life and has decided that he is ready to go. He muses what the world will be like without him and how he'll be remembered when he's gone.
"Everybody Hurts" is about deciding to live. The case is made that hurting is a necessary and temporary part of life ... it's not a reason to give up. Nor do we hurt alone. The lyrics and melody are nakedly simple and direct.
"Sweetness Follows" is about the healing and perspective that the death of a loved one can sometimes bring. The image is of the death of a loved one who was made more distant by a preoccupation with the banal, everyday concerns of life. Their death is a wake up call to forget the little things and recognize the power of the relationships with those we love.
"Man on the Moon" is probably the best known of the songs on AFTP. It wonders aloud ... what is it like in heaven? The human beings of the ages (Moses, Newton, and Darwin) are used to evoke a sense of an infinite hereafter. One wonders, what does someone like Andy Kaufman do in heaven amidst the likes of Moses? Well, Andy Kaufman is there, still "goofing on" Elvis, still wrestling, and still having breakfast with Mr. Blassie. Maybe it's not such a serious place after all.
"Nightswimming" is a bullet through the heart. I've heard it described as a song about nostalgia, but I think it's much more than that. It's a regretful look at a path not taken viewed from the wisdom obtained from the passage of time. The image is of someone driving alone at night wistfully looking at the image on a precious old photograph sitting on the dashboard. Swimming at night is a metaphor for the memory of a moment at the crossroads, facing a choice that involved playing it safe, or taking a personal, reckless risk of exposure.
The picture, like the memory it represents, is turned away ... as if it's painful to see But just like the picture on the windshield, turned around for all to see, the memory is worn like a badge:
"The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago, turned around backwards so the windshield shows."
The haunting image comes and goes with each passing streetlight. Although the image is seen backwards, the hindsight made possible by the passing of time reveals a significance of the moment that was not fully understood at time:
"Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse. Still, it's so much clearer."
With the passage of time, the fears (and the vitality that go with them) are gone and replaced by the tedium of everyday life ...
"These things they go away, replaced by every day"
... but the longing remains, and now with profound regret. He's left with a bittersweet memory of what was and the fantasy of what might have been:
"Nightswimming, remembering that night. September's coming soon. I'm pining for the moon. And what if there were two; side by side in orbit around the fairest sun? That bright, tight forever drum could not describe nightswimming."
"The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder. Nightswimming deserves a quiet night."
All of these achingly personal lyrics are accompanied with the stark loneliness of Stipe's voice and a wonderfully sad but sweet piano melody. "Nightswimming" is the brightest star in an album full of celestial wonders.
Nightswimming is a tough act to follow, but "Find the River" pulls that off nicely. It uses a flowing river as a metaphor for the passing of life. The image is one of a solitary soul floating down a river watching his life pass before his eyes, throwing aromatic fruit and spices as if he was sowing seeds. The river flows toward its inexorable but natural end at the ocean, just as life flows toward inevitable death.
"The river to the ocean goes, a fortune for the undertow. None of this is going my way. There is nothing left to throw of Ginger, lemon, indigo, coriander stem and rose of hay. Strength and courage overrides the privileged and weary eyes of river poet search naivete. Pick up here and chase the ride. The river empties to the tide. All of this is coming your way."
The repeated use of the phrase "nothing is going my way" is a reminder that the journey of life, especially at the end, is one that everyone takes alone.
A final brilliant aspect of "Find the River" is the way that it ends. Unexpectedly ... almost suddenly ... with a lot of loose ends untied. Just like life.
If you're looking for happy melodies and easy to digest lyrics, look elsewhere ... AFTP is not for you. But if you're looking for a companion on a guided tour of your soul, this is it. There are good reasons why so many people think AFTP is one of the best CDs of the 90s. It is.