Moon Duo – Shadow Of The Sun

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Moon Duo – Shadow Of The Sun

Moon Duo – a side project of guitarist Ripley Johnson, more known as a member of San Fransisco psych-rockers Wooden Shjips – have, on their fourth album, settled into a serious groove.  They play psychedelic rock, marry it to a motorik beat, and stir a whole lot of post-punk/New Wave tone throughout.  It’s an interesting mixture, even if it’s the same kind of music they were putting out in 2010; the old maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” certainly applies to Moon Duo circa 2015.  If you’re into lysergic guitar solos, pre-cheese New Wave, or if the concept of a Feelies that came of age in Haight-Ashbury era San Francisco appeals to you, Moon Duo are the band you’re looking for.

 

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

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Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

Boys & Girls was a blast from the past, a reaffirmation of soul music and a vehicle for the impressive pipes of singer Brittney Howard.  It found the neat balance between being a critical darling and achieving a wide-ranging mass appeal, and in doing so it set the band up for that most awkward of situations:  the Eagerly Anticipated Follow-Up Album.

Typically, such an album sees the band looking to expand on it’s sonic pallette;”Look at us!” it screams, “we aren’t just about (blistering blues rock, Stax Records soul, Janis Joplin without the crippling addictions)!  Check out what we can also do!”  Then the band will normally fire in all directions at once, trying a little bit of everything to prove that they have staying power.  Sound & Color is that album.  Sure, they still have all of the above-mentioned elements – they’ll never escape their roots – but they add shade, gradient, and at one point something that seems to approximate punk rock.  There are some downright funky moments – the solid groove underpinning “Don’t Wanna Fight” for one – and some oddly psychedelic moments as well, as on the ever-evolving “Future People”.  The drawback to this, of course, is that there’s very little coherency beyond Howard’s artillery-fusillade of a voice.  Each song goes off in a different direction and it’s very easy to get distracted mid-way through.

That said, despite the fact that it took me three attempts to get through the album from beginning to end, it’s well worth the effort.  The band is tight enough that you could easily be fooled into thinking that they were on album number ten, and Howard’s voice is, as always, a juggernaut of emotional resonance.  A fine sophomore effort, if a typical one.

The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

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The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

John Darnielle and his band The Mountain Goats have had a history of meandering down whatever road strikes his particular fancy at the time – remember the album that was built around Bible verses? – but on Beat The Champ he tackles a subject not often looked at outside of awful nu-metal cheese:  professional wrestling.

Music about wrestling is typically aggressive and hyper-masculine, designed primarily to get fourteen year-olds with too much testosterone amped up to watch muscled men drive each other into the mat.  No one has ever accused John Darnielle of being aggressive or hyper-masculine, and so Beat The Champ takes a different approach, highlighting the poignancy, the loneliness, the sordid history, and the justice.  “The Legend of Chavo Guererro is about the wrestler, sure, but it’s also about Darnielle “lying on the floor…bathed in blue light” watching his hero win and claim the justice he could never claim from his abusive stepfather.  “Southwestern Territory” follows a wrestler driving post-match, thinking of all of the things he’s lost; “Choked Out” talks about the violence inherent in wrestling while its protagonist claims that “everyone has their limit / No one’s found mine yet”.  That breaking point is found in “Heel Turn 2″, where the titular character finally snaps and does the heel turn – complete with the tears from his fan club president.  The newly minted heel cries out that he doesn’t want to die in here, which finds its echo a couple of songs later on “Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan”, which recounts the story of King Kong Bruiser Brody, who was stabbed in a locker room after a match in Puerto Rico.

It’s not all a return journey through the sad landscapes of The Wrestler, though.  “Choked Out” and “Werewolf Gimmick” both burn with an intense fire, bringing the clenched-fist testosterone of wrestling to light without devolving into being ham-fisted.  It’s more often exhilarating than it is wistful or nostalgic, and as such it’s a more than fitting soundtrack for its subject matter.  Not every Mountain Goats album takes it to the mat, but Beat The Champ is one that does, track after track, everytime.

 

The Monochrome Set – Spaces Everywhere

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The Monochrome Set – Spaces Everywhere

This honestly sounds like The Walkmen got back together and made the decision to create deliberately bad music.

I gather that this is another one of those bands that had some minor success around the time I was born that decided to get back together and make more albums.  Just as a public service announcement, not everyone should do that.

Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too

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Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too

Scotland’s Young Fathers have defied classification since day one.  Their sound remains staunchly between all things, preferring to take day trips through soul, R&B, funk, hip hop, and TV On The Radio-inspired indie rock.  None of these are particularly accurate, since at any one given time Young Fathers have taken a fuzzed-out view of these discrete genres and stamped them with their own particular ideals.

White Men Are Black Men Too rolls through all of these points and more in just under forty minutes.  When things start to get a bit too conventional, the group will throw in some sort of oddball gesture – a key change, a time-shift, some squalling noise over top of what otherwise might be a lost classic from Return To Cookie Mountain.  It gives the album a sense of familiarity, but that familiarity is then ripped away on a constant basis and replaced with something almost familiar, but also distressing, moving, and utterly modern.

Of course, at first glance no one cares about the music, because they’re all wondering what the hell the title of the album is going on about.  The line comes from what is arguably the best track on the album, “Old Rock ‘n’ Roll”, which in itself is partial reframe of an argument between the group’s management and frontman Alloysious Massaquoi.  Massaquoi, who came to Edinburgh via Liberia, takes the position that he’s “tired of playing the good black…tired of having to hold back”, and that he’s “tired of blaming the white man / his indiscretion don’t betray him / a black man can play him / some white men are black men too.”   He wonders in the full argument with his management why questions of race always have to be discussed “behind closed doors and never confronted head on”.  In a way it melds well with the state of affairs in 2015, given Kendrick Lamar’s release of To Pimp A Butterfly, which touches on many of the same issues.  The group holds no fear, but forges ahead into the future of both music and politics with their eyes wide open.

Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

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Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

I’ve been waffling on what to say about this album.  I finally got a full review hacked out yesterday, but I’m ditching it.  It’s stilted, awkward, and reads like a “music review”, the kind you find in people’s zines or on some kid’s blog.  So here we go, we’re just going to wing it today instead.

The things I like about Ivy Tripp are hard to articulate.  They’re more sense impressions than anything else.  When I listen to it I feel like I’m standing in a copse of trees, staring out into the line of trunks, smelling the acrid scent of burning wood, and wondering what the hell to do next.  The leaves under my feet are dry, and give a satisfying crunch when I walk on them.  The air is cold and smells like autumn dying, like winter trashing around in the womb, getting ready to be born.  The fire nearby is crackling, throwing off heat in an all-too-small radius.  Inside this circle of trees and the smaller circle of fire-warmth I’m safe.  Outside, the world blurs by in increasingly unrecognizable ways.  Outside there are no careers, just an endless parade of jobs and contracts.  There are no houses, because they’ve been neatly priced out of our reach.  There is no direction to go in, because all directions are equally shiftless.  Outside is a desert stretching in all directions, and the footsteps that lead away fade out after a time into nothing.

Inside, though, there is light, and warmth, for now.  There is sadness, more of a heaviness than a bleakness, and there is uncertainty, but there is also beauty, and sweet wistful longing.

Actually, there might be a bit too much sadness.  I fell for Katie Crutchfield on Cerulean Salt, mainly because of a shared adoration of crunchy, lo-fi 90s indie rock – your Pavement, your GBV, your Built To Spill.  Ivy Tripp shows off a love of another peculiarly 90s kind of rock – the slowcore sounds of Low, Codeine, and Slowdive.  This is admirable as well, but it makes the album drag out just a bit too long.

Tyler, The Creator – Cherry Bomb

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Tyler, The Creator – Cherry Bomb

In the run-up to his new album, Odd Future leader Tyler, The Creator promised everyone a new Tyler, one who was more mature and willing to go forward.  This was by and large greeted with muted enthusiasm, since the OF schtick has worn a bit thin in the years since the world picked up on Bastard.  Bastard was fresh and exciting; Goblin dropped off after a couple of listens: the best that could be said for Wolf was that it was hit-and-miss.  With Cherry Bomb Tyler had the opportunity to step forward and take his game to the next level.

Sometimes he does that, but a lot of the time he doesn’t.

“DEATHCAMP”, the opening track to both Cherry Bomb and Tyler’s chaotic Coachella set, is a great kick-off.  The N.E.R.D. vibe that he nicks here is no accident; in the middle of his second verse he raps “In Search Of… did more for me than Illmatic“.  It’s a line that marks a clear divide between him and the old guard of hip hop, and it reminds me of an uncomfortable conversation I had not long ago where I discovered that there was, in fact, such a thing as dad rap.  Then “BUFFALO” comes on and it’s about as perfect a Tyler track as you can get.  After that, though…

As it turns out, Tyler’s take on maturity is that it involves R&B tracks with some off-kilter melodies.  “FIND YOUR WINGS” is where he tries this and fails; “FUCKING YOUNG/PERFECT” is where he manages to pull it off.  The noise that makes “DEATHCAMP” so much fun is taken to its extreme on “CHERRY BOMB”, which sounds like nothing so much as an early Wavves track, from back when he thought that heavy clipping made tracks sound cooler.  As an artistic statement I think that “CHERRY BOMB” succeeds, but taken into context with the rest of the album it highlights the biggest problem:  everything here feels completely unfinished.  God knows no one was rushing Tyler to complete the album; either he felt he needed to compete with Earl Sweatshirt or he actually thought that a badly mixed, unmastered album made for good hip hop.

The other problem, of course, are the lyrics.  We were promised maturity, and what did we get?  Liberal use of the word “faggot” despite the slow-crawl backlash he’s received against it, and cringe-fests like “Blow My Load”, which finds him writing lyrics like he’s still 16.  In a way, he is.  He’s still that kid from the promo shot of Pitchfork’s “/b/ Generation” article, flashing his dick to the photographer with his friends around him.  Earl has started the path to being a grown-ass man – a bitter one, to be sure – but Tyler is still running around like it’s 2010 and Odd Future is still the Next Big Thing.  I mean, sure, he managed to get both Kanye and Lil’ Wayne on “SMUCKERS”, but who still takes the guy seriously at this point?  Far from being OF’s breakout star, he’s seen his star eclipsed by both Earl and Frank Ocean, and he’s not doing anything to try to change that.

Everyone knows that when you hit the drinking age in America, it’s time to leave /b/ for better forums.  Everyone except Tyler, anyway.

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Radio Free Generation: A Guide To R.E.M.

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The origins of this guide predate my ever doing these discographies in the first place.  They date back, in fact, to September 22nd, 2011, to the day that the band officially called it quits (until they all discover big expenses later in life, anyway), and to the news item published by Gawker that day.  It was a Brian Moylan piece, of course, so it was needlessly snarky and a little obsessed with its own cleverness.  The piece referred to R.E.M. as a “90s indie sensation” that people “hadn’t thought about since Automatic For The People“.  It also called Fables Of The Reconstruction  “the good old days”.  There may be band breakup articles that got it more wrong, but I’d be hard-pressed to name any.  I wanted to sit down and write out the defence of the band as the Great American Sensation that they were, the definitive first band to rise up out of Generation X’s early obsession with music scenes to conquer mainstream radio, paving the way for the Grunge Revolution and everything that came after.  Then I realized that their comment forum was a bad place to say just about anything, and shelved it for another day.  Today, however, is a different day.

R.E.M. first appeared in the Athens, Georgia scene in the early 1980s.  Athens is a college town, hosting a campus of the University of Georgia, and it has been a reliable music mine, giving the world the B-52s, The Whigs, Indigo Girls, Widespread Panic, Matthew Sweet, Danger Mouse, Harvey Milk, and the entire Elephant Six collective.  In 1980, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe met at a local record shop, where Stipe kept buying all the records that Buck, who worked there, was putting aside for himself – both of them, as it turned out, were fans of Television’s Marquee Moon.  They met Mike Mills and Bill Berry, a rhythm section of university kids who spurred Buck and Stipe into making music together.  It was all very casual at first, of course, but when the crowds they drew began to dwarf the rest of the scene, it became suddenly much more real.  They had something special together, a spark that drove them to become Generation X’s first real college rock heroes.

I went to the only record shop in St. Catharines the other day, looking to fill up my collection, restless to dig through stacks.  I came out with four records:  The Texas Campfire Tapes by Michelle Shocked, Station To Station by David Bowie, Remain In Light by Talking Heads, and Lifes Rich Pageant.  When he was jotting together the total, the proprietor told me that there had been a time when he’d fallen out of love with rock ‘n’ roll, but that the Smiths and R.E.M. had brought him back into the fold.  That’s the kind of spark they have, the sort of ambitious sound that bridges divides and saves souls.

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Murmur

Released April 12th, 1983 on IRS Records

#36 on the Billboard Top 200

“Radio Free Europe”: #78 on the Hot 100

Murmur is the album that has been summed up as “Gen X Goes To College”.  It’s a cryptic, deliberately hazy album, the birthplace of the descriptor “jangly” which has been overused to describe primarily the guitar sound found here.  That sound – perhaps the most important kick-start for the “alternative nation” – came about because of a bad experience the band had with producer Stephen Hague.  Hague had tried to get the band to concentrate on technical precision and cutting-edge technology, going so far as to add in keyboards to the original recording of “Catapult” without the band’s permission.  Upon finally getting their way with IRS, the band brought in Mitch Easter, who had done the production on Chronic Town, their scene-breaking EP from the previous year.  Easter let the band record as they wanted; in a fit of pique after their experience with Hague, this meant that they decided to eschew guitar solos, contemporary synthesizers, and the sort of big-sound recording flourishes you’d typically have expected from an LP in 1983.

The result was a moody, swirling album, but less moody than contemporaries like The Cure or anyone else who was positioning themselves as an ‘alternative’ to the big-rock Zeppelin and Purple chasers who were even then bringing mainstream rock to a shuddering stand-still.  It was still structured like a traditional mainstream rock album, to be sure – guitars and vocals up front, rhythm section swinging away in the background – but instead of high-gain shred heroics and riffs that drank from the well of Tony Iommi, R.E.M. put together songs made out of chiming guitars straight out of the Byrds catalog, with clean, punchy bass to back them up.  Instead of an up-front caterwaul dripping with overt masculine sexuality, Michael Stipe kept things mushy, indistinct, and obstinately obscure.  Stipe, from Murmur onward, became the poster boy for mysteriousness in rock ‘n’ roll, penning lyrics that were couched in oblique metaphors and blending them into the songs as another instrument among equals.  Put together, Murmur is a timeless album, crafted out of a number of genres but owing fealty to none of them.

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Reckoning

Released April 9th, 1984 on IRS Records

#27 on the Billboard Top 200

“So. Central Rain” – #85 on the Hot 100

Taking a step forward from the pioneering sound of their debut, Reckoning found the band trying to capture the essence of the sound of REM playing live.  As a result, there was more of an effort to “rock out” on this album, an attempt to clean up the haziness of Murmur while keeping the singular songcraft that had marked the band out as something much different than their Athens contemporaries.  They went back to that original EP, Chronic Town, for inspiration, mining it for another go-around at jangly guitar pop that seemed to come straight out of the garage.  It was cripser, and somewhat more comprehensible, but at the same time it was lyrically a bit darker than the vague hash of poetry found on Murmur.  Part of the album’s sound is due to the fact that Murmur hadn’t sold to IRS Records’ expectations, and the powers that be at the label were looking for a more commercial album.  The band responded by making things bigger, cleaner, and punchier – Bill Berry’s drums in particular stand out much more than they did on the debut.  Part of the album’s sound is due to a violent storm that lashed Athens during the recording, resulting in the death of friend-of-the-band Carol Levy.  The aftermath resulted in an abundance of water imagery, notably on the wrenching “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” and “Camera”.  “Pretty Persuasion” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”, were a couple of Chronic Town-era compositions whose rootsy rock incidentally gave birth to the Tragically Hip.

Reckoning is a part of the DNA of the alternative movement, putting Murmur‘s jangle-pop into a much flashier setting and paving the way for all of the chiming, rootsy college rock bands that would follow in its wake.

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Fables Of The Reconstruction

Released June 10th, 1985 on IRS Records

#28 on the Top 200

“Can’t Get There From Here”:  #14 on the Hot 100

“Driver 8″:  #22 on the Mainstream Rock Chart

After Reckoning the band decamped to London and switched up producers to Joe Boyd, who had previously worked with Nick Drake and Fairport Convention.  They chose to use their time in England to explore the geography and the mythology of the American South, crafting their own southern gothics influenced mainly by their travels across the landscape during the near-constant touring they’d gone through in the course of their first two albums.  “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” represented a different sort of opener; dark and bouyed by a string section, it referenced surrealist photographer Man Ray and falling asleep while reading.  “Driver 8″ was awash in railways and trains; “Maps and Legends” paid homage to Rev. Howard Finster, an Alabama artist and Baptist minister who’s art adorned the cover of Reckoning.  “Life And How To Live It” referred to Brvis Mekis, who self-published the book of the same name and kept every copy in his closet.

These were all fine concepts for an album, but Fables Of The Reconstruction played them out in a slow, dragging sort of half-time version of what they’d polished on Reckoning.  Aside from the rollicking “Can’t Get There From Here” the songs limp along in a dour funk.  Whether the sound stems from the exhaustion the band must have felt after three years of crossing the country or from the mood-altering English weather, it mars what could have been a much better album.  Bill Berry was of the opinion that it sucked, a decade after its release; Michael Stipe agreed at one point but he has come around on it, claiming a love for it.

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Lifes Rich Pageant

Released July 28th, 1986 on IRS Records

#21 on the Billboard Top 200

“Fall On Me”:  #5 on the Rock chart, #94 on the Hot 100

“Superman”:  #17 on the Rock chart

Recorded in Indiana, Lifes Rich Pageant shows REM’s first steps towards a much more expansive, arena-filling sound.  Dan Gehman, John Mellancamp’s producer, brought them to his bosses Belmont Mall Studio and brought out the crisp snap present in Bill Berry’s drums, let the bass dance on top of it, and managed to tease out the pop melodies inherent in Michael Stipe’s vocals.  It serves as the final chapter of their early college jangle and as the first chapter of their work as one of the leading lights of the more widescreen ambitions of the alternative movement.  Christgau called it “music for mushheads” but this was the sharpest that REM had been to date.  Lyrically it was overtly political, including a newfound interest in ecology (it was the mid-1980s, after all).  “The Flowers of Guatemala” brought out their political side, while “Fall On Me” gave the verse “There’s the progress / We have found a way to talk around the problem / Building towers / Foresight isn’t anything at all / Buy the sky and sell the sky / And bleed the sky and tell the sky”.  “Cuyahoga” follows up on the ecological theme presented on “Fall On Me”, referencing the Ohio river that actually caught fire several times during the 1950s and 1960s due to over-saturation of chemicals from the nearby heavy manufacturing presence.  The most famous song today remains the band’s cover of The Cliques’ “Superman”.  The track features Mike Mills on lead vocals, since Stipe was unimpressed with the idea of covering the song and preferred to defer to the bassist.

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Document

Released September 1st, 1987

#10 on the Billboard Top 200

“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”: #16 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #69 on the Hot 100

“The One I Love”:  #2 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #9 on the Hot 100

“Finest Worksong”:  #28 on the Mainstream Rock chart

Document is the first album produced by Scott Litt, a collaboration that would carry the band through until 1996.  Like Reckoning, it takes the sounds they’d pioneered on the previous album – the big gestures, the snap of the drums, the arena-ready tone – and brought it closer to the way those songs were performed live.  Document is a big album; the songs seem to inhabit the sonic space to their comfortable limits, filling in the corners of REM’s sound in a way they’ve never been able to duplicate since.  As a whole it was even more political than their work on Lifes Rich Pageant.  The band has since acknowledged that many of the songs were a response to the state of Reagan’s America in 1986 and 1987.  “Exhuming McCarthy” conjured up the ghost of the Red Scare’s premier architect, imploring the listener to meet them at the book burning and pointing fingers at those who “bought the myth by jingo, buy American”.  “Welcome To The Occupation”, like “The Flowers of Guatemala”, shook its fist at American military involvement in the fascist regimes in South America.  “Finest Worksong” feels like the opening anthem to a revolution, and “Disturbance At The Heron House” and “King of Birds” follow along in that vein, through the streets and the riots.  “Fireplace” is a cut-and-paste of a speech by Mother Ann Lee, who led the Shakers in the late 18th Century.  The big tracks, of course, were “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and “The One I Love”, both which are now staples on rock radio, as well as film and television soundtracks.  The former, with it’s rapid-fire stream of consciousness vocal, would drive millions to try to memorize the whole thing just to belt it out; the latter, a moodier track in the vein of Murmur, contained some of Stipe’s most vicious lyrics, including the classic “This one goes out to the one I love / A simple prop to occupy my time”. Both hit the Billboard pop chart and carried the band into wider mainstream consciousness for the first time.

Document and I have a thing.  Every year, when the warm weather finally arrives back in southern Ontario, I buy some beer, throw the windows open, and get drunk with the album as a soundtrack.  It’s my spring ritual, and I can’t imagine doing it with any other album.

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Green

Released November 8th, 1988 on Warner Bros

#12 on the Billboard Top 200

“Orange Crush”:  #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #1 on the Modern Rock chart

“Pop Song ’89″:  #16 on the Modern Rock chart, #14 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #86 on the Hot 100

“Stand”:  #1 on the Modern Rock chart, #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #6 on the Hot 100

“Turn You Inside Out”:  #7 on the Mainstream Rock chart, #10 on the Modern Rock chart

After Document, REM had grown sick of their record label.  IRS Records kept pressuring them to sell increasingly more albums; the distributor, meanwhile, didn’t consider the band a priority and made it difficult for them to fulfill IRS’ wishes.  Warner Bros, sensing a growing hit act, reportedly offered the band upwards of $12 million to sign, which they accepted.  The step up to big labels and big budgets came at a time of crisis, and Green proved to be a much different REM album than any that had come before.  Bored with their “assigned” roles, they switched instruments and began jamming with different goals in mind:  new styles, major keys, more exuberant rock songs.  The result was an eclectic mixture of styles that popped out a number of hit singles, prompting some long-time fans to cry “sell-out”.  Peter Buck would later describe it as an REM album without typical REM songs, and the overall collection is not as cohesive as their efforts with IRS Records.  The band labelled the two sides of the album “Air” and “Metal”; Air would be the poppier, lighter songs, and Metal would be much more dour, like the stodgier moments on Document.  Regardless of the overall project, their singles found major coverage on the radio and after the album’s release the band would embark on an exhausting eleven month tour in support of it.

The band would continue with the political statements they’d begun on Lifes Rich Pageant.  The release of Green was timed to coincide with the 1988 American Presidential election; the band was obviously critical of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and supportive of Michael Dukakis.  “Orange Crush” examined the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam War veterans; “World Leader Pretend” blasted the outgoing Reagan administration’s bulldozer foreign policy. “Turn You Inside Out”, meanwhile, examined the nature of the singer and the audience that Stipe was already beginning to question, “Pop Song ’89” found them wondering where to go next in terms of the conversation, and “You Are The Everything” introduces what would become a major staple on future REM releases – Peter Buck’s new mandolin.

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Out Of Time

Released March 12th, 1991 on Warner Bros

#1 on the Billboard Top 200

“Losing My Religion”:  #4 on the Hot 100

“Shiny Happy People”:  #10 on the Hot 100

Out Of Time may have been the band’s big commercial album, but it sounded like the first album where R.E.M. had no idea what to do next and were firing in every direction.  Green was a little bit like that, but Out Of Time found them trying like mad to keep up their pop bona fides.  They brought in KRS-One to lay down a verse on the cheesy “Radio Song”, which feels to this day like a dated, forced attempt to keep up with pop circa the last decade of the 20th Century.  “Low” tries to go for a mid-tempo dirge feel and falls flat (something that “Near Wild Heaven”, by contrast, actually succeeds at).  “Endgame” is a nice enough instrumental although it comes off as fluff, filler for a band out of real ideas.  “Shiny Happy People” is the really egregious breach of good taste here, a lame pop confection that stands out as the worst hit single in their oeuvre.

It’s not all bad, of course.  Stipe’s trading in of the political in favour of the personal resulted in some rather emotionally affecting moments, notably “Half A World Away” (which would point the way for their next album), “Texarkana” (which sounds like a cleaner take on something from Fables Of The Reconstruction, and of course “Losing My Religion”, which will likely stand for eternity as the definitive R.E.M. song, and possibly the most misunderstood.  An entire generation grew up thinking that Stipe was making a metaphor about losing his innocence in the increased spotlight of global fame, when the phrase was really just a colourful Southern expression that meant “to flip out and start cussing”.  Still, despite these efforts, Out Of Time remains a sore spot in their classic catalog.

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Automatic For The People

Released October 5th, 1992 on Warner Bros

#2 on the Billboard Top 200

“Drive”:  #28 on the Hot 100

“Man On The Moon”:  #30 on the Hot 100

“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”:  #24 on the Mainstream Rock chart

“Everybody Hurts”:  #29 on the Hot 100

After the exhausting year-long tour behind Green and the scattershot pop explosion of Out Of Time, R.E.M. made the seemingly crazy decision not to tour behind their first #1 record.  Instead, they buckled down and went back into the studio to record the follow-up.  In many ways the years 1991-1992 were a major turning point for the group as artists.  They turned 30 and realized that the underground scene that they’d grown up in during the 1980s no longer existed.  By 1992 Husker Du was gone, and the Replacements were crumbling to nothing.  The glammed-out pop-metal scene to which they’d originally been such a powerful antidote was a bad joke, replaced in the hearts of the adolescent consumer block by grunge, hip hop, and R.E.M.  Driven by this rather somber realization, they cut out the candy-pop shenanigans and trend-chasing that had marred Out Of Time and made a spare, intimate, and very mid-tempo album.  Automatic For The People (named after the slogan of Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods in Athens) is, then, the peak of R.E.M.’s powers as rock ‘n’ roll’s premier ballad machine. Led by “Drive”, the album runs through a series of introspective ballads formed out of disconnection, failure, and loss.  “Man On The Moon” – one of only three up-tempo tracks present – mourns for Andy Kaufman; “Everybody Hurts” strives for a universal experience and nails it; “Monty Got A Raw Deal” examines the downward spiral of actor Montgomery Clift, whose car accident in the 1950s led to being mired in drugs and obscurity; “Try Not To Breathe” talks about the acceptance of mortality and the defensive posture of “having lived a good life”.  “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” was put on the album to break up the rather gloomy mood present throughout, and in this it succeeds admirably; the track manages to be bouncy pop fun without stooping to the level of “Shiny Happy People”.  The band would come close to achieving the sort of quality they established here, but they would never quite hit this height again.

Of musical note is the presence of Peter Buck’s mandolin, perhaps never more present elsewhere than it was on Automatic For The People.  Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones provided the gorgeous string arrangements for “Drive”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”, “Everybody Hurts”, and the gorgeous, shimmering nostalgia trip of “Nightswimming”.

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Monster

Released September 26th, 1994 on Warner Bros

#1 on the Billboard Top 200

“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”:  #21 on the Hot 100

“Bang And Blame”:  #19 on the Hot 100

“Strange Currencies”:  #47 on the Hot 100

“Crush With Eyeliner”:  #20 on the Modern Rock chart

Despite the commercial and critical success of Automatic For The People there was no tour behind it either.  Instead, the band met in early 1993 to figure out where to go next.  The consensus was to make a new album and tour behind it, as though they were some sort of normal band of plebs.  Bill Berry stuck his hand up and requested that they make a more rock-oriented album, something to break up the mid-tempo path they’d been on since 1991.  As such, they intentionally designed Monster to be an album of simple arrangements and the sort of loud, distorted guitars that were clogging up the airwaves at the time.  Stipe designed it lyrically to allow himself to take on the role of multiple characters, so that he could deal with the nature of fame and celebrity.

The recording process was apparently quite tense, with tempers flaring often.  At one point in the process, the band briefly broke up and then reunited.  Two of Michael Stipe’s friends, River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain, died during the process – Phoenix from a drug overdose caused by speedballs at L.A.’s Viper Room, and Cobain from a self-inflicted shotgunning at his Seattle home.  “Let Me In” was written in tribute to Cobain, while River’s sister Rain was brought in to sing back vocals on “Bang And Blame”.

I read an article once where it was revealed that Monster was one of the albums most frequently found in used record store’s bargain bins (another one of those albums was Last Splash by the Breeders, so take all of this with a grain of salt).  The problem with Monster is that the singles are great, and the rest of the album isn’t.  In a way, it’s an example as to why, less than ten years later, music piracy would be such a big deal:  casual listeners were drawn in on the strength of a radio single and discovered that there was a lot of filler to skip over in exchange for their $20.  “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” is the strongest song on Monster, to be sure, with it’s examination of the sort of paranoids that one can attract as a public celebrity.  “Bang And Blame” and “Crush With Eyeliner” both nail the kind of post-Nirvana alt-rock that the band was going for, while “Strange Currencies” continues on with the type of balladry that they’re best known for, in the vein of “Everybody Hurts” or “The One I Love”.  The rest of it, though, is utterly forgettable.  Tellingly, “Bang And Blame” would be the band’s last song to chart in the U.S. Top 40.

R.E.M. would embark on a tour behind Monster, travelling alongside Radiohead (who were supporting Pablo Honey) and Sonic Youth.  Stipe, Mills, and Berry would all develop health problems during the tour.  Berry was the worst off of the three:  at a show in Switzerland in 1995, during the intro to “Tongue”, he collapsed behind his drum set.  It would turn out that he had suffered an aneurysm, which would be the eventual impetus behind his departure from the band after the next album.

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New Adventures In Hi-Fi

Released September 9th, 1996 on Warner Bros

#2 on the Top 200

“E-Bow The Letter”:  #49 on the Hot 100

“Bittersweet Me”:  #46 on the Hot 100

“Electrolite”:  #96 on the Hot 100

New Adventures In Hi-Fi, R.E.M.’s last great album, was recorded mostly during the tour behind Monster.  As such, it’s primary obsession is with motion, and travel.  The bog-standard alt-rock guitars that made Monster a slog are still there, but they’re neatly tempered with mid-tempo experiments with form and atmosphere, and a dollop of country-rock thrown in for leavening.  The result is, as the title suggests, a cleaner, bigger R.E.M. side that begins the lean towards adult contemporary sounds.  Stipe leaves the mumble and mystique of his youth behind for good, finally projecting his voice towards the back of the stadium, like a preacher exhorting the crowd.  It lends real weight to tracks like “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us” and “Bittersweet Me”.  “The Wake-Up Bomb” is one of the most criminally unappreciated songs in the band’s catalog – in terms of a late-period example of how well the band could do loud rock ‘n’ roll, it’s perfect.  “Electrolite” is another shimmering, beautiful track, like “Nightswimming” with more studio trickery.  “E-Bow The Letter” is one of the best songs to have been written in the 1990s – graceful, gorgeous, cutting-edge, and featuring Patti Smith on backing vocals.

It would be the last album Bill Berry would be the drummer on, as well as the last album Scott Litt would produce.  It goes without saying, perhaps, that the band would never be the same again.

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Up

Released October 26th, 1998 on Warner Bros

#3 on the Top 200

“Daysleeper”:  #57 on the Hot 100

Exit Bill Berry, and enter a series of session drummers and drum machines.  The rest of the band chose to soldier on and figure out how best to go about getting on without him, and they chose to follow the late 1990s into incorporating electronic sounds into their songs.  The result is a brittle, fragile sounding album, R.E.M. songs built on gossamer and thin thread.  AllMusic called it “easy to admire, hard to love”, and while I tend to agree with that statement I think that there is something muted and beautiful about Up.  They weathered the trend of putting electronic flourishes into songs rather well, much better than some of their Eighties contemporaries like U2.  The band was always good at ballads, which may go a long way in explaining why Up succeeds.  At any rate, it staved off the decline for a whole album longer than would normally be expected for a band in their position, and with the album’s examinations of the clash between the religious or spiritual with the force of science and technology, they used their newfound electronic influences to say something interesting about the modern age.

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Reveal

Released May 14th, 2001 on Warner Bros

#6 on the Top 200

“Imitation of Life”:  #83 on the Hot 100

More robust and melodic than Up, Reveal attempted to capture what the band thought of as the classic R.E.M. sound, only with more light, sunny breezes, and Beach Boys 45s.  It was deliberate and calculated and honestly not all that good.  “Beat A Drum”, “Summer Turns To High”, and “Beachball” are all written as homages to the Beach Boys, and are about as bland and inoffensive as you can imagine.  “Imitation of Life” served its place as a single, but there’s not much to it beyond a recognizably nostalgic melody.  The only real interesting song on the album is “Disappear”.  During a period of time when Radiohead’s Thom Yorke was suffering from intense stage fright, Stipe gave him some good advice about how to deal with it; this advice later inspired Yorke to write “How To Disappear Completely”.  “Disappear” was Stipe’s inspiration based upon the Radiohead song.  Come to think of it, that story is really the only interesting thing about the song.  Reveal didn’t progress the band, and its adult-contemporary sound didn’t win them any new fans or convert any casual fans into followers.

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Around The Sun

Released October 5th, 2004 on Warner Bros

#13 on the Top 200

About as inessential as you might imagine.

I once had a conversation that went like this:

A:  “Out Of Time is the worst R.E.M. album”

B:  “Have you never heard Around The Sun?”

A:  “It only gets a pass because it’s after Bill Berry left, and who cares about those albums?”

Naturally, Around The Sun was the first R.E.M. album to have no singles chart.  That’s because there isn’t even a passably good song on it.  Peter Buck once opined that it was the sound of people who were so bored with the material they were playing that they couldn’t stand it anymore.  It’s an apathetic album, devoid of weight, ideas, and emotional impact.  Every little nook and quirk that gave R.E.M. personality is sanded down into strict, safe Adult Contemporary.  Reveal at least had some bounce; Around The Sun can’t even mange to shuffle its feet.

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Accelerate

Released March 31st, 2008 on Warner Bros

#2 on the Top 200

One thing you can say about R.E.M. is that they at least recognize when the ship is sinking and try to bail it out.  Accelerate found them stripping down to their essentials and bringing raw guitar back to the forefront of their sound.  It was more propulsive and high-impact than anything since Document, and Stipe hadn’t been as political with his lyrics since Green.  Like the final years of the Reagan administration, the final years of the Bush administration provided him ample fuel for his viciousness.  “Until The Day Is Done” kicks off with the verse “The battle’s been lost, the war is not won / An addled republic, a bitter refund / The business-first flat-earthers licking their wounds / The verdict is dire, the country in ruins”; “Man Sized Wreath” begins with the raw sarcasm of “Turning on the TV and what do I see? / A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me – wow!”; “Houston” follows up the tragedy of incompetence that was Hurricane Katrina with the line “If the storm doesn’t kill me the government will”.  While Accelerate doesn’t really recapture the heights of Lifes Rich Pageant or Document, it’s a lot better than it really has a right to be.

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Collapse Into Now

Released March 7th, 2011 on Warner Bros

#5 on the Top 200

This is the final R.E.M. album, and in retrospect it feels like it.  There’s a lot of finality to the lyrics here, a lot of summing up and becoming okay with growing old and moving on.  In the best possible way, Collapse Into Now sounds like an R.E.M. album, and while there are weak moments through out, there are more moments that sound like they’d spent a lot of time re-listening to Lifes Rich Pageant. Stipe would again abandon the political he’d rediscovered on Accelerate in favour of more universal themes:  “Discoverer” recounts his arrival in New York City for the first time and is the only openly autobiographical song he’s written; “It Happened Today” finds him claiming his right to speak, after all that has occurred; “All The Best” makes for the perfect farewell for a band going out on a high note.  “Blue” ends in a swirl, with Stipe singing the title, before briefly reprising the intro of “Discoverer”.

Six months later, in September of 2011, R.E.M. would break up, making Collapse Into Now the band’s final statement.  It could have been a lot worse – Around The Sun could have been their final album, and that would have left a pretty sour note ringing down through history.  Collapse Into Now is about as close to the classic R.E.M. sound as you’re likely to get outside of their actual classic albums, and that’s about what you can ask out of a band thirty years into their career that isn’t Swans or the Flaming Lips.

Tobias Jesso, Jr – Goon

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Tobias Jesso, Jr. – Goon

There’s going back and then there’s going back.  Vancouver singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso, Jr. is firmly in the latter camp, reaching back four decades into the 1970s to dredge up the ghosts of Harry Nilson, Billy Joel, and Elton John’s less ornate moments.  His lyrics are open and honest; there are no layers at work anywhere, no necessary dissection of words to find some kind of hidden snark or metaphor.  Look at the simple statements of “Can We Still Be Friends”:  “And then one night he arrives to your surprise / Someone let him in and all you can say is / “I know it’s not the same but I’m glad you came / Can we still be friends?””  “Hollywood” comes straight out of the plaintive side of the Seventies piano man spectrum, coming across as a doomed letter home from someone who’d run off to chase their dreams.  “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” is about as direct a statement of longing and regret you’re likely to find in 2015.

The plainness and honesty extends to the music, as well.  Jesso has spent most of his life on the guitar, and his piano skills are the kind that you develop after only a couple of years of practice.  There’s very little that can be considered flashy or ornamental here – some strings here, a couple of vintage studio tricks there – and the starkness feels all the more refreshing in the digital age.  Goon is an album for the odd-corner moments in your life – something to belt out while showering, or put on when company’s over, or maybe just to listen to in the dark with a glass of red wine while you wonder what ever happened to that girl that used to love you.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress

The concept of the post-modern is one that dominates certain philosophies surrounding the cultural discourse.  It is a measure of the forward-thinking nature of disciplines that postmodernism exists; one of the few generalized statements about the concept that can be made is that it looks both behind and beyond what stands for the modern.  The problem with examining the concept beyond this statement, of course, is that the modern is always shifting, and that the modern means different things from discipline to discipline.  What is postmodern in literature is not the same postmodern in music, or sculpture, or political theory.  Furthermore, what is postmodern today will become the modern of tomorrow; postmodernism exists in a constant cycle of renewal in terms of the concepts that it aims to challenge.  This can become particularly problematic when an entire artistic subdiscipline claims the “post” designation for its very own.  This review aims to examine what the “post” designation signifies, and then to examine whether the musical subgenre of “post-rock” uses the “post” signifier in an appropriate way.  It is the position of this review that the recently released album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress by the Montreal “post-rock” collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a subjectively pleasing album, but one that stands in for the failure of the overall “post-rock” genre to appropriately use the “post-” signifier in a meaningful way.

 

In his 1991 paper Is The Post- In Post-Modernism The Post- In Post-Colonial?, Kwame Anthony Appiah examines the concept of being post-something, and whether it means the same thing across academic and artistic disciplines.  The term “postmodern”, is, as Appiah points out, “shark-infested waters around a semantic island”[1] and can be difficult to pin down as an exact, discipline-spanning concept.  His general definition of the term requires there to be an antecedent tradition in the discipline that “laid claim to a certain exclusivity of insight.”[2] Postmodernism, then, is a “name for the rejection of that claim to exclusivity, a rejection that is almost always more playful, though not necessarily less serious, than the practice it aims to replace.”[3]  There is no specific, one-size-fits-all definition because in each discipline this antecedent tradition is different, specific to the prevailing eccentricities of the individual discipline.  Thus, for Appiah, the post- concept involves a “clearing of space” with which to separate oneself from the traditional ‘products’ of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that one finds oneself in[4].  A place to stand, as it were, or, if we may retreat to the literary modernism of Virginia Woolf for a moment, ‘ a room of one’s own’.

Appiah develops this concept further by examining the work of Max Weber; Modernism, he declares, involves a certain triumph of instrument rationality and the accompanying consideration of the universal[5].  Rationality can be seen as the central feature of modernist movements:  “Modernism in literature, architecture, and philosophy – the account of modernity that, on my model, postmodernism in these domains seeks to subvert – may be for reason or against it, but in each domain rationalization, the pervasion of reason, is seen as the distinctive dynamic of contemporary history.”[6]  Appiah questions whether this is even the case; indeed, he states that “the beginning of postmodern wisdom is to ask whether Weberian rationalization is in fact what has occurred historically.”[7]  He uses the example of religion to note that, where Weberian rationalization would see a growth of secularization, what we have seen instead is a rise in commodified fundamentalism:  television evangelists, megachurches, sweeping Islamic movements, and huckster religions built upon parting fools from their money.  Modernism, then, has more to do with economization and compartmentalization of disciplines than it does with the ascendancy of instrumental measurement of disciplines in a scientific manner.  Postmodernism, then, is necessarily a rejection of this economization and compartmentalization.

Having set upon a construction of the concept of post- that will work for this review, we’ll drill down further into the post-modern conceptualization of music in general.  In The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism, American theorist and composer Jonathan Kramer sets out to find where the postmodern concept of music lies, and finds that it is less of a matter of pinpointing a historical moment or movement and more of a conceptualization of an attitude – “a current attitude that influences not only today’s compositional practices but also how we listen to and use music of other eras.”[8]  He points out that, when it comes to ‘art music’, many critics (and the press) seem to feel that postmodernism is a movement towards what The Audience – that vast, presumably unwashed mass of popular listeners – would want to hear:  “diatonicism, singable melodies, metric regularity, foot-tapping rhythms, tonality, and/or constant harmonies.”  This description would seem to fall more in line with what Appiah fingered as a much more modernist – that is, commercialized, compartmentalized – view of music.  Kramer, by contrast, enumerates several composers (one, tellingly, being Henryk Gorecki) who “do not so much conserve as radically transform the past, as – each in their own way – they simultaneously embrace and repudiate history.”  Postmodern music, for Kramer, accepts what has come before but transforms it into something radically different than the accepted practices of modernism.  Importantly (for the purposes of this review) he quotes Jean-Francois Lyotard in saying “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern.  Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.”[9]

The concepts of post-modernism thus introduced here are important when we turn our consideration to the musical subdiscipline that has been termed ‘post-rock’.  To begin, we should first unpack the baggage that comes along with naming a genre as such.  Rock, as it is commonly understood, is a style of popular music stemming from the immediate post-war American cultural era.  It was a hybridization of several regional styles, most notably jump blues and country-and-western.  Considered from a strictly disciplinary light, the modern form of “rock music” bears little resemblance to its origins (said origins now being relegated to the subgenre ghetto of “rockabilly”).  From a broader angle, we can make some general definitions of “rock music”:  it is generally a style characterized by the use of electric guitars, bass guitars, a drum kit with a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hats, and cymbals, and a vocalist.  The songs generally follow one of a few forms of songwriting formula, most popularly the “verse-chorus-verse” format, and do not typically extend beyond the five minute mark, with some exceptions.  Regardless of the subgenre that is popular at the time – punk rock, pop-metal, college rock, grunge, emo, indie, and on into singularity – these are characteristics that cross over and define the overarching discipline as a whole.  They are the factors in the ‘modernism’ that can be defined for rock – the factors of economization and commodification that define its ‘modernity’ in Weberian terms. It allows the discipline to be easily consumed.

Post-rock, then, would necessarily reject those factors.  One would imagine that post-rock would encompass a rejection of traditional songcraft, go beyond the traditional array of instrumentation, and create pieces that are not beholden to the traditional commodification effects of radio play, ie track length.  As Kramer pointed out, this is more of an attitude than a strict historically-based checklist; many less commercially popular artists have transcended one or more of those boundaries, such as The United States of America, Throbbing Gristle, and The Residents.  Indeed, the entirety of progressive rock could be seen as a postmodern movement beyond rock music in the 1970s (although I might argue that Kramer would classify it under an anti-modern movement of classical music than as a post-modern movement of rock music).  Post-rock as a feature of the discourse surrounding rock, however, did not come into being until the 1980s, although the work of the Velvet Underground could – and has – be considered as the first activity in the post-rock movement.  The term itself was first written down in a review by Simon Reynolds, in his review of Bark Psychosis’ Hex.  Much like the term post-modernism itself, post-rock came to encompass a number of disparate styles:  the dub and krautrock sounds of John Lydon’s PiL project, the sprawling expanses of Talk Talk, the churning math of Slint’s Spiderland, the jazz-exploration of Tortoise, the stark minimalism of Stars Of The Lid.  Despite this confusion of styles under the banner of ‘post-rock’, the term has come to be most strongly associated with the work of Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor is the most post- of the acts typically associated with post-rock.  Given the criteria I outlined above, they:  eschew traditional songcraft, replacing verses and choruses with much longer, more classical-oriented movements; go outside the traditional array of rock instrumentation to include stringed instruments, waves of noise, and “found sound” type field recordings; and craft pieces that typically run over fifteen minutes.  Their earlier work – F#A#ooLift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, and the “single” Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada – fit into a number of aspects that Kramer uses to define postmodern music. Their work was “not simply a repudiation of modernism or its continuation, but has aspects of both a break and an extension.”[10] This is true especially of F#A#oo, which featured both cinematic catharsis and, on “East Hastings”, a culmination of the headbanging rock aesthetic.  They “challenged the barriers of ‘high’ and ‘low’ styles”[11], given the blend they presented between the high-art, postmodern classical stylings of composers (especially Gorecki) and the ‘low-brow’ world of popular culture inherent in rock music.  They showed “disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity”[12] – preferring to break apart songwriting forms and expand them into movements – and “avoided totalizing forms”[13], spending their early recordings forging a style that was, between 1998 and 2001, the antithesis of having a style; they especially “considered music not as autonomous but as relevant to cultural, social, and political contexts”[14], given their propensity for anarchic politics, including the anti-corporate stance that, in the liner notes to Yanqui U.X.O., connected major record labels to major weapons manufacturers.  They embraced contradiction, distrusted binary oppositions, and were inclusive of fragmentation and discontinuity.  As Kramer points out, it is nearly impossible to cover all of the aspects that he considers for post-modern music, but Godspeed You! Black Emperor tends to touch on nearly all of them.  They represented a break with the discipline of rock and a deconstruction of its traditional forms into something that represented a challenge to the established aesthetic.

Their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O. was produced by a more traditionalist rock guru, noise-nik Steve Albini, and was considered a stumbling point for the group.  Where their previous albums were considered triumphs of form and sound, Yanqui U.X.O. was much less diverse in terms of dynamics; where their previous albums were studded with field recordings that added a diversity of forms into their postmodern aesthetic, Yanqui U.X.O. featured only the sort of crescendo-and-release dynamics that ended up producing a much blander effect than had been previously heard from them.  The band went on hiatus following it, a hiatus that would continue for ten years.  During this time, the group’s de facto leader Efrim Menuck developed his compositions further with his Thee Silver Mt Zion And Memorial Orchestra project.  When Godspeed You! Black Emperor returned to making albums in 2012, it was ostensibly to make recordings of songs they had been playing live since their return to playing live in 2010.  Allejujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend! was a return to type, featuring the kind of sound that they had originally perfected on Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven.  2015 brings Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, which fits into the same mould as Allejujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend! in that it follows the same path – crescendos of noise that build and release, buoyed by strings, guitar noise, drums, and pure volume.  It is also the same formula that the acts that came up after the 2002 hiatus pioneered – acts like Explosions In The Sky, Russian Circles, *shels, and God Is An Astronaut – have made their careers on.  It is this particular style of sound – “crescendo-core”, as some have alternatively labelled it – that bears the modern label of post-rock.  There is nothing post- about it.

 

Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is a perfect microcosm for why Godspeed You! Black Emperor – and a great deal of the “post-rock” canon – no longer qualify for the title of post-anything.  Harkening back to our criteria for what would logically constitute post-rock, there were three factors:  non-linear songwriting, non-traditional instrumentation, and non-standard track lengths.  With regards to songwriting, the tracks are still not in the traditional “verse-chorus-verse” style that marks the modern conception of the overarching rock discipline, but neither are they a break with the modern.  The first track, “Peasantry, or ‘Light! Inside of Light!'”, is structurally a dead ringer for the first movement on Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas Like Heaven, “Storm”, and for the “standard” song form of the ‘crescendo-core’ bands:  a build-up into a repeating motif, a peak, and then a denouement that is drawn out over the rest of the piece.  The entire movement can be likened to the tide going in and then drawing out.  The motif present on the track seems to be a retreat into conservatism as well; the riff on display hearkens more to a more rock traditionalist style like doom or stoner metal (the difference between the two, admittedly, is splitting hairs).  In addition to being a rework of past Godspeed You! Black Emperor movements, it strongly resembles the songcraft present on other ‘crescendo-core’ pillars, most notably Explosions In The Sky’s The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place.  The final piece, “Piss Crowns Are Trebled”, is fashioned in a similar way; sandwiched between the two movements are drone pieces that strongly resemble (and are more aesthetically pleasing versions of) the drone tracks that formed the middle of Allejujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!  The format present here is, after a fashion, formalized:  it’s a commodified presence, built to be instantly recognizable in its niche as “Godspeed You! Black Emperor”.  In the Weberian sense, it is decidedly modern.

 

The instrumentation follows a similar path.  When F#A#oo was initially released in 1998, very few traditional rock bands were using violins and volume-boosted noise as main instrumentation.  By 2015, every ‘crescendo-core’ band is playing music like early Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and they are all using the same sort of instrumentation.  As noted above, the main motif of “Peasantry”, much like the main motif of 2012’s “Mladic”, is built around gain-fueled violin and guitar, underwritten by strongly traditional drumming.  Bands like Russian Circles have taken this sort of neo-traditionalism even further, using the traditional guitar-bass-drum setup to create pieces that are, in effect, longer versions of traditional heavy rock songs.  The motifs of “Peasantry” and “Piss Crowns Are Trebled” could comfortably fit into the work of an artist who modeled themselves after Black Sabbath (a core artist in the subgenre of ‘heavy’ rock music) with very little truncation and nothing in the way of instrumentation change.

 

Song length – commodification to fit onto radio playlists between blocks of commercials – remains, at first glance, still unchanged.  This is, after all, an album of four tracks, where two of them exceed ten minutes in length.  Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, however, is, when taken as a whole, a very conventional forty minutes in length.  When taken in consideration with previous efforts, where the group often put out albums of well over an hour and even the “single”, Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada, was nearly thirty minutes in length, this is a much more commodifiable length for an album.  While there is little chance of any of these pieces ending up on traditional rock radio, a forty-minute album is much easier to commodify as a ‘post-rock’ genre album alongside similarly-timed albums by other artists existing within the genre.  The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, for example, runs 45 minutes in length; Russian Circle’s Station is 43 minutes; This Will Destroy You’s Another Language runs to 47 minutes.  These are constructed as easily-digestible slices of instrumental music sold as ‘post-rock’.

Even in terms of ‘attitude’, which Kramer identified as a, if not the key factor in determining postmodernism in music, this album fails to pass as a post- work.  This is the second album in three years constructed as a studio recording of pieces that have been played live for half a decade; the intent here is that they can be recorded, packaged, and sold to the consumer who is looking for further releases under the label and aesthetic construction of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” in specific and “post-rock” in general.  The space, as it were, has been cleared, and the market is in motion.  Coming back around to Lyotard’s quote on the cycle of the postmodern and the modern, we can see that a truly post-modern act – Godspeed You! Black Emperor circa 1998 – has shed its nascent postmodernism and has become part of the modern – “post-rock” circa 2015.

 

When taken in the consideration of being a neatly labeled, tightly compartmentalized release of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” music, Asuder, Sweet and Other Distress is, from my subjective standpoint, aesthetically pleasing.  It hits all of the right notes that a fan of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” expects from a release by the group – the build-up, the release, the drifting denouement – and hits them with the precision and grace that one would expect from such a long-running outfit.  To consider the album – and any so-called ‘crescendo-core’ release – to be “post-rock”, however, is to miss the target so badly that one’s shot lands the next town over.  There is nothing ‘post-‘ about Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress; it is a quantifiable and measurable unit of a very modern subdiscipline, one that bears a strong misnomer for a name.  The cycle noted by Lyotard has brought the group into its period of modernism, it’s moment of compartmentalized Weberian rationality.  Appiah’s space-clearing gesture of the post- has long since been cleared, and the time has perhaps come to clear a new space once again.

Endnotes
[1] Appiah, Kwame Anthony.  "Is The Post- In Postmodernism The Post- In Postcolonial", Critical Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter 1991), 341
[2] Appiah, 342
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Appiah, 343
[6] Ibid
[7] Appiah, 344
[8] Kramer, Jonathan.  "The Nature And Origins Of Musical Postmodernism", Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, Lochhead, Judy and Joseph Auner Ed., 13
[9] Kramer, 14
[10] Kramer, 16
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid
[13] Ibid
[14] Ibid