R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People”

Album cover for "Automatic for the People"

This week, I’ve been listening to R.E.M.’s 1992 album “Automatic for the People.” This album came out when I was a sophomore in High School; About three years later I often listened to the album in my little VW Golf. I really enjoyed this album, though “Monster” was more to my tastes. I’ll get this out of the way; I don’t care much for the overplayed hit “Everybody Hurts“. So, let’s move on to some of the songs I do like, of which on this album there are plenty. These songs present a variety of country-rock, alt-folk and alt-rock blends. The lyrics give us stories, vignettes, and vitriol combining common language with big words. It’s rock n roll poetry by the smart kids.

Man on the Moon

The song “Man on the Moon” introduced a lot of my generation to Andy Kaufman. We’d seen him in reruns of Taxi, but, at least for me, I didn’t really know anything about him otherwise. The song title, paralleling moon-landing conspiracies with Kaufman faking his death, gave the title to a film about Kaufman starring Jim Carrey. All that aside, it’s a fantastic tune with great lyrics. Originally, I was going to write about “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” but the guitar solo in “Man on the Moon” changed my mind.

I jump straight to the solo now and do this things backwards. Two electric guitars playing simultaneously creating a uniquely engaging sound. One, panned a little to the right, plays the tonic note of the chord repeatedly. This adds a sort of drone to the melodic lead played by another guitar panned to the left. The actual solo flows from a slide guitar driven just below the breaking point of the amp, so there’s just a smooth bit of gritty distortion.

The part is not particularly complicated. The chords progression is a repeated vi-V, having an elevated above the rest of the song feeling. The slide runs up to the 12th fret during the vi chord, and drops down to the 7th fret during the V. There’s a bit of wiggling during the V up to the 8th fret, and let off at the end of the bar to play the open B string. It’s a very rugged American guitar solo and I think it sounds fantastic.

The fairly languid alt-folk song opens with clean electric bass and acoustic guitar. These are joined by a clean slide electric, and then drums and vocals. The drums bounce across the stereo field, playing open simple patterns primarily on the toms. The accompaniment of the song is beautiful, gently and simple. The song is easy to like without feeling overly pleasant.

Each line of the verses follow a IV-V-IV chord progression. The lack of a tonic chord in the verses gives them a drifting unresolved feeling. This helps the chorus to stand out as being strong. The chorus follows a ii-I repeated three times, followed by a IV-V that pulls the listener towards to following tonic. The second and main part of the chorus has a I-ii-IV-V-I-ii-V-I-ii-IV-iii-ii. That hanging ii chord ends the chorus unresolved, where it pulls back around to the IV-V-IV verse progression.

Apparently, Michael Stipe included all of the yeahs in the song as a mocking tribute to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Kurt tended to use a lot of “yeahs” in his lyrics; a great example is Nirvana’s “Lithium” from 1991 with a chorus of “yeah yeah yeah”. So, here’s a bit of the seemingly random bits of Kaufman-referencing lyrics to “Man on the Moon”

Here’s a little agit for the never-believer, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a little ghost for the offering, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Ignoreland

“Ignoreland” reminds me of a handful of songs from the late 80s that, as kids, we considered it a skill to be able to recite. I immediately think of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World,” Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and Madonna’s “Vogue.” Oh, and of course, the McDonald’s Menu song, which was a brilliant idea considering how many of us in middle school memorized and repeated it.

Though the vocals maintain focus throughout, there’s a lot happening in the background. Layers of guitars weave lines back and forth creating a swirling texture. The poppy clean bass subtly provides the bottom through the verses, then thrums a constant tonic note through the pre-chorus section of the verses. During the post-chorus, the bass draws attention to itself through a poppy bouncing riff, then withdraws to the back again. The drums are modest, with basic fills at the end of each section; a cowbell pops through the choruses. Overdrives emphasize the choruses, with fuzz drifting giving a rocking angry feel.

The verses have three distinct sections, the last of which is arguably a pre-chorus even though each has somewhat lyrics. The first section has a minimal melody with rhythmic statements and unusual pauses. The delivery and filtering make the vocals sound like a radio broadcast. This last for eight lines. The second section bring in a distinctly different melody which lasts for three lines. Stipe sings these in more traditional way.

Then Stipe launches into a rapid rhythmic monotone series of lines flying like ticker-tape. The song is decidedly political taking aim at former president Reagan and then president Bush, as well as media coverage at the time.Brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready
Heartless and labeled, super U.S. citizen, super achiever
Mega ultra power dosing, relax, defense, defense, defense, defense
Yeah, yeah, yeah

Up the republic my skinny ass
TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report
Anything that isn’t handed
On a presidential spoon
I’m just profoundly frustrated
By all this, so fuck you, man

Nightswimming

Another great song “Nightswimming” closes the album. OK, not really. There’s another good song, “Find the River,” actually ends the album, but I think that would’ve sat better in the middle. Nightswimming casts a nostalgic spell recalling more carefree younger days. The perspective is from years later.

Some ambiguity runs through the lyrics. It’s unclear if the speaker just went swimming at night and is now driving home realizing how nightswimming today is not like it was years ago. Or, perhaps, all of the swimming was years ago and it’s merely the photograph on the dashboard that reminds him.

Sparse instrumentation accompany the poignant feeling of nostalgia in the lyrics. A piano plays a repeating melodic arpeggio, reminding me a bit of Mozart’s childhood pieces, though without the showing-off. The song mostly repeats a I-IV-V progression throughout. A bass supports the piano; and in a subtle use of strings and oboe provide some color the the background. I love a bit of oboe, so it’s a welcome addition for my ear.

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard taken years ago
Turned around backwards so the windshield shows
Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse
Still, it’s so much clearer
I forgot my shirt at the water’s edge
The moon is low tonight

Radiohead’s “The Bends”

Album cover for Radiohead's "The Bends"

I spent this week with Radiohead’s second album “The Bends” from 1995. This album came out when my senior year of high school was coming to a close. It seems like I heard the song “High and Dry” a bit, but I don’t recall being too aware of this album until the following year. Several of the songs, especially “Just” and “Fake Plastic Trees” became part of the regular soundtrack of my life. It wasn’t so much my choice, though I did love the song. Both Mtv and my friends played “Fake Plastic Trees” with some frequency. Somehow, I managed to not get to know much of this album until this week.

It’s funny how you don’t realize how “of its time” some recordings can be until you listen to them a couple decades later. This album is definitely within the 90s guitar alt-rock genre. Listening to this album made me really realize how influential the Pixies had been on the sound of 90s alternative. I found this especially noticeable in the way the bass is used in these songs. There will be louder sections with drums, guitars, bass, vocals, etc.. and then these will pull back for quieter sections with crispy bass guitar grooves. Anyway…

The song I most know from this album is undoubtedly “Fake Plastic Trees”. In the video, you’ll see singer Thom Yorke riding around the grocery store in the shopping cart. I guess this was just a thing in the 90s, as Jarvis Cocker did it the year before in Pulp’s video for “Common People.” I know there were others, but all I can remember now is an early publicity shot of Marilyn Manson.

Thom Yorke’s quietly strummed acoustic guitar opens the song. Yorke sings sonorously, wet with deep reverb. The lyrics deal with capitalism and artificiality in contemporary society and culture. A sense of humor runs through the lyrics, while they express an emotional mix of disillusionment, emptiness and longing.

A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

The first chorus repeats the line “It wears her out.” This gets modified to “It wears him out.” in the second chorus and finally “It wears me out” for the third and final verse. I like this use of the chorus as a refrain for verses, altered slightly to match the subject of the verse.

The personal turn the songs takes for the final verse, comes even more raw at the end. Yorke closes “Fake Plastic Trees” wistfully singing “If I could be who you wanted all the time.” This reminds me of the chorus “You’re so fuckin’ special; I wish I was special” in their song “Creep.” He gritted his teeth to sardonically deliver that line in the earlier song, spitting it out more as an insult. But in “Fake Plastic Trees” the line comes out as a painful apology for not being enough.

I came to really enjoy the song “Bones,” which follows “Fake Plastic Trees” on the album. It’s probably the most rock n’ roll track. I really like the use of deep tremolo on the overdriven guitar. With each strum in each verse, they drop the speed of the effect as the chord naturally fades out. They disable the effect for chorus. Still, I’ve found with the Rolling Stones and now Radiohead that I really enjoy guitars through tremolo and rotating speaker. It’s particularly exciting when the rhythm of the strumming is in a fight against the tremolo. This can be heard in “Bones” just before each chorus when they they have the speed up.

My favorite track on the album remains “Just.” The song opens with a particularly 90s acoustic guitar riff, much like we would hear later the same year from Oasis. This style of rhythmic strumming was heard a lot during the decade, probably coming from the Pixies and Boston by way of Nirvana.  Radiohead crafted an excellent song here, but what really gets me is the bridge starting halfway into the song. At about 2:28, we hear electric guitar draw the song back in with string noise through tremolo! I would argue that the bridge of “Just” unusually includes another chorus. This comes to a tense climax when Greenwood’s frantically picked ascending lead guitar peaks.. holding a distorted note threatened by impending feedback. The other instruments pull back giving a floating weightless feeling to the moment. Just before feedback overrides the note, Greenwood slides it back and mutes the guitar. A clean guitar brings back the beat of the song with staccato pronunciations. The the band slams us with one last chorus before closing the song by sudden cutting out.

Pixies’ “Doolittle”

Pixies' Doolittle album cover This week, I’ve been listening to the Pixies‘ 1989 album “Doolittle.” My introduction to this alt-rock guitar band probably came through Nirvana and the Breeders. You can definitely hear that Nirvana influence coming from songs like “Tame.” “Doolittle” was nearly a decade old by the time I heard it. Though I know a few of the songs, this week was really my first time getting to know the whole album.

This Pixies album album sounds very 90s, even though it came out before music that typifies the 90s. At the time, it must’ve seemed so strange and new. It’s still unusual today, but definitely sounds dated. Just strange that it sounds dated to a time after it came out. That’s how influential it was.

I fell in love with “Monkey Gone to Heaven” the first time I heard it, whenever that was. The unusual start of the song caught my attention. A series of ascending chords drive out of nowhere, drums begin, then a hit from the bass as if this song is going to rock. Then.. a pause and the vocals calming state “There was a guy.” Instead of rocking, the collected and slightly menacing voice, tells us a story like recalling a legendary news item: “An underwater guy who controlled the sea got killed by ten million pounds of slugs from New York and New Jersey.” That’s the first verse: Nonsense that seems to make sense. The chorus consists of the line “This monkey’s gone to heaven” repeated four times.

“Here Comes Your Man” provides a great example of something I noticed throughout the album. The guitars often play monophonic surf-rock inspired lines. There’s not so much strumming of full chords as usually found in rock music. The album also features a lot more clean, or at least less distorted, guitar than I would’ve expected. When guitars are distorted or fuzzed, they are mixed further back than the clean guitars, providing more of a pad than a heavy drive.

The nearly instrumental “La La Love You” songs also features a lot of surf-rock style lead guitar. Again, this track opens with some rockin’ drums and then takes a mellow turn. It borders on instrumental cheese and surf rock. I love the bright clean electric with dripping reverb sound. The bass rolls along uninterestingly, which is actually in contrast to most of the album where the bass carries much of the instrumentation. The lyrics aren’t much, but that’s really the point. “All I’m sayin’ pretty baby, La la love you, don’t mean maybe.” is repeated several times as the song ends. In a way this song seems to represent much of what the undercurrent of the album: It’s an angular love-affair with rock n roll; it attacks what it loves.

Radiohead’s “Kid A”

This week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead’s album “Kid A” from 2000. When this album was released, I had just moved to Asheville a few months prior. “Pablo Honey” was one of my favorite albums and I really enjoyed “OK Computer.” I also liked the singles from “The Bends”. With each album, they were obviously evolving as an experimental band expanding the possibilities of the alt-rock genre. My first reaction to “Kid A” was one of disapproval. From my perspective, they’d gone off into the stratosphere, losing touch with rock music and the audience. It also got dangerously close to ambient music at times. In short, I did not like it.

About fifteen years later, I’m running into people who love this album. Some even consider it Radiohead’s best. So, I give it another chance.   I now heard a band casting aside the confines of rock to focus on what had made them unique before. It seems they were rebelling against what people said and expected from them. Perhaps, they finally completely rebelled against the brit-pop Nirvana labelled they’d inexplicably acquired in the early 90s. I never understood that description, but there’s definitely no way anybody could say that about “Kid A.” I still didn’t like it.

Three more years pass and here I’m spending a full week listening to “Kid A” because it’s considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of all time. After devoting all this time to it, I still don’t really like it much. However, some parts of it grew on my a little. Some parts wore on me a lot. Overall, I think the album suffers from too much repetition without enough variation. Each song has some cool stuff going on. However, even the cool stuff becomes boring when it goes on for too long.

BBC recording of “Everything In It’s Right Place” since the  album version is not available.

The “Everything In It’s Right Place” is one of the best tracks on the album. The few lyrics are oblique and opaque, which is true for most of the album. The lines capture a feeling of being overwhelmed and in a generally foul mood. Thom repeats lines several times, which makes them memorable and catchy. I almost don’t notice how little description the words give.

The chords follow an unusual pattern of I-II♭7-III♭6 for the intro, and then IV-I-II♭7-III♭6 for the verses. These strange series comes from playing a constant tonic note (C in this case) while playing triadic chords below it. I assume that the use of a constant C puts the song in the key of C, however, it feels like it may actually be in the key of F. The moments of the song that return to that IV chord FEEL like they are returning home to the tonic. This is not a conventionally way to work with chords in rock music and really sounds much more like jazz.

A fan-made video for “The National Anthem” by Radiohead.

“The National Anthem” grabs my interest with its cool driving bassline. Unfortunately, that bass continues without deviation until it is mind-numbingly monotonous. I think of Mancini’s bassline in “Peter Gunn” which holds up to repetition because so much musically interesting happens over top of it that the bassline becomes a groovy background texture. In “The National Anthem” the unchanging bass line stays to prominent; furthermore, the other instrumentation fails to pull the focus away.  I don’t like the chaotic brass free-for-all section. With its lack of musical substance, it’s just chaos. It sounds too much like an imitation of the sound of more avant-garde jazz without any direction or purpose. Rather than building on the bassline, they make stylistic noise in spite of it.  And again, that pulls my ear to the bass.

The vocals provide the most interesting element of the song. Or, more specifically, the processing of the vocals.  There seems to be a combination of doubling-up with a resonant synth, perhaps some ring-modulation, and altered reverb/delay. I’m not sure, but it does wonderful things to my ears.  Too bad the lyrics fail to provide much to the song.  All they gives us is “Everyone around here, everyone is so near. It’s holding on. Everyone is so near, Everyone has got the fear. It’s holding on.” That’s it. With this bassline and those horns, I feel that more story-telling is in order.

Live performance of “Optimistic” by Radiohead.

Probably my favorite track on “Kid A” was “Optimistic.” Again, the vocals repeat the same lyrics multiple times. The chorus has six lines, which are three lines repeated, the first two of which are the same: “You can try the best you can. You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.” It certainly helps the lyrics to be memorable.

I probably prefer this song because it’s a little more rocking than the others. The song features guitar. The clean guitar strums rhythmic chords like the Velvet Underground or Stereolab. Drums trip loosely across the toms, creating a somewhat exotic texture. Unfortunately, the song shares the quality of flatness with the rest of the tracks. From start to finish, there’s a feeling of samess due to the dreamy drift between sections and the lack of solid dynamics.

Overall, I didn’t think this was that great of an album. I appreciate it as serious shift transition from the old Radiohead to the new Radiohead, but I don’t know if I consider that a good thing. My tastes are more for the earlier Radiohead than what came after.