Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Trademark Sounds

by Steve Pick

Three things have happened today that I want to talk about.

1. I listened for the third complete time to the new album by Panic At the Disco, Pretty. Odd.

2. In an e-mail exchange, a friend brought up something of a disconnect between my appreciation of the B-52's for delivering in Funplex the exact sort of thing I expect out of a band I've enjoyed for thirty years, without any room for change.

3. I listened for the second complete time to the new album by R.E.M., Accelerate.

The B-52's have gone sixteen years without releasing a record, and now that they have, it sounds pretty much as though it could have been dropped at any point in their career. R.E.M. have been releasing records all along, but I stopped caring after Monster back in 1994. The new record is a blatant attempt to win me back over. I've reflexively hated Panic! At the Disco (they've now dropped the !) and all that post-emo young boy rock for which they've stood, but now they've released a record that caters to all my musical desires - melody, harmony, hooks, intricate arrangements. I'm told their fan base hates them for it.

What do musicians owe to their fans? I think they owe their best effort, their honest interest in the music they're presenting. Other than that, they don't owe us anything. If they feel like perpetuating the same style they've done for thirty years, then all I've got to worry about is whether or not they do it well. If they want to completely throw away a previous musical approach, I'll listen to it and decide whether or not I'm going to like it. If I don't, that's not a betrayal on their part, simply a difference of opinion between us.

I enjoy Accelerate, I really do. But something about it sounds pro forma in a way that the similarly rocking Monster didn't. Every crunching guitar lick, every throbbing, pounding beat, every soaring Michael Stipe melodic line, sounds familiar from the first listen, as if it was predigested for those of us who grew up with the band and refused to follow the paths they took away from us.

So, why is the B-52's record so much fun, while this one sits outside my comfort zone (not very far, outside, mind you - I can't help tapping my foot to the rockers that open and close Accelerate)? I think it's in the looseness of approach from this band which helped form the Athens, GA scene that created R.E.M. in the first place. The B-52's never worried about making grand statements; they just throw a great party, and you're welcome to come dance this mess around if you feel like it. With R.E.M., there has always been an implication that the music means something more than just having a good time, and sometimes, it very clearly has. Such an ambition can, I suppose, lead to a greater disappointment when the reach exceeds the grasp.

So, meanwhile, I'm loving the Panic at the Disco record, simply because their ambitions have moved beyond just pounding out noisy little bursts of angst and sentimental love songs (or whatever the heck they were doing - honestly, I wasn't listening closely enough, and would usually run from the room when they might be heard). But here, they have fulfilled what I've been waiting for from young musicians - a true burst of creativity inspired by the ability to listen to just about anything good that's come before. Yeah, they want to make a record as good as the Beatles did, and if they don't come up to that standard, they have half a dozen songs which are worming their way pretty solidly into my memory banks.

I wonder if Panic will have to go back to their roots in a few years, and try to recapture their audience which seems to be leaving them in droves - I don't know if we've sold any yet, because the audience of people my age with my musical interests haven't found out how cool this record is. I wonder if R.E.M. will win me over and give me the thundering shivers of rock excitement they so obviously want me to experience, or if I'll continue to be wary of the cynicism I'm feeling at the heart of this record. I don't, however, wonder anything about the B-52's. I'm too gosh darn busy smiling every time I hear the record.


tonpatti said...

I haven't heard the REM album yet, but what you're describing sounds very difficult and disciplined to create. Either that, or they let go and nature took over, giving them back their old sound because they stopped fighting against it. I wish I knew which was the exact case, but in any event, they either took pleasure or pains to achieve something they thought we would really love, and that's a little less cynical a reaction.

Just hearing one little snippet of the B_52s sold me.

Anonymous said...

There was a feature on R.E.M. in the Sunday NYTimes. I'm still not sure if they conscientously tried to make a retro-sounding REM record. According to the article, they recorded it quickly and mostly live. Sounds like other bands I've known (aka The Beatles) who in the later years, just wanted to get together and play live without all the overdubs. I think getting back to your roots is a good thing for the bands. Heck, there doing this because it's fun, right? Just ask the B-52's..

Haven't heard any of these records yet - but I will soon enough. Thanks Steve (and tonpatti..)


Euclid Joe said...

I think the handwriting was on the wall, they had to make a REM record or the band would cease to exist. They nearly bit the big one after the last record which caused a ton of friction between the three. I saw a live radio interview with the band in Austin and that's what was implied. I was fortunate enough to see them do a couple songs, Supernatural Superserious and Invitation of Life at the Austin City Limits studio. Both songs were exquisite, I hope I can catch a full set this summer.

Euclid Joe

Darren said...

The cover story in the latest Spin seems to imply that Stipe's arm had to be twisted by the other two guys, who cooked up some unusually rockin' instrumental demos in advance. Whatever the process, the result sounds pretty good to me! However, Stipe should've ignored Chris Martin's advice..."Supernatural Superserious" is a much stupider title than "Disguise."