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Archive for March, 2005

Renovating Southfork.

You suck! Dallas rules!” It’s Bill Haverchuck‘s dream come true — Apparently, marketing geniuses are putting together a feature film version of Dallas, with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Pamela Ewing and — possibly — Brad Pitt as Bobby. Hmmm. If this goes ahead, I’ll bet dollars-to-donuts Billy Bob Thornton ends up being J.R.

Expect DeLays.

Speaking of the GOP pyramid, and in a move that should leave principled conservatives aghast, the right-wing base begins to organize behind Boss DeLay. The more you tighten your grip around a corrupt and hypocritical goon like the Hammer, y’all, the more voters will slip through your fingers.

A Tale of Two Pyramids.

It is not quite the ‘right wing conspiracy’ that Hillary Clinton described, but it is an impressive organization built consciously, carefully and single-mindedly. The Ann Coulters and Grover Norquists don’t want to be candidates for anything or cabinet officers for anyone. They know their roles and execute them because they’re paid well and believe, I think, in what they’re saying.” By way of Blotter Spotter and The Late Adopter, Bill Bradley emerges from hiding to dissect the organizational problems of the Democratic Party. “If Democrats are serious about preparing for the next election or the next election after that, some influential Democrats will have to resist entrusting their dreams to individual candidates and instead make a commitment to build a stable pyramid from the base up. It will take at least a decade’s commitment, and it won’t come cheap. But there really is no other choice.” I agree wholeheartedly…but to help build this pyramid, Senator Bradley, we need to hear much more from you more often.

No…there is another.

More good news emanating from the Sith: Apparently Steven Spielberg had a hand in choreographing the direction of some of Episode III‘s most crucial lightsaber duels. Even if Spielberg didn’t do all that much, the fact that Lucas looked for outside advice this time around bodes well indeed for the final installment.

Miles Standish Proud.

By way of Lots of Co. and Webgoddess, Flagpole Magazine picks the 25 Best-Ever R.E.M. Songs. I actually think their list is really good — and I concur with several of their top pics (including #1), but for the sake of it, here’s my own Top 50, at least for the moment. As per Max, the Flagpole ranking is in parentheses. (I did try originally to keep it down to 25, but found I was leaving too many excellent tunes by the wayside. And then the numbering got screwed up and…well, in short, fifty will have to do ya.)

50. “Talk About the Passion“: “Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.” Anticipating Mel Gibson’s filmic use of Aramaic by a good two decades, Michael Stipe chose to conduct his own disquisition about the Passion in French. Combien de temps? I dunno…ask Jefferson.

49. “Let Me In“: “I’ve got tar on my feet and I can’t see. All the birds look down and laugh at me, clumsy, crawling out of my skin.” A troubled tribute to the late Kurt Cobain, with tortuous waves of feedback threatening to overwhelm Stipe’s plaintive delivery at every turn.

48. “The Outsiders“: “So am I with you or am I against? I don’t think it’s that easy — We’re lost in regret.” One of R.E.M.’s more accomplished experiments on Around the Sun, and Q-Tip’s cameo at the end works much better than KRS-1’s similar appearance on “Radio Song.”

47. “King of Birds“: “Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold, leaves me cold.” I remember “King of Birds” being a favorite of mine for a very long time. But it’s slipped in recent years, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on…perhaps it’s the droning D chord. At any rate, it’s a quality tune regardless.

46. “Nightswimming” (2): “You, I thought I knew you. You I cannot judge.” Like “King of Birds,” “Nightswimming” is an undeniably bewitching song…but for some reason it hasn’t aged well with me. It’s much better than, say, “Everybody Hurts” on the same album, and nowhere near as schmaltzy as “Strange Currencies” or “At My Most Beautiful,” but still — right now it’s just off my radar.

45. “Gardening at Night” (19): “I see your money on the floor, I felt the pocket change though all the feelings that broke through that door just didn’t seem to be too real.” Early and elegant, “Gardening at Night” still holds up almost 25 years after the fact…If only college rock was still this captivating.

44. “First We Take Manhattan” (20): “Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win. You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline.” Besides being a band for the ages, R.E.M. also has impeccable taste in covers, as illustrated by their crunchy take on Leonard Cohen’s dark, swelling “First We Take Manhattan.” (Other excellent covers that could have gone here are U2’s “One,” Lulu’s “To Sir With Love,” Mary Black’s “My Youngest Son Came Home Today,” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Last Day of Our Acquaintance,” but I disqualified them ’cause they’re usually Stipe-centric and bereft of the entire quartet.)

43. “You are the Everything” (16): “Here’s a scene: You’re in the back seat, laying down. The windows wrap around to the sound of the travel and the engine.” It loses some points for the “teeth in your mouth” bit, but still, one of R.E.M.’s better forays into naked sentimentalism. If you’re like me and between 25 and 37, this was classic mixtape-for-the-girlfriend fare.

42. “Sweetness Follows” (5): “It’s these little things, they can pull you under. Live your life filled with joy and thunder. Yeah, yeah we were all together, lost in our little lives.” According to Michael Stipe’s stage banter, this is apparently Peter Buck’s favorite song, and it is quite a beauty. Frankly, I find Automatic for the People a hard album to listen to all that much, but this is a track that remains powerful with every playing.

41. “King of the Road“: “Trailers for sale or rent. Rooms to let, fifty cents.” The boys from Athens butcher Roger Miller’s classic at the end of a very long bender, and yet somehow it’s in perfect keeping with the tune’s zeitgeist. One of the better examples of how fun R.E.M. can be when they just get silly (See also their covers of Suzanne Vegas’ “Tom’s Diner” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, as well as “Bandwagon” on Dead Letter Office.)

40. “Pilgrimage“: “Speakin’ in tongues, it’s worth a broken lip.” “Laughing” or “Moral Kiosk” could’ve gone here too — there are no real bad cuts on Murmurs. But there’s something about “Pilgrimage,” particularly coming as it does right after “Radio Free Europe,” that shows that R.E.M. was a band with more than one setting, and a long future ahead of them.

39. “I Took Your Name“: “I sequenced your arrival, I sealed your fate. I pushed the button and erased your master tape.” Peter Buck fools around with feedback while Stipe sings of the perils of popularity. Breezy but memorable.

38. “Pretty Persuasion“: “Reasoning cannot shuffle in this heat, it’s all wrong.” A prototypical early R.E.M. song, but a good one nonetheless.

37. “High-Speed Train“: “I’m long in the eye. I cry when I try. I just want to fly, just you and I, together” In contrast to the churning pistons of “Driver 8”, this “High Speed Train” moves along to a throbbing sonic hum. And it’s inexorably leading our moon-eyed hero in what’s probably the wrong direction, further and further away from a lover that doesn’t quite seem to share his enthusiasm. Alas, he can travel anywhere in the world, except exactly where he wants to go.

36. “Wolves, Lower“: “Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, suspicion us all. Wilder lower wolves. Here’s a house to put wolves out the door.” Wow, these guys have talent. If I were I.R.S., I’d sign these fools immediately.

35. “Disturbance at the Heron House“: “The gathering of grunts and greens, cogs and grunts and hirelings, a meeting of a mean idea to hold.” A perfectly executed mid-era R.E.M. jingly-jangle.

34. “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream“: “I’ll settle for a cup of coffee, but you know what I really need.” One of the more fetching tunes from the lust-tinged Monster. As this song suggests, sometimes it’s best just to ignore that monster lurking in the corner…y’know, the one clearly and unabashedly trying to get your attention.

33. “We Walk” (9): “Take oasis, Marat’s bathing.” The Feedback entry on this one was dead on — This nonsense rhyme off of Murmur should be a throwaway, but somehow it’s exceedingly catchy. Up the stairs, to the landing…

32. “She Just Wants to Be“: “It’s not that she wasn’t rewarded with pomegranate afternoons of Mingus, Chet Baker and chess.” One of the more lyrical outings from Reveal that (particularly when paired with Up‘s “Walk Unafraid“) really comes into its own live.

31. “Voice of Harold“: “We are associated with United Music World Recording Studios, Inc., West Columbia, SC. The finest sound available anywhere.” Adding credence to the post-modern applicability of found texts, R.E.M. re-record their earlier song “7 Chinese Brothers” with Stipe reading the liner notes of some random gospel album. Hey, for whatever reason, it works.

30. “Turn You Inside Out“: “Divide your cultured pearls in haste, I’m looking for to lay to waste.” Stipe used to scream this one through a bullhorn during the Green tour, and “Turn You Inside Out” calls for exactly that type of frenetic energy. It’s a ballad of self-empowerment for the slightly deranged.

29. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?“: “I’d studied your cartoons, radio, music, TV, movies, magazines. Richard said, ‘Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.’” 1994 spawned a Monster, and this ode to Dan Rather’s stalker kicked it off with both our first look at a bald, flailing, hyperactive Stipe and our first listen to a new grungy crunch for the band post-Automatic. I dig this frequency, Kenneth.

28. “Exhuming McCarthy“: “You’re beautiful more beautiful than me. You’re honorable more honorable than me — Loyal to the Bank of America.” The band serves up a dose of Document-era politics with tongue firmly in cheek and a groove you can’t help shimmying to (that is, assuming you have no sense of decency, sir.)

27. “Underneath the Bunker” “I have water, I have rum, wait for dawn and dawn shall come, underneath the bunkers in the row.” 90 seconds of goofy bliss, and just the type of mental sorbet that an album as rich as Life’s Rich Pageant required around the halfway mark.

26. “Half a World Away” “This storm it came up strong. It shook the trees and blew away our fear, I couldn’t even hear.” Pretty straightforward, sure, but “Half a World Away” is still an exquisite ode to faraway love, and one of the better signposts in Michael Stipe’s evolution from cryptic mumbling to more heartfelt fare.

25. “Leave“: “Suffer the dreams of a world gone mad, I like it like that and I know it. I know it well, ugly and sweet, A temperament that said believe in this dream.” Propelled by a frantic air raid signal in the background (and, as the A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack showed, the song doesn’t work very well without it), “Leave” best captured the synergy of live performance energy and studio production values that the band seemed to be going for with New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

24. “Lotus“: “Opposing thumb, dorsal fin, that monkey died for my grin. Bring my happy back again.” The one unabashed rocker on Up, the band’s first album without Bill Berry, “Lotus” has the same type of infectious and demented thrill as earlier standouts “I Took Your Name” and “So Fast, So Numb.” Good stuff, that.

23. “Tongue“: “Call my name, here I come. Your last ditch lay, will I never learn?” One of R.E.M.’s filthier ditties, crooned in gender-bending falsetto, “Tongue” is also one of the high points on the very agreeable Monster.

22. “Drive“: “Smack, crack, bushwhacked. Tie another one to the racks, baby.” After blowing up to international regard with Out of Time and “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. returned to the fold with this haunting rock dirge (and equally haunting video) to open the surprisingly low-key Automatic for the People. It showed everyone that, despite all the acclaim, the boys from Athens still marched to their own drummer (and, at least for a few albums, he wasn’t going anywhere.)

21. “I’ve Been High” (24): “What I want, what I really want is just to live my life on high. And I know, I know you want the same — I can see it in your eyes.” One of the most beautiful songs in the band’s recent oeuvre, and proof positive that the folks out there who feel R.E.M. has lost a step in the post-Berry era should give the newer albums at least one more whirl.

20. “Harborcoat“: “They crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off. A handshake is worthy if it’s all that you’ve got.” Like “Pretty Persuasion,” one of the other standout cuts on Reckoning, “Harborcoat” is fast-paced poetry in the early R.E.M. style.

19. “World Leader Pretend” (13): “I proclaim that claims are left unstated, I demand a rematch, I decree a stalemate, I divine my deeper motives.” Following the issue-oriented politics of Document, “World Leader Pretend” proved Stipe also had his eye on the big picture. A song full of nuance, compromise, and beauty.

18. “Diminished“: “I watched you fall. I think I pushed.” Put aside OJ, Robert Blake, Michael Jackson, and Martha Stewart for a sec…court is now in session for the celebrity trial of Stipe & co., and it’s a doozy. The “Sing Along” hook in the middle is criminally catchy.

17. “Driver 8” (8): “I saw a treehouse on the outskirts of the farm. The power lines have floaters so the airplanes won’t get snagged.” Peter Buck has derided this song as exactly the type of jingly-jangly minor-key rock he could write on autopilot. Perhaps so, but “Driver 8” is still a very well-done jingly-jangly minor-key rock song, with one of the more transcendent bridges (“Way to shield the hated heat, way to put myself to sleep”) in the early R.E.M. canon.

16. “Boy in the Well“: “It’s that sinking feeling. you know what it’s bringing on (You might as well say it) I see it, I feel it. This town is going wrong.” Like a number of songs on Around in the Sun, “Boy in the Well” tells a sordid tale of self-inflicted wounds and love gone sour. I almost put the more sonically adventurous “High Speed Train” here, but in the end “Boy in the Well” seems the most iconic and well-realized foray on this very solid album.

15. “Saturn Return“: “Harder to look yourself square in the eye. Easy to poke yourself, easy as pie. Easy to take off, harder to fly. Harder to wake Galileo.” This piano and synth-laden cut from Reveal never got much hype, but I can’t get enough of it. In some ways, “Saturn Return” is a darker, twisted version of “You are the Everything,” for those moments in a long road trip when peace yields to unease, shadows darken into doubts, and your thoughts become your own worst enemy. (Thematically, it also seems very similar to “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.”)

14. “Welcome to the Occupation“: “Hang your collar up inside, hang your freedom higher. Listen to the buyer still, listen to the Congress.” While “Exhuming McCarthy” has the benefit of a great sense of humor, “Welcome to the Occupation” — about How the Southern Hemisphere Was Won (And What It Got Us) — is arguably R.E.M.’s most powerful tone poem on Document. Ten years ago, I’d probably have put “King of Birds” in this spot, but, as I said earlier, I don’t listen to that one so much anymore.

13. “How the West Was Won (And Where It Got Us)“: “I made a mistake, chalked it up to design. I cracked through time, space, Godless and dry. I point my nose to the northern star, watch the decline from a hazy distance.” For their first New Adventure in Hi-Fi, R.E.M. tried on a trip-hop groove, anchored by Mike Mill’s Monkish piano hook, to great effect. A spiritual descendant of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” that stands miles above some of the other, goofier tracks on this spotty record.

12. “Monty Got a Raw Deal“: “I saw you strung up in a tree. A woman knelt there said to me, said, ‘Hold your tongue.’” When I first heard Automatic back in high school, I adored “Nightswimming” and “Find the River“…but these days, I have trouble listening to them (and skip right through “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon.”) Nowadays, it’s this paean to Montgomery Clift which seems like the hidden gem on the album.

11. “Bang and Blame“: “You’ve got a little worry, I know it all too well. I’ve got your number, but so does every kiss-and-tell who dares to cross your threshold.” On an album chock-full of great songs about sex (notably “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” and “Tongue,”) this one really delivers the goods. (Word is Stipe was trying to emulate Kurt Cobain’s lyrical sensibility with this track, and if so, it worked.) A calm moment amid the distortion that characterizes the second half of the underappreciated Monster, “Bang and Blame” is a memorable ode to being in lust if not in like, and one of R.E.M.’s sultriest singles.

10. “Orange Crush“: “We are agents of the free. I’ve had my fun and now its time to serve your conscience overseas.” Between the not-very-oblique Agent Orange reference and the boot camp bridge, this is Platoon R.E.M. style, as well as one of the band’s catchier rockers. Ten-hut!

9. “Swan Swan H” (3): “A pistol hot cup of rhyme, the whiskey is water, the water is wine.” Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe get a little closer to home with this venture into Civil War territory, one that manages to capture both the terrible loss (“Tell that to the Captain’s mother”) and joy of jubilee (“Hurrah we are all free now”) of that long, low time ago.

8. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (25): “Uh oh, overflow, population, common group, but it’ll do. Save yourself, serve yourself!” A trademark lesson in how not to give a goddamn when the wheels come off, “ITEOTWAWKI(AIFF)” also happens to be more fun than you can shake a stick at. The band have only opened a show with this ditty once — their first post-election gig in 2004 — and we all knew exactly how they felt.

7. “So. Central Rain” (4): “Did you never call? I waited for your call. These rivers of suggestion are driving me away.” Flagpole hit this one on the head — Along with “Driver 8,” this song encapsulates R.E.M.’s trademark early sound, redolent of spanish moss and stormy days.

6. “Losing My Religion” (10): “Consider this the hint of the century, Consider this the slip that brought me to my knees.” Somehow, amazingly, this tune — easily the best mandolin-driven pop song of the late twentieth century — never got played out. Bonus points for Stipe teaching us all the appropriate sign language to signal “Help, I’m grotesquely impaled on the horns of an interminable crush” in the Tarsem video.

5. “Begin the Begin” (14): “Answer me a question I can’t itemize, I can’t think clear, you look to me for reason, it’s not there, I can’t even rhyme.” As Flagpole noted, “Begin” is one of those quintessential R.E.M. rockers. Really, really hard not to jump up and down to.

4. “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” (17): “Read the scene where gravity is pulling me around…” Like “Low Desert,” “How the West is Won,” and “Saturn Return,” “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” features one of R.E.M.’s most malevolent and formidable soundscapes. As Stipe wrestles with newfound powers and forces beyond his control, Buck, Berry and Mills show they plan to deconstruct the trademark R.E.M. jingly-jangly sound of their first few albums into something much more fractured and dissonant for Reconstruction of the Fables (well, at least until “Driver 8.”)

3. “Perfect Circle” (18): “Pull your dress on and stay real close. Who might leave you where I left off?” The quietest moment on Murmur is also one of the best. Big ups also to the 1991 Unplugged version, with Mike Mills providing a falsetto coo that offsets the “standing too soons” very nicely.

2. “Fall on Me” (6): “There’s the progress, we have found a way to talk around the problem.”” One of Stipe’s most plaintive and mercurial laments, and probably the band’s best harmonizing, right down to Bill Berry’s soft-spoken “It’s Gonna Fall” in the background. If you don’t like this song, you probably don’t like R.E.M.

1. “Country Feedback” (1): “This flower is scorched, this film is on, on a maddening loop…” Wracked with spite, doubled over with thwarted love, and shimmering with regret, “Country Feedback” is R.E.M.’s magnum opus and a heartbreakingly beautiful ballad. (It’s also the song I probably enjoy playing on the guitar more than any other, even if I can’t ever do it justice. There are also plenty of great live versions floating around, including one with Neil Young providing the feedback and another unplugged version that segues nicely into Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”) In short, “Country Feedback” is raw pain distilled, moonshine-style. Crazy what you could’ve had, indeed.

And, just to be a completist (and to take the air out of this exceedingly long and gushing entry a bit), I’ll go ahead and throw in my 5 worst R.E.M. songs (and, yes, “Shiny Happy People” gets a pass…however bad that ill-advised ditty turned out to be, I can think of worse.):

5. “Bittersweet Me
4. “Revolution
3. “Hairshirt
2. “Beachball
1. “The Wrong Child

Trials of a Comedian.

Uh-oh. It’s mostly fanboy speculation at the moment…still, word from the AICN crew is Paramount may be getting squeamish about The Watchmen. That’s too bad — the recent interviews with Paul Greengrass suggested this project was in sound hands.

Do the Dems have a pulse?

Instead of allowing themselves to be cowed by the fear of looking like they’re coming down on the immoral side of the moral values debate, Democrats should snap out of it and demand that the president interrupt his next vacation and that Bill Frist hold another midnight session of Congress to address the moral disgrace of 45 million people with no health insurance and 36 million people living in poverty.” Salon‘s Arianna Huffington argues convincingly that the Congressional Dems blew it (again) in addressing the Schiavo fiasco. You’d think they could at least do a better job of hammering on the Hammer’s hypocrisy.

Vox Populi.

I’d recognize The Dude’s friendly growl anywhere. But almost no one else will…Why would Duracell pay big bucks for the voice of a Hollywood star?” In a world of commercial voices both gruff and soothing, Slate‘s Seth Stevenson delves into current trends in the voice-over industry.

On Life Support.

Dubya’s ailing Social Security PSAs take another hit, with even conservative intellectuals starting to turn against Dubya’s plan in print. Yep, seems like a goner.

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