Is U2 Having a Crisis of Faith About Their Upcoming Album?

Waiting for a new U2 album is hard-work if you’re a fan of the band.  Since 2000, they have only released 3 albums (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon).  This fall it will be 10 years since Bomb was released, meaning that they’ve only released 1 album in the past 10 years.

This wouldn’t matter so much, if the band weren’t dropping hints about a new album in interviews in the past several years. Even during the 360 Tour, they were talking of a quick follow-up to No Line on the Horizon which Bono referred to as Songs of Ascent.  It was supposed to be a more mediative and reflective album more akin to the “experimental” sides of No Line on the Horizon. At one point, Adam Clayton revealed that they were working on several albums at once.

Around this time last summer, they seemed to be on the verge of completing the new set with Danger Mouse behind the helm and what looked to be a wrap-up party in New York City.  But alas, there was no new album and all we got were 2 mediocre singles: “Ordinary Love” from the Nelson Mandela bio-pic  Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and “Invisible”.

“Invisible” with shades of New-Wave and a Killers-type vibe was the better of the two.  With electronic drums and icy guitars, it seemed to be a different sort of direction for the band.  In a way, it looked to both the past and the future.  But it still sounded a bit stiff and failed to make any sort of mark with fans and quickly disappeared.

This would hardly matter if it weren’t U2. For better or for worse, they are not happy unless they have complete dominance in the musical world at any particular point.  After 30 plus years of being in one of the world’s biggest bands, they still want to be everyone’s favorite band. While their peers have moved on by either fading away, or creating music that matters to them, U2 hasn’t. Bruce Springsteen for instance, still makes quality albums and sell-outs stadiums, but he seems content that he will never achieve a Born in the U.S.A. level status again.  The irony is of course, that The Rising and Wrecking Ball in particular have now become classics in their own right.

When “Invisible” was launched as a free-download in partnership with the RED Campaign, all signs seemed to point that a new U2 album was in fact on the way.  The song was highlighted with an ad during the Super Bowl and the band even performed the song on the first night of Jimmy Fallon’s take-over of The Tonight Show. They performed the song as the sun went down on a cold February evening.  It was the kind of promotional stunt reserved for a re-entry into the pop-world.

I’m guessing U2 saw the lukewarm reception and panicked. Ever since the negative reception the band got during Rattle and Hum (the movie) they have become very conscious of how people view them.  They’ve become reactionists to their own image.  After being accused of being too earnest, they dove into irony and post-modernism with Achtung Baby and Zooropa.  When the joke ran too thin with Pop, they turned the other way and released the retro-U2 inspired All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  With No Line on the Horizon, they tried to combine both halves of their musical palette: the experimental and the classic U2 sound.  Unfortunately, it was the first U2 album that one could actually view as boring.  Whatever you think of Pop (I’m not a fan) it certainly wasn’t boring.  (Luckily, the 360 Tour was pretty great.)

Trying to come up with new sounds and experiment lead to some spectacular work. It worked for The Beatles. They constantly pushed themselves forward. But even as they progressed, they never forget how to write a perfect song.  That’s U2′s problem as they head into their mid-50s.  Since 2000, they’ve only managed to come up with a handful of great songs – the ones that capture the imagination of their listeners and strike a universal chord.

The reason for this is that they’re not good songwriters.  At least in the traditional sense. There’s no Pete Townshend or Brian Wilson in the band – a guy who comes in with complete songs and ideas. U2 noodle around in the studio coming up with various sounds and melodies and mesh different parts together until they have something they like.  It has worked for them in the past – that’s how they came up with “One”.  But as their confidence wanes, it’s harder to pull off that kind of songwriting.

The fan-club b-sides release Medium Rare and Remastered confirms this.  It contains several alternate versions of songs found on Atomic Bomb and All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  On several songs, you can hear ideas that would eventually end up in subsequent songs. “Xanax and Wine” for instance, contains lyrics that would end up on “Fast Cars” (off of Atomic Bomb) with a riff that would drive “All Because of You.”   There’s also an alternative version of that song, too.

It’s good that U2 doesn’t rest on their laurels and past glories, but not at the expense of quality music. No Line on the Horizon didn’t suffer from lack of ambition but rather cohesiveness and good songs.  The best U2 albums have a sense of purpose, and that album seemed to be without any direction.  The band seems to be a cross-roads here and they know it.  Time will only tell which side they will end up on.

 

 

 

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Weezer’s “Back to the Shack”: Send It Back, Please

 

If “Back to the Shack” is any indication, count me out for checking out Weezer’s new album Everything Will Be Alright in the End.  Some fans will argue that they haven’t put out anything good since Pinkerton but I tend to think that Make Believe was their latest album worth listening to.  ”Beverly Hills” alone makes the album a worthy contribution to Weezer’s catalogue.

Weezer has always been known for being clever, but on “Back to the Shack” Rivers Cuomo seems to be trying too hard.  It seems as he’s adrift in his songwriting and knows that fans haven’t dug Ratitude or Hurley so he purposely throws in some self references to try and grab the old fans attention.  When Cuomo sings that he wants to “go back to the strat with the lighting strap” you have to wonder if he’s traveling down the road of nostalgia for himself or his fans.

Weezer aren’t the first or last band to try to reclaim their old glory by looking to their past glories for inspiration.  Voodoo Lounge and A Bigger Bang tried to capture the feeling of Exile on Main St. to mixed results. R.E.M. went back to their basic guitar sound after the shitpile that was Around the Sun.  Perhaps Cuomo thinks that if he’s purposely throws it out there, that it won’t be seen as a parody but instead ironic.

And he might have been able to get away with it, if the music were better.  For the first time ever on a Weezer song, the band sounds tired.  The main riff that drives the song sounds clunky at best. The whole thing sounds unconvincing. At least Ratitude and Hurley had some energy, spark and adventure.  On “Back to the Shack”, Weezer sound like they’ve turned into their own worst tribute band: a tribute band that thought it could write a Weezer original.

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How Nirvana Exposed “MTV Unplugged” For the Farce It Was

In the ’90s, if were a “serious” rock artist, there’s a good chance you ended up giving a performance on MTV Unplugged. As a show, Unplugged became something of a cultural touchstone.  In an era before social media and Youtube, Unplugged was one of the few ways that a fan could catch a glimpse of their favorite band performing within the confines of their own household. For younger artists, the Unplugged performances provided them with two very important (but different) motives: exposure and a bid for credibility.  Older artists such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan had one foot in the acoustic realm already and didn’t really need exposure, so I’ve never why they agreed to it in the first place. Naturally, the younger artists ate this shit up. Bands such as Live, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam among others stripped their songs to the core in a bid for legitimacy. They (incorrectly) assumed that by taking away their amps, critics and new audiences would suddenly realize how great their songs actually were.  Alice in Chains songs became even more morbid and Live’s faux-spirituality was exposed for the farce it was. Pearl Jam gave a spirited performance, but Eddie Vedder’ s stage antics (which included surfing on his stool and scrawling the words “pro-choice” on his arms) seemed more like desperation than anything else because he didn’t know what else to do.  He’s a gifted performer, but on the Unplugged show, his presence seemed clunky at best. If an artists need to strip the songs down in order to convince people that they’re great, maybe the songs aren’t that great after-all. I’ve always thought that if it takes an acoustic version of a song for you to realize the song is good, the song is either 1.) either shit to begin with or 2.) you weren’t listening properly. Eric Clapton’s version of “Layla” on Unplugged is a great example. I’ve had discussions with people in a bar (why someone would play that version on a jukebox is beyond me) about this.  It’s actually happened more than once.  Usually it involves some guy trying to convince me, that the Unplugged version is miles better than the original “Layla” because “we can feel his pain.” Really? It took the Unplugged version of “Layla” for you to “discover” that Clapton is tortured?  The lyrics, the biting, interlocking guitars and poignant piano coda didn’t tip you off?  Is there a “happy” electric version of “Layla” that I’m not aware of, lurking around in Clapton’s vaults? This isn’t to say that I’m against acoustic-based music. Anyone who loves folk music and Bob Dylan as much as I do, can’t hate acoustic guitars.  But I am against the idea that by “stripping” a song to only acoustic instruments somehow makes it “better” or more “artistic”.  Do you think that the Sex Pistols, any Phil Spector produced single or Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” would “better” if they were acoustic? But in the ’90s, everyone seemed convinced of this charade. No one more-so than Nirvana. It’s no secret that Kurt Cobain desperately wanted to seen as an “artist”, while MTV was practically foaming at the mouth over a possible Nirvana Unplugged performance.  It seemed to be a match made in heaven. Over the years, the behind the scenes stories of Nirvana’s Unplugged performance detail how Cobain did not want to play his hits. I can understand that.  But I’m willing to bet that he also realized that songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart Shaped Box” would sound terrible in acoustic form.  Who would want to hear a stripped down version  of the fuzz-punk snarl of “Breed” or a lifeless version of “Teen Spirit”?  If they had chose to do that, I’m almost certain critics would have cried foul and the Nirvana myth wouldn’t loom as large as it does today. Wisely, Nirvana played only a handful of their own songs, and filled the rest of their set with obscure covers and a mini-Meat Puppets set.  Their own songs were mostly ones that seemed suited to an acoustic form.  But everyone knows the best songs on that performances are the covers, particularly Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and the folk standard “In the Pines” (re-titled  here as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”). Those two songs showed that Nirvana were great interpreters while also revealing that Unplugged as a way for artists to prove that their own songs were great, is a complete farce.  Because almost any person who likes that album will tell you that those two songs were the best.  And as for Nirvana?  The band and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” have done pretty well in the credibility department without Unplugged.

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Is “Shiny Happy People” As Bad As You Remember It? Not Quite

 

“Shiny Happy People” is one of those songs that almost everyone seems to hate.  It’s constantly viewed as not only the worst song in R.E.M.’s career, but one of the worst songs ever recorded.  (A pretty lofty claim.)  I blame much of this hatred on the song’s video.  It took an already cheesy and campy song, and double-dipped it in a sugary glaze that would make Krispy Kreme donuts weep with its bright colors, and awkward dancing courtesy of Michael Stipe.  Viewers who had grown up with the R.E.M. of the mid-80s (when they could do no wrong and recorded a string of near-perfect albums) cried foul.  That band was nowhere to be seen in the video for “Shiny Happy People”. 

But let’s think about this for a second.  Yes, the video is pretty bad.  The song itself, not so much.  It’s incredibly poppy and silly, but it’s not like R.E.M hadn’t recorded goofy songs before.   “Stand” is pretty much a pre-cursor to “Shiny Happy People” and “Pop Song 89” is pretty goofy too, especially when Michael Stipe did his patented should dance when the band performed the song live.  And as for embarrassing, has anyone recently listened to “Radio Song” off of Out of Time (the same album which “Shiny Happy People” appears on) recently?  Even the mention of that trash makes me cringe?  KRS-One and the band must have been good friends (and possibly stoned?) for that to be recorded and actually see the light of day.  And to make matters worse, the fucking thing opened the record!  In case you were wondering, I also count Reveal and Around the Sun as being embarrassing too, but I usually just become sad when I think about those records.)

As a kid, I loved “Shiny Happy People”.  I was about 9 when Out of Time came out, and it was one of the few songs on the album I could actually relate to.  It made me incredibly happy, even though I loved the rest of the album too.   But it was a nice contrast to the acoustic and folk influences that permeated the rest of the record.  I loved the carnival-like intro and its reprise during the bridge.  Mike Mills count-off and exclamation of “Here we go!”  when the band kicked back into the main riff made me giddy. 

When I became a teenager, I grew to loathe the song and had a hard time defending it to kids in my high-school class.  Whenever I’d profess my love for R.E.M. (which was pretty often) almost inevitably, someone would bring up, that song.  “Yeah, yeah…it’s pretty bad…but you should check out…Murmur or Reckoning,” was usually my response. 

After years of not hearing it, I heard it on the radio a few years ago and was shocked by how much I didn’t hate it.  Hey, it’s not that bad!  It’s certainly better than I remember.  The guitar riff was pretty good and in its own way, classic Peter Buck.  But as soon as Kate’s Pierson’s voice came in syncing with Michael Stipe’s it occurred to me that “Shiny Happy People” wasn’t really a R.E.M. song after all.  It makes much more sense if you think of it as a B-52s song. 

 “Love Shack”, “Rock Lobster” and “Roam” (among many others) are all overly campy, silly and sweet and those songs have become staples.  You’re likely to hear “Love Shack” at almost any wedding or reception that has dancing involved.  The audience knows what they’re getting from a B-52s song, and many people love them for it. 

But R.E.M. isn’t known for that – even though both bands came out of the Athens music scene in the late 70s and early 80s – they’re a serious band.  Imagine if the B-52s had recorded “Shiny Happy People”.   It might not be universally loved, but I’d be willing to bet that it would be more popular than it is now and people wouldn’t hate it the way they do. 

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New Music Premiere: ‘Heartbeat’ – Vishno

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Electro-pop rock artist Vishno has just released his latest single ‘Heartbeat’. The song is full of crunchy beats that make you want to get up and dance. It’s a good mix of dance music with some rock elements. Leading Us Absurd is happy to offer the exclusive premiere of ‘Heartbeat’. Check out the song here.

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Animal Years Ticket Giveaway at Baltimore’s Ottobar

m_04_EmpB8ewZFNtAifkMMjGhHd5z75cEI5QGNxyY-o[1] Mike McFadden of indie-rock band Animal Years is returning home to Baltimore this Friday (June 6th) to play with the band at the famed Ottobar. The show coincides with the release of Sun Will Rise (deluxe edition) has received rave reviews by such places as Indie Shuffle and Filter Magazine.  The band’s roots-rock sound has been compared to such acts as My Morning Jacket, The Avett Brothers and the Wallflowers. Leading Us Absurd is giving away 2 tickets to the group’s 6/6 show at the Ottobar. To enter the contest please email matt@leadingusabsurd.com  with the subject line ‘Animal Years’ by 1pm Friday 6/6. Please include a brief description of why you like you would like to see the show. Winners will be selected on Friday afternoon and notified by email. Additional Info: Ottobar: 2549 N. Howard St. Baltimore MD Doors at 8/Show at 9/Animal Years at 11.

To listen to Animal Years’ music, check out their SoundCloud page.

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Folk Artists Adam & I Release Intimate New Song “We Have Love”

 

 

acb00d0776b5ca0d-cardboard-3-07Nashville folk artists Adam & I (real life couple Adam and Andrea Melia) have recently released their latest single, the upbeat and adorable “We Have Love”.   In an era where cynicism and insincerity is commonplace, “We Have Love” is the direct opposite.  Over an acoustic guitar, Adam and Andrea bring their harmonies together professing that “it’s all good, we have love.”  The positives vibes continue with lines such as, “hey hey, everything will be ok.”  The song could easily veer into cheesy territory, but the duo’s enthusiasm keeps it from doing so. If you’re looking for a sunny tune to check off your summer, check out “We Have Love”.

 

For more info on Adam & I, please check out their web-site.

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The Michael Jackson Hologram: Slave to Rhythm Indeed

 

At last night’s Billboard Music Awards, Michael Jackson “performed” his newest single “Slave to the Rhythm”.  Now, I don’t know about you but I can’t sense that anybody was really hungry for a performance by a holographic Michael Jackson.

Jackson was always bigger than life. His performances were part star power and spectacle. He could get away with the most outlandish performances, but he could command attention in a way that no one has ever since. Even at his worst, there was still something about a performing Jackson that made you want to root for him.  At his personal life became the stuff of tabloid legend, it impossible to ignore his presence on the stage.

One thing that was always apparent was his love for the music. Those feet and hands didn’t move that way because he wanted the money. There was sheer joy in the way he moved around on stage. It was probably that joy that led to his death while he was in rehearsal for his comeback. He wanted to prove to the world that he still had it.

But this hologram seemed to be farce. It’s totally taking advantage of an audience that still misses Jackson.  The “performance” was everything people expected of Jackson, but in a life-less form. Though the Tupac hologram at 2012′s Coachella was just as contrived, at least that had the element of surprise.  The hologram Michael Jackson was nothing more than PR stunts for both the record labels and Billboard.  It may not have felt this way if the “performance” was say, a song like “Billie Jean” or “Thriller”.  But no, instead what we got was “Slave to the Rhythm” off of the recently released Xscape - which also seems in and of itself like a cash-grab.

A real MJ performance would have wowed the audience simply by him being there.  But the audience got blown away because it looks and acts like Jackson – a far cry from the real thing. Instead of paving the wave, a hologram Jackson reduces what we loved about him down to a product.  Jackson’s legacy certainly deserves better.

 

 

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The Genius and Contradiction of Pete Townshend

 

(Today is Pete Townshend’s 69th birthday.)

As a teenager, The Who was my favorite band. Their explosive combination with introspective lyrics fit the bill for a confused teenager trying to make his way through the world. At their best, they were an intellectual band that played with fury. They could expand your mind and capture your all frustrations with an un-matched aggression.

As the leader of The Who, Pete Townshend quickly became one of my heroes. But to be a fan of Pete Townshend you have to accept certain things about him. For every brilliant move he’s made, there’s always been a frustrating one around the corner.  His failed rock-opera Lifehouse was designed in part to bring The Who’s audience and the band together in some sort of rock and roll nirvana.  But at the same time, he could just easily curse out the same audience for not living up to his own expectations.  (One such tirade is captured on The Who’s 4-disc boxed set 30 Years of Maximum R&B.)  He’s also an extremely spiritual guy, who succumbed to both alcohol and drug addiction.

Unlike Bob Dylan (who is very guarded in his brilliant memoir Chronicles Vol. 1) and Keith Richards (who is very nonchalant about his addictions in Life), Townshend lays out his contradictions in Who I Am.  He’s very candid about the abuse that happened while he stayed with his grandmother as a kid and the addictions that nearly took his life in the early 80s.  But then he’ll come off as completely arrogant when talking about Lifehouse (even though it’s a failure) because he’s convinced that the audience was too stupid to understand it.

It would be easy to think of Townshend as a class-A jerk. He can certainly be that. When I first started to like The Who and discovered more about him, I became disappointed that he wasn’t quite who I thought he was. Sometimes I was pissed at him for dismissing his audience’s intelligence in interviews. Other times I hated him for being too ambitious. At first, I despised Quadrophenia because it wasn’t as simple as some of The Who’s early singles. I wanted the angst without the pretentiousness that filled most of Quadrophenia.  

What I didn’t realize at the time was that Townshend was exposing my own contradictions through the music of The Who. I wanted The Who (and him) to exist within a certain context that existed within my own mind.  I began to see many of the contradictions in my own life as result. I could be smart and intelligent, but also had a huge lazy streak that kept me from achieving certain things that I wanted.

When I read Who I Am, I gained a new appreciation for Townshend. He’s never been some guy who has rested on his laurels. But unlike some other rock and roll artists where it can be hard to sympathize with them, I did with Townshend.  But not because he’s had tremendous lows.  Being completely open, his memoir made him all the more human and relatable. Even after all that he’s achieved; he’s just trying to figure it out just like the rest of us.

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Young Rising Sons New Video for Melodic Single “High”

 

Rock-pop group Young Rising Sons recently released the video for their first single entitled “High”.  The upbeat single boasts some nice falsettos from lead singer Andy Tongren.  The sing-along chorus is pure bliss containing some whistles in the background.  The song could turn into a campy romp, but the band’s enthusiasm makes it memorable and hard to resist.

The video reflects this attitude as well with shots of the band hanging around a campfire at night. It’s a song about the joys of life and a place “where all my wrongs have turned to right.”

For more information on Young Rising Sons, check out their web-site.

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