On “Nightswimming”, Michael Stipe croons about “Septembers coming soon…”.

A lyric from arguably the most melancholy track off of R.E.M.’s Automatic For the People, which is also debatably one of the most melancholy albums of the past quarter century.

Sure, this song is about a lot of things – even a surface analysis reveals some pretty hefty themes: the loss of innocence, childhood succumbing to adulthood, and fantasy colliding with reality. And maybe some people getting nekkid.

But what is this tune really, on the surface?

A lament.

That horrible feeling that soon the humid August hothouse weather will be replaced by unbearable cold. That horrible feeling combined with the vague, childlike excitement that accompanies any change of season. A change is a ‘comin, weather (get it??) you like it or not.

There is a paralyzing beauty to R.E.M.’s 1992 studio effort – which was critically acclaimed at the time of its release, and for many years following, as more people discovered everything R.E.M. could be. Typically, I would agree with the statement that “early R.E.M. is the only R.E.M. for me,” because, dang, just take a listen to their 1983 debut – Murmur. Or 1987’s Document; or heck, even 1988’s Green. And Green was the band’s big label debut – and it still shines of the odd-ball, blurry indie rock that makes their early catalog sound more like The Soft Boys – only more lo-fi. Like The Meat Puppets if they weren’t so creepy.

But, I digress – I do not agree that R.E.M.’s early catalog is their only great work simply because of Automatic for the People. Like I mentioned before – paralyzing beauty. Streamlined production that spruces up vague lyrics about life, death, and everything in between.

Sure, “Everybody Hurts” is the one true stinker – skip that one every single time ya play it. Please.

There are so many great references to rock n roll imbedded in the album, too. The title track is a take on “Rock On”, by David Essex – just take a listen to the songs side by side – very similar, no? Those cool, dark vibes, what else is rock n roll? A temptation, something dark and twisty, something that can get you through. Something powerful.

Sure, give “Rock On” too much of a listen and the result is a looootttt of cringing. I don’t even know why. But the embarrassment follows a good listen. Probably the lyrics about “the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen” and something about her wiggling on a move screen.

And the “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” – well, there’s the classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, a song recorded by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds in 1939. But that isn’t the version that Stipe and Buckley are referencing. The Tokens had a #1 hit with the tune over two decades later, in 1961.

The nostalgia that is immediately infused into anything that references even these couple of musical oldies is something tangible and rare. Nostalgia that is partially self-delusion, as any nostalgia usually is – the feeling that things “were better back then”, with the irresistible urge to “go back” when that is impossible and even pointless to ponder. Something about the nostalgia emanating from the songs on Automatic feels legitimate. Like the pointless aspect of wanting desperately to go backwards is acknowledged, but the feeling remains.

“Sweetness Follows” is full of practically parental, or even grand-parental advice, about all the little things that can “pull you under”, and how easy it is to get “lost in your little lives”. Something worth lamenting, sure. The battle against the tide of time.

Maybe that is more what “Nightswimming” is about. Fighting that battle but losing, and being perfectly, painfully aware of that loss.


10/10 Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One

Artist: Yo La Tengo
Album: I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One
Label: Matador Records
Release Date: April 22, 1997
Key Tracks: “Damage”, “Stockholm Syndrome”, “Sugarcube”, “Autumn Sweater”, “One PM Again”, “Center of Gravity”

Robert Christgau referred to Yo La Tengo’s eighth major studio effort as the band’s “career album” in his review for SPIN magazine.
I think that he is on to something.

Yo La Tengo is arguably one of the greatest rock bands of all time – when considering all possible facets of judging this. Ira Kaplan’s ability to write catchy songs, eerie songs, musically competent, emotionally true songs is above and beyond any songwriter of the past thirty years.

And this album caught me off guard.

Not because it is a lengthy compilation of pieces that edge onto each other in the true Abby Road tradition; not because “Autumn Sweater” is doubtlessly one of the most beautiful songs ever penned about avoidance; and not even because it features a cover of The Beach Boy’s “Little Honda”.

Because after hearing it, I not only enjoyed the tracks, I not only felt the need to listen to “Sugarcube” on repeat, but I felt like I needed it. I desperately needed Ira’s whispery voice in my ear and the album’s lonely sound running through my headphones. I have never desired to “get home and listen” to an album with such a fiery determination that fueled my fast-paced walks back to my dorm the beginning of my sophomore year at college.

For a great length of time, I somehow thought that “One PM Again” was actually titled “One AM Again” – a sentiment that any youngster is pretty familiar with. The realization that the tune was actually referring to the time period following lunch and before dinner somehow made the track even more beautiful.

I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One is a sort of a soundtrack – and I get the impression that it has been a soundtrack to many people in many different circumstances than the one I related to – but there it was, my soundtrack, my anthem.

Whatever you want from me
Whatever you want I’ll do
Try to squeeze a drop of blood
From a sugarcube

Not getting what you want and realizing you never will.
If any song more perfectly describes what it feels like to be an angsty young woman incapable of expressing her wants and needs, I have yet to stumble upon it.

I used to think about you all the time
I would think about you all the time
Now it just feels weird, cause there you are

“Damage” could be a lesson on obsession. What is love without a healthy dose of obsession – probably not healthy but fun to write about. But seriously, guys. Isn’t love just a little bit crazy? The combination of so many intense feelings, and isn’t fascination and the “feeling of being a kid again” a portion of what it feels like to be completely enamored with someone? What you make a person out to be versus the reality of being around them.

The album is full of statements about love. “Stockholm Syndrome”, one of the tracks composing what Christgau designated as the “perfect nine tracks”, is about infatuation.
Sympathizing with your captor. Seeing past their flaws, and dreading the moment you find yourself alone. The feeling of indulgence that threatens every interaction. Don’t want to chase them away.

No don’t warn me
I know it’s wrong
But I swear it won’t take long
And I know, you know
It makes me sigh
I do believe in love

This album is perfect. There is enough melancholy to last a lifetime in that gorgeous hour, eight minutes, and ten seconds.
I can hear the heart beating as one: two hearts, far apart, beating in unison. Physical bodies hundreds of miles away. But throbbing hearts pumping together, making a collective, rhythmic pounding that changes time and space until they are bone on bone, skin on skin.

See Yo La Tengo go to rock school:

The Judybats: Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow “Like the Smiths if Manchester was Tennessee in the Heyday of Alternative Rock”

The Judybats were a couple of Tennessee rockers who were first recorded doing a Roky Erickson cover.

And this album, the one I mention in the title — although I came by it due to the incredible ten cassette for one dollar deal at the bargain bin that is Marc’s – the premier cheap-o outlet catering to the Akron-Cleveland area – is proof that this band was more than simply a couple of alt-pop wannabes that managed to get signed for one album on Warner Bros.

In a lot of ways, this album was a bit of a mystery to me – or at least the people behind the music. Nothing more to me than the pictures included in the liner notes. No heart-throb frontman for me to form a crush on, no evident overarching theme. The Judybats weren’t “alternative” the way most of the bands dominating radio waves in the early 1990s. They didn’t sound punk enough to be punk, they’re lyrics were too stylized to be categorized as normal modern rock, and at times their sound bordered on being cringe-inducing, in a decidedly non-American sort of a way.

In fact, at times Jeff Heiskell’s words border on being overtly open, something that usually comes from songwriters from across the pond. Like, say, Damon Gough, or, well, Stephen Patrick Morrissey.

What is the title track of this album but a story of melodramatic regret; a story too woeful to be completely true but too emotionally honest to be a complete farce? Sounds like Moz’s early solo work – when he could play around with blatant characters without the McCartney-Lennon tension that such antic would have brought up if he had aired them within earshot of Johnny Marr.

The Judybats had quite a few numbers that were more than a little reminiscent of 1988’s “Late Night, Maudlin Street”. The fourth track on DINSWTSDG (if you will allow me the hideous acronym,) “Margot Known as Missy” even contains traces of the constant illumination of antiquity that Morrissey has always specialized in. After all, what else are his lyrics rank of if not references to old movies and classic literature?

Who names their kid “Margot” anymore but someone who loves black and white cinematography, anyway?

In a lot of ways, the title of this blog is flawed. Or at least partially flawed. Because the Judybats were not so much like The Smiths as they were like the best of Morrissey’s solo discography. Like Moz, the Judybats put out a handful of respectably decent albums with a few definite clunkers on each release. Unlike Moz, they did not have the resources to continually put out albums that were successively mediocre as time drug on.

They disbanded, sort of, in 1994 after Full-Empty, their fourth studio effort. In 2000 they kind-of sort-of reunited for ’00.

I don’t know much about the Judybats.

And I don’t plan on learning much more about them.

Because their mystique is half of their intrigue to me. A notion similar to the one that I hold about dear old Morrissey.

The less I know, the better.

The Melancholy of The Ramones

People say some pretty stupid things about The Ramones.
Because they are too hard to nail down.
They weren’t starving, impoverished Post-World War II punk rockers (albeit with fabulous publicists) like The Sex Pistols were; or angry, politically informed cerebral punks like Joe Strummer and Mick Jones.
And they just couldn’t mesh with the arty post-modern accuracy of bands like Television and the Talking Heads. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the fact that The Ramones’ self titled debut actually came out in 1974, three years earlier than the first established wave of CBGB rockers. But I don’t really think that chronology plays that big a part in the overall feel of the band.
Because earlier punk acts – and there were plenty of them – like The Stooges, MC5, and The New York Dolls are still markedly unlike Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee. The Ramones lacked the raw blues feel that Iggy developed, staggering onstage in the late 1960s; they didn’t quite have the hard garage-rock edge that MC5 had, and they certainly didn’t take their wardrobe as seriously as David Johanssen or Sylvain Sylvain did around 1971.
So how do you categorize a band whose sound is based sheerly on a handful of barre chords and incredibly rhyme-tastic lyrics? Lyrics so rhyme-based that, once, when seized with the desire to scrawl something, anything originally penned by Dee Dee in a manifesto-sort-of-way in one of my middle school journals, I literally could not find one line that didn’t at least kind of make me cringe when it was torn away from the raw power of the band’s music.
I don’t feel that way anymore. I am not longer immature enough to be completely turned off by rhymes, and as I have grown older I have found the poetry in Ramones lyrics – words just as hard to categorize as the rest of The Ramones.
In order to understand the band, by default, you need to understand punk rock and what punk rock really means – that it is a lens more than a lifestyle, more than a code of dress or even a type of rock n roll music. That, in many ways, it has a lot more in common with the ideology that was the trademark of the counter culture of the 1960s than might be immediately obvious.
The Ramones were more than a band – they were a couple of kids from Queens who all adored rock n roll music. Enough to try and start a band, which is a pretty hefty amount of dedication in and of itself. And they wrote about things that few bands had wrote about before – and not because they were trying to impress anyone but the people kind enough to listen to them.
Songs laced with images from dopey monster movies and themes like boredom and frustration.
These were just as much statements about youth culture, about modern society and about punk rock as they were the band’s humble attempts at making a record that would actually bring in a good paycheck. And for that reason The Ramones are sincerely the most punk of all punk bands – because they never tried to be punk rock.
Joey notoriously idolized Pete Townshend and financially viable rock n roll – the reason that the foursome teamed up with Phil Spector for 1980’s End of the Century was thanks to Joey’s adoration of Spector’s early work.
There is something so very melancholy about the Ramones. Something about a band that desired commericial success in a way that later punk acts, like The Replacements, would never dream of. The Ramones did not want to be a punk band. They wanted to be The Who, The Beatles, they wanted to sell out stadiums and go on world tours with their music.
But the band only ever scored one gold record – 1988’s compilation album Ramones Mania.
The band disbanded in 1996 – after relentlessly touring for over two decades.
On April 15, 2001, Joey died after a long and complicated battle with lymphoma.
On June 5, 2002, Dee Dee overdosed at the age of 50.
On September 15, 2004, Johnny succumbed to prostate cancer.
All within eight years of the band’s disbandment, almost as though they needed the Ramones as much as their fans needed them.