I’ll Never Subscribe to a Streaming Service…

All right, we’ve got Netflix and Amazon Prime but then I’ve got kids and there’s Ninjago and Paw Patrol and, god help us, Horseland… And The Good Wife, Designated Survivor, Jessica Jones, Touch, Sense 8, but that’s beside the point. I mean, I’ll never subscribe to a music streaming service. 

I like to own my music. I like to feel the product in my hand, to run my fingers along the fissures in the brittle jewel cases, to read, braille-like, the indentations in the squidgy cardboard sleeves born in the early-00s. There’s no substitute for battered bits of plastic and paper lying around, their erstwhile contents getting scratched as careless hands replace them in the wrong boxes.

Then my phone provider (EE, to give them a call out), sent me a message inviting me to access Apple Music for free for six months. In the process, not only have they committed me from July 2017 to paying £10 per month to access my music, but they have re-invigorated my interest in “new” music. I say “new” because little of it is truly “new” but rather is those albums that, in the last twenty-years or so, I was never quite ready to splash hard-earned cash on. Those albums that, when faced with in the CD exchange in Wimbledon never quite made it to the top of the list – often leapfrogged by albums I’d never heard of by artists I knew only by association through written reviews in Uncut, the Sunday Times and the Guardian.

So, now I am truly hooked on this nagging Apple drug, here are the top five discoveries I have made – and should have made (for the most part) 10-20 years ago…

Can – Ege Bamyasi

I really don’t have the musical vocabulary to describe Can. Suffice it to say that the album sounds ahead of the curve, insistent and infectiously flirtatious; frighteningly danceable rhythms, fluid and free – no Can, no Pavement, no Siouxsie, no mid to late period Radiohead (or a thousand other bands now at the forefront of modern “post”-“rock”). It is almost impossible to believe you are listening to an album from 1972.

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

I don’t really like what has come to be known as R&B (as distinct from rhythm and blues), and while iTunes has it that Freetown Sound is an “alternative album,” it has strong elements of what I think of as that genre. But, what I really hear is soul. Curtis Mayfield’s version of soul, with something of his intensely political but affirmative voice, guided along the pathways opened by Massive Attack and refined by Dev Hynes in his Blood Orange guise. 

It’s not an album designed, I think, to speak directly to a middle class, middle aged white man like me, but like Janelle Monàe’s The ArchAndroid, it transcends my limitations. I don’t understand it. The reference points I do get – Michael Jackson, 80s funk… – are not highlighted on my musical map. But, damn, it’s great to listen to.

Calexico & Iron & Wine – In the Reins

Phew. After Can and Blood Orange, I feel like I back on familiar terrain. Guitars? Check. Shuffling drums? Check. Pedal Steel? Check. Calexico is one of those Uncut championed bands I never quite got around to. I had a few tracks from the magazine’s Unconditionally Guaranteed CDs and, whenever they came up, I nodded along and thought “I like this.” Similarly, Iron & Wine was a band I knew more as a reference point for bands that I liked than because of any particular listening experience.

Listening to these two bands working collaboratively has led me to downloading more of each back catalogue, but this is the album I’ve most frequently come back to. I suppose at 28 minutes, I should probably call it an EP rather than an album, but it feels whole and complete. The harmonies between Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and Calexico’s Joey Burns are tight and prove more than the sum of their parts, the bursts of stax horns on History of Lovers have the transformative quality that I find in all my favourite songs.

Case/Lang/Viers – Case/Lang/Viers

Skimming through my record collection reveals a soft spot for singer songwriters, and specifically for the literate, intellectually engaged ones, such as Thea Gilmore, Cat Power and Sara Watkins. And here are three of them, working together: Neko Case, KD Lang and Laura Viers.

I know each to some degree or other, with Neko Case being my strongest suit but Lang perhaps the best known. I know none well enough to easily pick out who might be leading each track. But that hardly matters where there is no weak link (in absolute or relative terms) and the true magic is the way they blend their voices in service of the material, the harmony’s recalling Jenny Lewis’ collaboration with the Watson Twins, while never allowing one voice to stand above. 

If the Case/Lang/Viers moniker suggests the dusty offices of a regional firm of accountants, there is nothing about the songs that sounds as if bean-counters have been at work. Each song sounds crafted, the songwriting and arrangements mapped out to punch in the right places and lull in others, the guitars, bass and drums foundation supplemented by inventive string arrangements and pedal steel. Just beautiful.

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker – Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour

I first heard of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker via Jim Moray’s Low Culture Podcast. Like Moray, C&W take folk music in a direction where more is seen as more. However, where Moray is, on occasion, a folk McCartney with no-one to hold him back, C&W introduce a little more light and shade, though mostly shade. NCBBTH is a melancholy listen, but not a depressing on.

The key hooks here are the clarity of Clarke’s vocals (neither overly mannered, in the way that makes us impure-folkies cringe a little, nor a faux American sop to Anais Mitchell’s reviled “poppers” in Hadestown), the musical complexity of Walker’s guitar lines and Clarke’s multi-instrumental flourishes. Added to these, traditional arrangements aside, Clarke’s lyrics are thoughtful, the glass half full, but still filled with a sweet liquor. Time moves on, losses are felt and it is well worth joining Clarke and Walker on the journey.

So, I was wrong. I owe my friend Pip an apology for being so absolute in my conviction that nothing good would ever come of music by subscription. And I owe EE for dangling Apple Music before me. I will still buy music that enthrals me so that I can hold it and turn the pages of the liner (something digital has yet to provide with any great facility). 

That aside, the entity I will doubtless end up owing most to is Apple. From what I can see, Apple Music pays artists around the same as Spotify, within a band running from around $0.0010 to $0.0019 and, according to data on http://www.informationisbeautiful.net, has a reach exceeded only by Spotify and YouTube. 

Is that enough? I’m not sure and those that can afford to challenge the business model should do so. Doubtless the market will finally assert itself over the artist, but there is little doubt that, through Apple Music, I will listen to a wider variety of music, more often than I would have done without it. Maybe that’s a contribution of sorts.  

Lambchop at the Roundhouse, lightly grilled

Photo (c) Andrew Lynch

As Kurt told us, it’s not over ’til the fat lady gets home. Well, the little fat man got home at 2am on a bus masquerading as a train. And yet, the memories of Lambchop’s gig at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm remain, well, not fresh exactly, but warm, sentimental and somewhat romantic – but then, it’s a Lambchop gig, so that should come as no surprise. 

This was a much smaller line up than when I saw them at the Barbican playing their way through the whole of Nixon, the album that brought their commercial peak. Tonight, bass, drums (digital and acoustic, with a smattering of synth noodling), piano (doubling up on stand-up routines) and Mr K Wagner Esq. on Gibson archtop, synths, midi-controller(?) and vocals, played mostly from the songbook of new album FLOTUS – a reference to Democratic political activist and former record shop owner Mary Mancini, whose husband just happens to be the Lambchop front man. 

FLOTUS is not an album I know well yet, suckered as I am still most often by the charms of What Another Man Spills, which is where Lambchop started for me in 1998. (Even at 21 I was essentially 42). If pressed, I couldn’t write out a set list for last night, not least because many of the new songs are built on similar foundations: lightly brushed drums, intricate but mellow bass lines, deft piano accents and Kurt’s voice, swamped in analogue delay and a softly doubling chorus that substitutes for the album’s experiments in autotune.

And it’s a unique voice: a rich, mellow (there’s that word again) baritone. Settled in a comfortable mid-range, words are half sung, half spoken. It might become monotone if not for occasional swoops from subterranean Isaac Hayes rumble to highfalutin’ Curtis Mayfield yelps. In truth, over the last few albums, Kurt’s vocals had, to my ears, become more staccato and compressed. Here, the swathes of delay fill out the sound until it becomes truly organic, despite its digital support. The side effect is that many of the words are indecipherable, which for a band benefiting from Kurt’s unique, sharply observed and very funny view of the world, seems a shame initially. But on the FLOTUS songs, the voice is treated as another instrument in the mix and I couldn’t be absolutely sure there were actual words for which to strain. Of course, just occasionally clarity broke through the soup and when it happened my companion and I were reduced to fits of giggles as a perfectly created and witty image was skilfully sketched in a handful of words.

If FLOTUS really is the album Kurt wrote in the hope that Mary might find room for it in the car alongside her more modern pop sensibilities, then I hope she only plays it on journeys without a pressing time of arrival. As the band settles into each casual groove, moving along with impeccable taste and little haste, the audience is lulled into a meditative state. This is music for travelling at a steady 55mph on a die straight highway with the wheel locked off, roof on, lost in thought. Some people took the chance to sleep. And it was quiet enough to sleep. Never have I heard a band delight in playing as quietly as Lambchop. Had the set continued until 1am, none of the Roundhouse’s neighbours would have had cause to complain. 

After a solid hour and 40, the gig ended with an encore straight out of Lambchop playbook. Would they play the big hit (if there is one, it is probably Up With People from Nixon) or maybe wheel out the cover of Young Americans that wowed the Barbican audience back in January 2015? The band shuffle back on, drop into a easy groove and another low key, soulful gem emerges: Lambchop please by doing things their way and sincerely hoping you like it. And that’s that. Warm appreciation all around, received and reciprocated with typical Southern charm. Then we’re off, Lambchop most likely to sip a beer in silent companionship while I savour the delights of the train and the bus. 

Always Meet Your Heroes

Mark Kermode is a film critic – and yes, they really do matter – for the Observer and BBC TV and Radio, and he has a book out: Hatchet Job, in which he asks whether critics remain relevant (yes), whether they can sink a stinker (no) and how their role is evolving while even the content of a good review remains constant. And tonight my friend Rhiannon and I went to see him in conversation with Andrew Abbott, with whom Kermode had made the documentary The Fear of God, amongst others.

You aren’t meant to meet your heroes, but here he was, albeit Mayo-less, be-quiffed, as black as a Johnny Cash-a-like and large as life in the V&A holding forth before a rapt audience, selling familiar jokes with studied confidence and always referencing the work of others: Roger Ebert scoring best, but closely followed by Philip French with nods to Peter Bradshaw, Kim Newman, Alexander Walker and Chris Tookey. Simon Brew of Den of Geek should also grab a copy of the recording whenever he’s next feeling a bit low.

And alongside the familiar jokes, the intellectual capital advanced was also familiar. If you have read The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex and Hatchet Job, and indeed had them read to you by Kermode himself via the audiobooks; if your iPod is groaning under the digital weight of multiple podcasts (that’s if hard drives get heavier the more information that is on them…); if you are that, er…, dedicated then there was nothing new.

But that did not mean it was fresh. More it was comfortable without lulling the audience to sleep, knowing without being smug. Kermode is an excellent raconteur and, with Abbott allowing him full flow in front of an audience well primed to survive the erudition and insights without the need for Mayo’s always relevant intercessions for the casual listener on the a Radio 5 show, easy on the ear.

The evening ended with a relaxed Q&A:

Can films be so bad they’re good? Mostly bad films are just bad… Cannibal Women in The Avocado Jungle of Death gets a mention as a possible exception to that rule.

Any tips of would be film critics? Keep plugging away. After 6 months most wannabe film critics don’t want to be film critics, but persevere and you’ll probably make it if it’s really what you want.

A run through some good old Trotskyite views on the value of labour and the anecdote about Werner Herzog getting shot during an interview and time has flown by.

So, Mark Kermode… Tick!

Maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to say hero, but Kermode is certainly one of my touchstones, that endlessly BBC, Guardian-toting list of cultural icons that would leave a hole if they decided enough was enough and exited, stage left.

Some, Alan Coren, Humphrey Lyttleton… have already made that exit leaving only the memories of learning to dance with Sergeant Wronga or King Alfred’s proclaimation: “I have the Hampton of a Norse!”

Maybe one day the heady recollection will be of Kermode’s reviews of Transformers 1, 2 and 3, or Sex In The City 2, or anything by Gore Verbinski (and I’m sorry Mark, but it will always be the rants that remain longest in the mind).

But for the moment he exists with the others on the touchstone list still creating new insights, humour, poignancy and affection: Jeremy Hardy, David Sedaris, Sandi Toksvig, Stephen Fry, Jesse Bearing, Armand Marie Leroi, Terry Pratchett… and Mark Kermode.

And long may it continue.

Wilco, Anna and Out

Two gigs in one weekend at my time of life – all right, I’m only 33 for a few more weeks, at least – might be stretching it a bit, particularly in two different cities, with two different companions and an added visit to the parents with a three year old in between, but Wilco at the Roundhouse (Camden) on Saturday and Anna Calvi at Concorde 2 (Brighton) were well worth the effort and also, I think as the JavaTM cup of tea winks at me suggestively from the corner of the screen, worth an addition to the occasional blog.

In many ways – the fantastic Mr Tweedy notwithstanding – the weekend was, partly by virtue of where I ended up standing, about two guitarists; or three, if you include Wilco support act Jonathan Wilson. For Wilco, Nels Cline came bounding on, long, loose and maroon shirted prompting Mrs Duck to turn and say: they’re really quite old, aren’t they. You’d never think Anna Calvi was a bit old – and certainly younger than the majority of the crowd at Concorde 2 – but between them they shared a sort of thin angularity that seems to make for the best guitarists. Indeed, both dragged sounds from their various Teles (Calvi), Jazzmasters, Danelectros (Cline) which seemed as outwardly angular and sharp.

As you’d expect with a band with seventeen years behind them, not to mention a wide-ranging pedigree outside the day job, versus an up and coming artist, Wilco demonstrated more range over their two hours on stage, starting up noisy and dragging in a squall-of-sound as they built from One Sunday Morning through to Bull Black Nova without much pause for breath, before Tweedy finally took the chance to say hello. Tweedy himself was on powerful form, his voice fuller and deeper than on recent albums rasping out his oblique, ambiguous words; a rumble through the mix.

Calvi started with the opening track from her eponymous album, standing to deliver a masterclass in the sort of clean tones you can wring the combination of single coils and Vox amp, summoning a storm in baroque, semi classical motifs, revelling in the space between the notes. There was to a simple, stumpy mind, a whiff of Buckley (jnr) to her performance; something in the vocal range, superb control of dynamics and ability to draw on an almost operatic vibrato at the top of her range. Or maybe it was the Gary Lucas-y magic guitariness that hinted at the opening bars of Grace (see the “Songs to No-one 1991-1992” version). Or it could just be that I’m aware that the co-founder of Domino Records (Calvi’s label) was at Big Cat and gets a name check in the Grace liner notes and I’m being fanciful… In any case, even with the guitar set aside (to rest a wrist injury), crooning an Elvis cover, Calvi is a magnetic presence.

A third of the way through Wilco’s set, they are on what must surely count as one of the more spectacular party pieces in rock. With Tweedy and John Stirrat (increasingly prominent on backing vocals as the night progresses) picking up the rootsy vibe, Wilco pushed into their murder ballad Via Chicago only for, part way through the song Glenn Kotche to go into meltdown on the drums before the song bursts through back into the country air. Three times this happens, first with Kotche alone in the middle of his breakdown and then joined first by Cline and then by Stirrat and Pat Sansone to leave Tweedy gentle strumming through the carnage. Surely this is what Tweedy’s famous migraines must’ve felt like.

Such is the brilliance of Wilco’s playing and unity as a band, that such musical coup de theatre are liberally scattered across a set that became more jovial and relaxed as it progressed, the audience warming from appreciation through to genuine love. It’s hard to think of another band that could inspire a large crowd to chorus the opening line “impossible Germany; unlikely Japan”. The culmination of this progression towards feel good was perhaps the appearance on stage for the encore of Nick Lowe, introduced by Tweedy as the Jesus of Cool, for a spirited reading of Cruel To Be Kind, with Tweedy and Stirrat singing back up vocals into a single mic like a later day McCartney and Harrison.

Calvi’s encore then was The Devil, finding her standing apparently alone centre stage, holding the attention of the rapt Concorde crowd; and after that an Edith Piaf cover that drew on similarly devilish imagery before we all departed late into the Brighton night.

Wilco obviously benefited from the warmth of the crowd toward them and the substance of their back catalogue. They were musically superb, assured and apparently capable of rolling out any song you wanted with precision and drive. Calvi is more glacial and crowd more obviously musos than fans; occasionally, you maybe wish for a crack in the ice, a burst of emotion through the control and hauteur – her intersong chat, as minimal as it was suggested a shyness that the performance overcomes. But still she is a dynamic presence with a surfeit of ideas and the technical accomplishment to go anywhere. Overall, a hell of a weekend, and an excellent use of that extra hour.

20111031-152131.jpg

I’m with the mutants across the road

On Sunday just gone, Teddington Theatre Club (TTC)’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man” won (jointly) best play at the Richmond-Upon-Thames drama awards (the Swans) for 2010/11. That achievement reflects the excellent efforts of the cast and crew and rewards the decision of TTC’s artistic committee to both suggest and back the production. It also rewards the commitment we made, cited by the judges, to craft a production that was a sensitive treatment of disability and difference that a modern audience would grasp and, hopefully, reflect on. It seems appropriate in that context to republish here my programme note by way of thanks to all those who made the production possible.

Director’s note

Eighteen months ago I read Armand Marie Leroi’s book “Mutants”, in part in preparation for “Elephant Man”, although it has since taken on a broader importance. I have since read it twice more. If I’m honest, my understanding of the science of genetics probably reached its peak about a third of the way into the second reading – and will never progress further – but my appreciation of the story has continued to grow. There is a key theme, building on Francis Bacon: mutants – those people with genetic difference arising from errors in the code by which they’re programmed – are central to understanding what we are, why we develop in the way we do and why our bodies malfunction and die.

Or in summary, if we understand those people who are different from ourselves, we understand ourselves better.

Leroi tells this story through a mixture of modern science, teratology – the archaic study of monsters – and descriptions of early genetic experiments from splicing newt DNA in Freiburg just prior to the second world war to experiments on dwarves in it; there are also case studies of some of the more celebrated mutants throughout history, including Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.

Merrick’s doctor, Freddie Treves, late of Dorchester, friend of Thomas Hardy and physician to the wealthy and successful, wrote his own case study of Merrick, famously misnaming him John. It is from this text that much of the material for Bernard Pomerance’s play is drawn. Indeed, David Lynch’s film draws from much the same source as the play, although the two are not linked otherwise.

In the film, of course, John Hurt’s Merrick comes replete with prostheses, beautifully rendered in crisp, brightly lit black and white. In the play, Pomerance proscribes the use of prosthetics and, whilst the actor must approximate the physical form and recreate the initial difficulties Merrick faced in making his speech understood, his physical deformity is of secondary concern.

That might seem a strange thing to say of a play about the Elephant Man. It’s Richard III or Quasimodo without their hunched backs; Leroux’s Phantom without the mask. The question perhaps is what we’ve come to the theatre to see.

Many of the mutants whose stories Leroi recounts were amongst those collected by the high ranking nobles of Europe for display at court: piebald Javanese children, people covered from head to toe in luxuriant hair, conjoined twins. They were there, as Merrick was, to be stared at in amazement and with amusement. Those highborn courtiers responded in much the same way as their lower born counterparts responded to the freak shows of Barnum and others. People, it seems, are always drawn to extremes.

But Pomerance’s play is not a freak show. And a reasonable question is: do the prostheses in Lynch’s film assist or detract from the story of the man beneath them? Perhaps there’s a zeitgeist-y parallel here: when Susan Boyle sang on Britain’s Got Talent, did you also think, in the words of Amanda Holden, “I wasn’t expecting that” – by extension, a “beautiful” voice to come from someone who was unattractive physically? To make up our Merrick with lumps and bumps would be to present the audience the opportunity to betray itself with the thought: I never expected something so ugly to see so much beauty in the world. It’s an instinctive thought, and one that I’m sure we’ve all had. And it does majority a disservice. Most of us feel the immediate guilt that follows.

There should be no need for guilty consciences here. My hope is that you will note the physical difficulties Merrick faces – they do, in the end, lead to his death – but to think about what he says about the world around him, his lack of bitterness and his capacity for love and faith, and to focus on what Pomerance wants us to see: just another man, with his challenges to overcome, poorly treated by those around him but doing what we all do best: become a little better every day.

 

The Union Forever

I only became aware of the first night of Lewes’ Union Music Store’s monthly residency at the newly refurbished and under new management the Lansdown Arms from a tweet. For that, I should be grateful to Twitter and my recent attempts to get to grips with this peculiarly codified means of networking. Still, along I went and shuffled into a seat alongside many of the Union’s regular punters, who do more than walk past in the morning before it opens, and again in the evening when all others are abed and stare longingly through the window at the collection of 12-strings, banjos and ukes. (www.unionmusicstore.com).

The Lansdown Arms, now under the management of Viv and Ben, is fairly crowded as the first act, Stella Homewood kicks off. Sometimes her light, fluting voice and strummed, nylon-string, parlour guitar has trouble cutting through the babble, but for the most part she punches it out enough to satisfy the faithful gathered round with her warm tone poems of stillness and nature. At the end of one song, she promised that on the album, “Ordinary Day”, a full swell of instruments swept up at the end to push the song along to its conclusion, but here, there is space to breathe around the words. It is a gentle start, but filled with charm. (www.stellahomewood.com).

What follows creates a shift in mood and atmosphere that gets feet stamping and heads nodding. Lloyd Williams, more normally the leader of Autumn Red, comes armed with his banjo and astonishing, hard picking virtuosity to deliver a set of tracks that remind me, not a little, of the bluegrass, metal covers of Hayseed Dixie who I saw at Kingston’s Ram Jam Club seven or eight years ago. The energy that Lloyd transmits is enough for one older member of the audience, resplendent in his straw cowboy hat to shout out “yeehaw!” – at the Union c*untry is not a dirty word, and you can even buy the t-shirt.

Where Stella’s songs sung of England or at least a very English pastoral, slim, handsome and charismatic Lloyd’s songs of wishing wells and devils at the door seem closer to Steinbeck’s dust bowl and there are delivered in the evangelical bark of a frontier preacher. It’s an intense and dynamic set, and what it lacks, perhaps, in variety and subtlety in makes up for in the propulsive character of its playing. (www.myspace.com/autumnred).

Finally, and headlining I suppose, although the atmosphere is more collective and communal than that term might suggest, is Laish, a multi-piece collective from Brighton, led by singer/songwriter Daniel Green (www.laishmusic.wordpress.com). Before they kicked off, I heard someone say that they were influenced by a traditional, folksy sound and looking at Green, who has something of the troubadour about him, and the cross-legged disciples sitting on the floor around them, this felt right; however, the first song came over a little Port O’Brien in the fusion of folk and indie reference points. After the first couple of songs, the band is joined by Martha Rose, who adds extra, elegant harmonies and folksy violin to the mix, her vocals lending depth to accordionist Emma’s, in support of Green’s slightly nasal lead – I kept thinking of Anthony Newley/Bowie/Nick Drake/Mark Chadwick, but there are probably better comparisons out there.

It turned out that Laish had to miss the Pells Pool party earlier in June and offered up “I Am Enraged”, a song about moving to Lewes at the behest of a loved one that culminates in the refrain “you can go on your own” by way of a skewed and funny “apology”, much to the delight of the locals. If I’d heard it six months ago, well, who knows…?

At the end of the set, another member of the congregation leaned over and said that it reminded him of 1967, the summer of love and all that “English psych.” He could have been talking about Laish or the evening as a whole, which certainly felt like a love-in.

And yes, I loved it too. This sort of thing will, I suppose, always be hit and miss on occasion, but the sense of community that the Union Music Store has created already, and which this night supplements, is a credit to their enthusiasm and knowledge of the Americana, folk and roots scene. The next gathering is on Sunday, 4 September. I suggest you put it in your diary and pop along. Oh, and don’t forget to take some change along for the tip box.

20110704-131331.jpg

Old Dogs, New Tricks?

Longevity in the music business is often eyed with suspicion, and particularly for bands still seeking to create new material, rather than reforming or touring extensive back catalogues, relying on familiarity and muscle memory to get you through. Some, of course, do this exceptionally well. The Rolling Stones’ material may be old, but their abilities as a live band, coupled with a still burning passion for the spectacular makes for events (you might hesitate to say “concerts” and still further “gigs”) that justify the steep ticket prices. But what happens when approaching your late 40s and early 50s, you still yearn to let the creative juices flow?

This was brought to mind listening, as I always do, to the Guardian’s Music weekly Podcast. As part of Singles Club, one of the presenters proffered Überlin, the first European single (though it’s getting difficult to keep track of what’s a single and what’s a pre-release taster of what’s to come) of their upcoming Collapse Into Now album.

Now, I’m a confirmed REM apologist, able to find saving graces even in albums as mundane and lacklustre As Around the Sun, and as shiny and forced as Reveal, but hopes were relatively high following what some called the return to form, but for me was more a return of energy, that was 2007’s Accelerate. Misgivings about Jacknife Lee aside, I have listened to the various releases, with the fervid interest of a fan.

Having heard about a third of the album, I’ll reserve judgement – REM for me are an albums band, and the key is how things hold together across the piece. They are, in some ways, not entirely for the iPod generation and the songs released as singles are often the least of the material put down: Wanderlust, Until The Day Is Done, or going back Superman, to name a few. But something did stick from the Podcaster’s generally feelings of “meh”.

To summarise, the general lack of enthusiasm was put down to Überlin sounding a bit like Drive (I can see that from the opening “Hey”) or Losing My Religion (not quite so clear on that – there are minor chords and acoustic guitars, but…). And okay, that’s personal taste and the opinions, whilst ones I don’t necessarily agree with, are perfectly valid. However, I find the judgement of a song by others within a back catalogue in review of fairly little value. Surely the key is: is the song any good?

I’ll give you a for example…

A few weeks back, the same Podcast reviewed January Hymn by the Decemberists. A beautiful song; and a strong album in The King Is Dead. The panel agreed, and pointed particularly to the strong REM influence (Peter Buck plays on three songs, in case you hadn’t heard), particularly on Down By The Water, with it’s One I Love Rickenbacker riffing and in Calamity Song’s Reckoning era twelve strong. It’s good stuff, and as one presenter noted the strong REM influence, Alex Petrides, ever wise in his criticism and champion of really interesting stuff from the mainstream to the margins, added “that’s no bad thing”.

Right or wrong in critical opinion, the question that prompts is: what if REM had made The King Is Dead? Would the extensive quoting of their earlier work (as with the Drive-ishness of Überlin), lead to a sense of “meh”? I think it might.

We all load our preconceptions onto the music that we experience, especially when we have invested in a band and lived with them for so many years. Bob Boilen on NPR’s All Songs Considered, discussing Oh My Heart from Collapse Into Now, said “here’s a band you root for.” In many ways, I cling to the hope that the album will be good.

Perhaps the issue for Collapse Into Now is that it delves back to a later period REM than The King Is Dead. Automatic for the People, Out Of Time, perhaps hints of Monster and New Adventures in HiFi, rather than the critical gold of Murmur, Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant; a time of great commercial success, but which many hardcore fans seem to see as a sort of chamber pop, MTV-led era of less value than the band’s touring heyday. Well, each to their own.

Automatic was the album that got me into REM, sitting on my first girlfriend’s floor, with her resting her head on my chest while we listened to her brand new copy on cassette. But it’s one I seldom listen to now. In some ways the singles spoil it for me a touch: Everybody Hurts is lovely, but hardly rocket science and done to death, Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight one of the silly, pop-rock songs that are great driving along, but a little saccharine lost in your thoughts on the commute to work. As a result, lovely fragments such as Monty Got a Raw Deal miss out. The REM album that I’ve been listening to most regularly is Live At Olympia, which invests old material with real energy and a sense of ramshackle fun.

So maybe when Collapse Into Now comes out, I’ll be one of those pining for a little more Fables and a little less Out of Time. But, I’ve made a pact with myself to try, as far as is human, to judge the new album on its merits. If I pretend it’s by a new band called MER then maybe I won’t think it’s so MEH after all.