There are bands and artists that have seen better times. Their glory days – when they could do no wrong and an appreciative general public, not just hardcore fans, lapped up their every song – are far behind them. Still, they soldier on as music industry survivors. Are they still worth listening to? Or have they lost it?

In the first of an occasional series, earworm listens to the latest releases of two such survivors (so you don’t have to?) – The Strokes and R.E.M.

The Strokes ‘Angles’

The problem with affecting an air of insouciant cool is there comes a time when that initially beguiling attitude becomes a drag. Man. Such is the situation New York new wave merchants The Strokes find themselves in. There were times while listening to Angles when I had to check it wasn’t actually called Contractual Obligation, such is its lacklustre mien.

It was always debatable whether The Strokes would have enough variation in their limited arsenal to sustain a long-term buzz even when debut album Is This It became the soundtrack of 2001 and much of 2002. Follow up 2003’s Room On Fire was good, third effort First Impressions Of Earth showed worrying signs of quality control being relaxed and now fourth long-player Angles is, frankly, awful.

There is some truly mediocre stuff here. It’s no surprise to discover singer Julian Casablancas indulged in the modern equivalent of phoning it in by emailing his vocals to his erstwhile bandmates while making this album, preferring to not even be in the same studio as the rest of the band. If he can’t be bothered spending more time with The Strokes then why should you?

Let’s try to be a little positive. Opener Machu Picchu is alright. It has enough of that jingly-jangly guitar thingy that The Strokes used to do so well going on to hold the interest as Casablancas warbles about a woman who is pimped out while “wearing a jacket made of meat” (Lady Gaga?). The verses in Two Kinds of Happiness sound like a long-lost track by The Cars which is never a bad thing before the chorus finds The Strokes momentarily finding their élan again. Taken For A Fool could easily nestle on underrated second album’s Room On Fire. And that’s about it. Everything else is pretty boring. Is this it, indeed.

By the time the chorus of mid-album chugger Games is moaning about “living in an empty world” the listener knows how the band feels. The Strokes have managed to convey the blank feeling they used to affect that now afflicts them. So, there’s that, I guess.

If The Strokes have a five-album deal they should just release a singles set and be done with it. Best to remember them as the purveyors of the likes of Last Nite and Hard To Explain than anything on Angles.

Take it or leave it? Leave it.

★★★★★

earworms: Machu Picchu, Taken For A Fool

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_l09H-3zzgA[/youtube]

R.E.M. ‘Collapse Into Now’

Like many, I suspect, I long ago stopped regularly listening to R.E.M. In some ways they were victims of their own distinctive sound. It meant there was only so such R.E.M. anyone truly needed. Most folks who bought their albums up until – say – 1994’s Monster are generally happy when any of their songs pop up when shuffling through iPod tracks but don’t feel the need to sit down and actually listen to any of their new albums. And the singles they’ve released to promote recent wares haven’t exactly grabbed any waverers.

On the odd occasions R.E.M. have managed to gain my attention recently it hasn’t been in a good way. Seeing the video for Bad Day — an It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) rip-off — promoting some greatest hits set or other was a bad day for R.E.M. A bad day when the video director convinced them to dress as newsreaders, accentuating how old and past it they were. At least they were cloning their own songs with different lyrics though. And that was that.

But then I got a little intrigued. The release of Collapse Into Now this year wouldn’t be accompanied by the usual, no doubt lucrative, world tour in which REM would rouse the faithful with renditions of Man On The Moon while most politely shuffled off to the bar and/or toilet whenever a new track was aired. Could R.E.M., after many false promises of a return to form, recapture their mojo?

Ominously, singer Michael Stipe made the churlish decision to only grant interviews to fashion and lifestyle magazines this time around and left offsiders Peter Buck and Mike Mills to deal with the pesky music press that fawned over their early work and enabled the one-time alternative scene deities to cross over into the mainstream. Bassist Mills’s generally ill-tempered demeanour; pretty pissed off for a man who managed to nab a financially ruinous – for Warner Music – $US80 million five-album deal in 1996 just before their commercial stocks plummeted also jarred. Mills has a problem with illegal downloading which is weird because it’s unlikely the kids are downloading R.E.M. albums. Certainly not recent releases, anyway.

So, how does 15th R.E.M. album Collapse Into Now set out its stall? Pretty well, actually. Especially on the opening one-two punch of Discoverer and All The Best. The latter even contains a cheeky lyrical acknowledgement from Stipe that “it’s just like me to outstay my welcome” before vowing to “show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine”. Hey kids, rock ‘n’ roll. Discoverer is a beguilingly clanging number, and sets the early tone with Stipe laughing after he bellows its repetitive titular chorus.

Things then take a turn for the sedate which is a bit of a let down after such a thumping start. Mind you, Uberlin and Oh My Heart are the kind of understated and lilting fare R.E.M. used to churn out effortlessly around about the time Losing My Religion and its attendant Out of Time album conquered the world. Peter Buck’s over-reliance on guitar motifs from that era, especially on Uberlin, grates a little though.

Following a mid-album lull, Mine Smells Like Honey‘s rollicking chorus is one of the best things here as Stipe and Mills bring out their duelling voices-trick to great effect (again), as is the stately follow-up Walk It Back. Peaches then pops up, presumably bringing her fuzzy crotch with her, on Alligator_ Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter with Stipe feeling “like an alligator, climbing up the escalator”, apparently. Wonder how those early R.E.M. fanboys – and they were mostly boys then – who pored over what the hell Stipe was murmuring on debut Murmur way back in 1983 feel about all that wasted time and effort when they hear such meaningless lyrics?

The run home features the throwaway, under 2-minute, That Someone Is You which does, to be fair, marvellously rhyme “Sharon Stone Casino” with “Scarface Al Pacino” and penultimate clunkily entitled Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I which is more of the same really and plods along, threatening to make R.E.M. actually outstay their welcome. You can’t help but feel, at this point in proceedings, that they’d tried something a little different to inject a little variation. And then – oh dear – they try something a little different.

Closer Blue has Stipe free forming a spoken-word speech as Patti Smith wails about a “Cinderella boy” who has “lost his shoe”. It’s try-hard avant-garde. Someone perhaps realised this since first track Discoverer‘s chorus fades in after Blue making you want to listen to the whole album again. It’s been a long time since an R.E.M. album has engendered that urge.

15 albums in and there’s life in the old gods yet.

★★★★

earworms: Discoverer, All The Best, Mine Smells Like HoneyAlligator_ Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7q5DLS1rAU&ob=av2e[/youtube]

Next time: The Vines vs Jet (not really…)

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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