Gone but not forgotten

Twin Axel Attack

Holy Thursday by David Axelrod is an astonishing piece of music. An amalgamation of hep cat west coast jazz, stinging guitar and the abrupt, angular, cinematic stylings of Lalo Schifrin, it’s a pigeonholer’s nightmare; hard to categorise but impossible not to love.

Holy ThursdayDavid Axelrod

This is proper music, written on charts to be played by proper musicians. There’s not one iota of jamming to be had here. From the piano and bass call-and-response intro, via the vibraphone and the pistol crack of the snare, every note, every bend, every brass stab and string sweep has been agonised over and carefully considered before becoming a constituent part in a finished piece that’s even greater than the sum of its groovy, swinging parts. By the time the freak-out electric guitar announces itself around the 4 minute mark, you’ll already be making plans to play it again and again. 

It’s the drums that do it most for me. Skittering, creative and always unpredictable, they’re a sticky-fingered producer’s delight. Various snippets of second-long breaks and beats have been sampled and looped and twisted and turned before being recreated as something new by dozens of hip-hop acts through the years. Stand up, Lil’ Wayne and UNKLE, I’m looking at you.

Holy Thursday would make ideal walk-on music, blaring loudly for a band to take the stage in front of an expectant audience. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if you told me that twonks like Richard Ashcroft (he was quick to make himself known as an Axelrod fan when the world began to catch up with the American’s living legend status in the mid 90s) or Kasabian had used it already. Aligning their own music to something truly grandiose and epic rather than the Asda-priced version that they peddle would certainly be the sort of thing those two acts might consider.  

Axelrod first found work in the 60s as a jazz arranger and producer, helping Lou Rawls to find his feet and sound in music. A heroin-addicted speed-freak, his production work on Cannonball Adderley’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy album took him into both the US charts and the same studios as famed sessioneers The Wrecking Crew. Employing the Crew’s core rhythm section of Carole Kaye on bass and Earl Palmer on drums, Axelrod wrote the musically complex Mass In F Minor for The Electric Prunes. The ‘Prunes were unable to play much of Axelrod’s challenging music and by the end of the initial sessions, in-fighting and finger pointing led to the group disbanding. Unperturbed, Axelrod and his assembled Crew simply completed the album on their own.

Released in 1968, the finished record bore no resemblance at all to the previous two Electric Prunes albums. Classically-tinged Gregorian chanting psychedelia was waaay out there, even for 1968. Richly soulful, redemptive and meditative, album track Holy Are You is the one to go for. It might well be spiritual, the lost cousin of Marvin’s Wholly Holy, but listen closely and you’ll hear the first strains of prog crawling from the dank depths of Middle Earth, a cloak short of a hobbit, a keyboard solo away from full-on mystical wizardry. Unlike yer actual prog, though, it’s fantastic.

Holy Are YouThe Electric Prunes

By the 1970s Axelrod was adventuring increasingly further ‘out there’ until he found the sound he was searching for. Welding the avant garde with wacked-out recording techniques to a traditional band set-up, he produced some startling results, most of which are only now being afforded their rightful time in the spotlight, in this house at least, two years after his death.

Those two tracks above should give you an idea of what he was about; inventive, innovative and invaluable to groovy crate diggers the world over. Check his rich and varied back catalogue on that there streaming service of your choice.

 

New! Now!

Everyone’s A Runner Baby, That’s No Lie

Pound slam pound slam pound slam pound slam… The rhythm is heavy but regular, incessant and never-ending. I am not at an all-nighter nor am I listening to Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman in the corner of my living room, turned up to 10 whilst the house is shorn of all family members for the time being. I wish I was though. Even an all-nighter these days would be better than the reality, the living hell that I’ve chosen to inflict upon myself. I am on a treadmill in a gym, surrounded by mirrors and all manner of shapely and shapeless hotties and fatties, my own contorted, mouth-breathing face staring back at me in disbelief at what I’m putting myself through. “You bastard!” I say to myself between half-gulped gasps. “You’ve conned me!

 

Joe Strummer, London Marathon, 1983

I woke up a few weeks ago with the creeping realisation that I turn 50 in the middle of November. My clothes don’t fit as loosely as they should. That favourite suit jacket that I kept for special ‘going-out’ nights no longer buttons up. The pair of indigo Levi’s I used to wear with it are suddenly, somehow, a size too small. I’ve more chins than a Chinese phone book. I am almost 50 and I’m a flabby, Jabbaesque mess. As I’m singing The Strangler’s Something Better Change into my head, get this! – a Facebook ad pops up in my feed. It offers cheap membership with no joining fee to my local community gym and so, a couple of nights later, I find myself in a new pair of trainers being given an induction in a roomful of equipment I had no intention of ever becoming familiar with.

The first days were laughable. I managed a whole 7 minutes on the treadmill; a heaving, wheezing sack of useless mess, huffing and puffing my way through my mantra of “just one more song before I stop.” The radio in the gym is permanently tuned to Smooth FM, with Sade’s Your Love Is King and Spandau Ballet’s True taking turns to push me through the miles metres and I hate it. In a bid to reach my first real milestone of week three – 10 long minutes – I sang bloody Bohemian Rhapsody to myself from the 3rd minute mark, convincing myself that if I didn’t look at the stopwatch that was counting up the long seconds that would become unattainable minutes, by the time I’d rocked out the solo in my head and come crashing back down on the “mama, oo-oo-ee-oo” section, I’d be almost home and dry. It only went and worked too. I’d try this again, definitely, but with far better source material.

I know! The iPod!

I’ve tried using headphones, but from around 12 minutes, the sweat really comes on, so the wee tricky buds won’t stay lodged in my ears. The right one especially slips out at the first hint of a trickly brow. They stay in place a bit better when I’m on the rowing machine – a whole other version of repetitive hell where you provide light entertainment for the heavy weights doing the serious bench pressing and weight lifting behind you – and my tunes have helped me row as far as 5000 metres in the one arm-numbing sitting.

Johnny Marr, NYC Marathon, 2010

It’s the treadmill that I favour though, and I really need my tunes. I’ve realised I’m a luddite. Everyone around me is streaming their music through the musty ether from smart phone to ear pod with not a wire in sight. My old iPod Classic looks out of place, but then, so do I, so fuck it. I’ve discovered that if I happen to be the only one in the gym, I can sneakily switch channels on the TV that pumps out the blandfest that is Smooth FM, so this is what I do whenever I can.

It’s a magic sight when you see the teams of hardened gym folk, all daft hair and stupid, tight, jogging trousers and oriental tattoos and suspiciously golden skin coming in for a serious workout to the wonky pop of Pip Blom and Ty Segall blaring wildly on Marc Riley’s BBC6 Music show. Nobody knows quite how the channel changed, nobody bar the new guy in the new trainers seems to like this stuff and nobody is brazen enough to suggest changing it back again, so everyone works up their sweaty sweat to a beatless racket while I ignore the stopwatch on the treadmill and try to work out who is on Marc’s t-shirt for the night.

Ty SegallDrug Mugger

And d’you know what? This approach has seen me clock up 30 minutes – half an actual hour – on the treadmill of death. Two and a half sloth-like miles, where every pffft step eugh is hrrrr an accchht almighty heugh effort.

I think I can do this…

Alternative Version, Get This!, Live!

We Are Stoned Immaculate

Much as my alternate weekends are never far from Rugby Park, so too at Plain Or Pan are you never far from a few words on the Trashcan Sinatras. Their rusty yet trusty engine cranked back to life at the end of last week, not only in preparation for a 30 date acoustic tour of the States that, as you read, is a couple of shows to the good, but also with the welcome announcement that a mere 16 years after first releasing it, they’d finally be releasing Weightlifting on vinyl.

Oft-considered the jewel in a particularly sparkly crown, the news of the band’s 4th album’s arrival on the format it truly deserves has Trashcans fans all in a lather. In typically awkward Trashcans’ style, it’s only available at the US gigs or via the band themselves, where postage from America to Scotland will cost almost as much as the record itself and might take as long as November until it lands at your door. Quite which November it can be expected wasn’t specified by the band, but, y’know, very good things come to those who wait. It’s been ordered, of course…

 

Another surprising announcement was the news that a new rarities and outtakes compilation was available. A companion to the long-released (2003) and out of print Zebra Of the Family collection, this new 2nd volume gathers demos and sketches from the Weightlifting and In The Music eras. Generally, a time of chaos and uncertainty in the band’s history, the demos nonetheless reveal the Trashcans’ ability to write majestically in the face of disaster.

The Weightlifting material in particular reveals a band demoing songs that are fully formed and requiring little in the way of tinkering and tweaking come the time to record them properly. Are they superior to the released Weightlifting versions? Of course not, but there’s a raggedy-arsed beauty to tracks viewed in the half light of completeness.

There are a couple of goes at Leave Me Alone, the first featuring slightly altered lyrics and titled, tellingly, Leave Us Alone. Recorded in the middle of bankruptcy claims and enforced studio sales, it’s a well-named, world-weary tune that sighs the collective sighs of a band on the very edge of disintegration.

Yet, somehow, as they always do, the Trashcans pulled through. Finding themselves in Hartford, Massachusetts, they set about writing the bulk of the Weightlifting material. There’s a terrific version of What Women Do To Men, all delicate keyboard stabs and atmospheric up-the-frets bass, where the released version’s slide-into-the-stratosphere six-string trickery is replaced by feral distorted guitar and a bucketful of reverb, the pathos of the lyrics matched by the howling intensity of the band cutting loose behind. God knows exactly what those women did to these men, but it’s a cracker. Magic, even.

Trashcan SinatrasWhat Women Do To Men (Hartford sessions)

Elsewhere, there are spy through the keyhole takes on the wonderfully lush Usually, a track that’ll forever be in most Trashcans fans’ top 5, the plaintive and perfect Country Air and Astronomy, a rarity previously available only as an extra track on the Japanese release of In The Music. A welcome addition, it may well be the first time some long-time fans have heard a studio version of a track that was something of a live favourite back in the day. Sadly, frustratingly, the band has missed a trick here. I’m sure I have on tape a version of the track from many moons ago that featured Frank and not John on vocals. Maybe I’m wrong though. Or, maybe, in typical Trashcans’ fashion, it’s just lost to the ether. A minor quibble, and one that’s instantly forgiven when you hear what’s just around the corner…

Best of all is new track The Dirge.

Normally, you might approach a song with such a title with mild trepidation, expecting funereal, mournful music, a wade through sonic treacle wearing iron boots. This Dirge is anything but.

Trashcan SinatrasThe Dirge (Hartford sessions)

It’s beautiful.

Long, slow and elegant, it creeps up on you with guitarist Paul Livingston’s low key, low register vocals before unravelling into the kind of track you’ve come to expect of Super Furry Animals at their most melodious and Wilson-worshipping best.

There’s chiming electric guitars, tinkling percussion, unexpected chord changes and textures. Wah wahs waft around the chorus while melodies and counter melodies weave their magic. It lifts, it drops, it soars. Is that a brass part playing low in the mix midway through? And a female vocal? It might be. It should be. Normally when bands throw the kitchen sink at songs, the results are a cluttered and unpalatable dog’s dinner. But this? This is stoned immaculate.

From first listen to current, I’ve heard it in my head sung only by Gruff Rhys. Nowt wrong with that of course. If you’re going to write slow burning songs of beauty, who better to channel whilst in the middle of the creative process? Quite how The Dirge never made it out of the studio is beyond me. Weightlifting is a perfect album, but it wouldn’t have been out of place on it in the slightest. It pays to stick with the Trashcans if they’re going to throw out wee gems like this once in a while.

Catch the Trashcans on tour right now. And head over to the shop at trashcansinatras.com to order your copies of Weightlifting and Zebra Of The Family 2.

 

Hard-to-find

D’Ye Copy?

A few years after Mick Ronson went down on Bowie on Top Of The Pops and the Bolan Boogie bongoed its way into the nation’s collective consciousness, a new breed of idol was born. Hot on the scuffed heels of post-punk, Adam Ant became the first popstar to enter my orbit and land on my record player. Well! Leapfrog the dog and brush me, daddy-o, if this wasn’t exactly what I was missing in my life! To a thumping double drummer Burundi beat, Adam and his Ants, all lip curl and collapsed Gene Vincent DAs, chanted and charmed their way through Dog Eat Dog, the rubbery electric twang almost too much for my 10 year old mind to take in. I really liked The Specials and Madness and the whole gang mentality that their music spawned in the school playground, but Adam, for me, brought on a whole new level of excitement. It was the pirate costume that swung it. That and the white nose stripe, of course. He looked liked a skeleton on the telly, all cheekbones and hollowed eyes, and while he danced his hoppy, arm swingin’, finger clickin’ jive, he stared down the barrel of the camera, directly into my living room, directly to me.

Adam And The AntsDog Eat Dog

By the Saturday morning I had availed myself of £3.99 worth of smash, splashed it on the counter of Walker’s at Irvine Cross in exchange for Kings Of The Wild Frontier and ran, ran! all the way home, desperate to get the first album I’d own spinning as soon as possible. I can still smell it now, freshly minted black vinyl, as it slid out of the sleeve and was transferred very carefully to the record player. I can still see the orange and yellow CBS logo spinning hypnotically. And when that Burundi beat fades in, I’m straight back to my living room in 1980, cross-legged on the floor, a bowl of Rice Krispies turning soggy while my attention was elsewhere for a couple of minutes. Life-changing stuff.

Kings Of the Wild Frontier was played so often I can still call it down from my brain and hear it whenever I fancy. I rarely need to play the actual music, it’s up there (points, taps head), burned indelibly forever. I know every adlib, every double-tracked chorus, every whistle, every solo…..every bit of it. I think my mum might too, as not long after buying it, my dad returned from work one day with a rare present – a copy of Adam’s previous album Dirk Wears White Sox. He’d bought it in Makro, of all places, on a work-related trip to the cash and carry and I’m sure it was bought partly to vary the soundtrack that my mum was exposed to from the minute I got in from school to the minute I’d gone to bed.

What none of us was prepared for was how different it sounded to Kings… The clues were there on the cover; a blurry black and white shot featuring a woman, back turned to the camera, standing under a streetlight. It looked like something from a 1940’s spy movie that my Gran might’ve enjoyed at the weekend. Within the grooves, there was nary a Burundi beat and a complete lack of pirate-themed potential. It was jerky, awkward and, to these 10 year old ears, a massive disappointment. It was still a record though, I had two albums now, and one that, even at that early age, I knew I’d ‘get’ at some point. I might even have done so too, had Adam not let out the ‘f’ word on one of the tracks and my mum, doing her best Mary Whitehouse impression, instructed me to turn it off and give it to her. With an awkward sense of shame and annoyance, I handed the album back to her, my collection reduced to one album once more. I never saw it again. Years later I found out that she’d made my poor dad take it back to Makro. God knows what he told them.

Zerox is still the killer track from the album I still don’t own. One of the Ants’ earliest singles, it’s held together by a tight ‘n taut see-sawing guitar riff that the 1992 version of Blur (Popscene! Alright!) would’ve given their right arm for.

Adam And The AntsZerox

Epoch-defining – ask a teenager today what a zerox machine is and see what sort of response that elicits – Zerox is punk manifesto set to music. We’ll copy your riffs, it says. “I’m never bored, I’ll steal your chords.” Unlike yer actual zerox machine, Zerox the song is timeless, an undeniable influence on all those angular guitar bands from a few years back.

Shortly after discovering Adam, I should say, my inner-self experienced a whole new thang when Debbie Harry popped up quite unexpectedly on Top Of The Pops with Blondie doing The Tide Is High. It was, I’d shortly discover, the worst single in the Blondie catalogue, as another sprint to Walker’s and back saw me add The Best Of Blondie to my thin collection, free Debbie Harry poster ‘n all. Suddenly Adam was relegated to second-best. To my dad’s relief, the Adam in full-on Prince Charming teapot pose poster was replaced by Debbie, pouting from the wall with tousled hair and an ‘Andy Warhol’s Bad’ t-shirt. Andy Warhol? Who’s that, I wondered…

Dylanish, New! Now!

Appetite For Destruction

A few months ago I found myself driving Alan McGee – yer actual, Creation Records, King Of Indie Alan McGee – back to his hotel. With the car radio pre-set to Radio Scotland, it was the Billy Sloan show that sound-tracked our short 5 minute drive. As I drove and Alan held court I realised Billy was playing a new track by King Of Birds. My initial reaction was to interrupt my esteemed passenger’s non-stop flow of conversation to say, “Hey! I know these guys!” but a voice in my head suggested that King Of Birds might not be Alan’s kinda thing, so I stopped short of butting in and listened instead, my driver’s-side ear struggling to make out the rich music on the radio as the other battled with McGee’s non-stop enthusiastic monologue about the two seismic Oasis shows that had taken place on Irvine Beach 24 years previously, “just over that hill there, Alan.” As we reached the hotel, the song on the radio was ending and in the half gap that followed while McGee scrambled around the footwell in my car for his bag, I managed to squeeze in a quick but proud, “King Of Birds! I know these guys!” McGee nodded and cocked an ear to the radio, just, would you believe it, as the Pavlovian rush of Oasis’ Rock ‘n Roll Star barged in. “And I know these guys,” nodded McGee in the general direction of my car’s dashboard. And with that, he was out and off.

Had I been brave enough to stop the flow of rich one-way conversation, Alan would’ve heard I Hope We Don’t Fall In Love, the then current single by one of our country’s brightest talents. King Of Birds have been on the go for a wee while now. I first saw them maybe 4 years ago and was instantly taken with their knack for a good melody, a strong harmony and a seemingly never-ending run of songs that flowed as freely as water from a tap. “The McEverly Brothers,” I dubbed them at the time, a tag that sits well with the band’s principal writers. Sometimes a duo, sometimes a full piece band, King Of Birds is essentially Charlie and Stirling Gorman, two brothers with a long-standing relationship with the Scottish music scene. In recent years there have been right turns and wrong, a none-more Gallagher fall-out that threatened to derail all their good work included, but it’s from this frictious tête-à-tête that the seeds of a very fine album were sown.

Eve Of Destruction is the result, a dozen tracks of what you might call Americana. With nods to the twin towers of Michael – R.E.M.’s Stipe and The Waterboys’ Scott, main vocalist Charlie carries the songs with a gravel-throated world weariness. Brother Stirling is the perfect foil. A Peter Buck-obsessed R.E.M. fanatic (the band’s name should be clue enough), he’s never far from a waistcoat and a ringing Rickenbacker, his six and twelve string symphonies colouring the music with the requisite amount of jangle.

Like origami in reverse, the songs take time to unravel, exposing classic melodies from the simplest of chord structures. Built on a bed of dextrously-plucked nylon acoustics, the tunes tumble as jaw-droppingly effortless as the acrobats at the Cirque du Soleil. It’s all in the carefully considered arrangements; tinkling piano, weeping pedal steel, an occasional Springsteen-esque yearning harmonica, dust-blown sweeping strings in every other coda…….it’s ‘proper’ music, played expertly.

The band’s undeniable influences are all over it, from One Horse Town‘s opening Simon & Garfunkel flourish on the nylons and lightning-fast ascending riff last heard flying off the grooves on Bob Dylan’s I Want You, to the keening, Don and Phil-influenced “tell me if you see-eeee her,” from the track of the same name. Rod Stewart could do worse than involve himself in a cover of the crashing When We Were Kings. 12 string Rickenbackers tease out a widescreen Caledonian epic that manages to be both anthemic and reflective. There’s even a drop-out in the middle where ol’ Rod can do that leaning back with the microphone pose he’s been perfecting since The Faces. It’d be the perfect song for getting him back to what he was once good at.

In an era where bands don’t really release singles in the traditional sense, tracks such as Hard Times For A Good Man and I Hope We Don’t Fall In Love were the obvious promotional tracks to release to influential radio folks, but dig deeper and you’ll find the likes of Here And Gone or Peace Of Mind, with its banjo-led hillbilly hoedown by Travis vibe the track most likely to break out the social dancing round these parts.

My favourite track is buried deep on side two. Hang Me Out To Dry, the penultimate track, has a pretty, cascading guitar riff the equal of anything Paul McCartney recorded in his first post-Beatles years. Little shattered jewels of crystalline melody float on a sea of harpsichord and woozy, wonked-out synth. The whole thing reminds me very much of Elliott Smith, and that’s no bad thing at all. It’s so unlike the rest of the album I fear it’ll be forever overlooked by those seeking potential radio-friendly hits – of which, as you now know, there are at least half a dozen. Hang Me Out To Dry though is the diamond in a field of gold.

The whole record has a terrific ambience. It’s airy and spacious and in places brings to mind Neil Young’s last great masterpiece, Harvest Moon. Much of the credit for this must go to mastering engineer Frank Arkwright. Based at Abbey Road, he’s the man Johnny Marr trusted with the task of remastering The Smiths back catalogue a few years ago. Arkwright’s magic touch is all over Coldplay’s The Scientist, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and a whole host of respected records. He’s an inspired choice, no doubt costly, but the results are outstanding.

Packaged lovingly in gatefold vinyl, the finished record is a thing of beauty. The brothers, you feel, have put everything into this release. From the detail on the labels themselves, to the sepia-tinted artwork, to the carefully placed picture (of their parents?) that sits atop the piano on the front cover, everything has been carefully considered. Make no mistake, this is proper heart and soul music. It may be King Of Birds’ one shot at releasing a record (I sincerely hope not), but man!, they’ve gone all out to ensure that, should this be the case, they’ve made their mark with a masterful piece of work.

Don’t take my word for it though. Get yourself along to Stereo in Glasgow this coming Thursday (26th September) where King Of Birds will launch the album in full band mode. I’ll be there. So too, no doubt, will Billy Sloan. McGee hasn’t got back to me yet, the silly man. There are far worse places he could choose to be instead.

 

Get This!, Kraut-y

Electra Glide In Blue

Back in the mid 70s I was kept awake by the sound of the machinery that was thumping and bumping together the bypass that, 40 years later, continues to act as an artery between north and south Ayrshire. Despite my shut windows and curtains, I could hear the rumbles of heavy plant, as loud as it might have been had they been digging up our front garden and, if I lifted my head from the pillow, I could see between the gaps and swirls in the curtains a faint orange glow from half a mile in the distance, on the other side of the River Annick, beyond the field where the helicopter would land in a couple of years time in its vain search for the still-missing Sandy Davidson. They were building something  – a new road, my Dad had told me – and it was keeping me awake. The work seemed to last forever and, given the pace of work wherever roadworks and the likes are concerned, it probably did, but I can also remember hearing the distant whoosh of traffic afterwards, when the road was complete and commuters went about their business in a faster and straighter fashion than before. We lived on the outskirts of the town. The sound of speeding traffic was a new thing, but you got used to it fairly quickly.

At the same time, somewhere beyond Ayrshire, far beyond the musical and literal backwaters of the UK, a brave new world was opening up. In West Germany’s Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk was barely 4 years old yet they were pioneering the sort of music that would influence a whole raft of acts in the way The Beatles had a decade previously. Embracing the future with Minimoogs, ARP synths and home-made electronic drums, they set about reconstructing their sound. Their fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn, album was the result. A five track LP that featured the 22 minute title track on the entirety of the first side, it was quite unlike anything that had come before it. Listening to it currently, you can hear where Bowie nicked ideas for the second side of Low. You can ‘feel’ the embryonic glow of Joy Division’s glacial isolation. And you can begin to appreciate the unique importance of it.

Autobahn, the title track, is terrific; futuristic and ground-breaking and happy and sad all at once. Opening with the clunk of a closing door, a revving engine and a parping keyboard, its modus operandi is to replicate the monotony of a long car journey on the motorway.

KraftwerkAutobahn (single eversion)

Elastic bass vies with vocodered vocal. Fahren, Fahren, Fahren auf der Autobahn, it goes, in a knowing, sarcastic nod to the sun, sun , sun, fun, fun, fun Beach Boys. Drive, drive, drive on the autobahn. There’s nothing fun about driving in a straight line for hours on end though, and Kraftwerk knows it. Propulsive, linear and never-ending, the entire 22 minutes (or 3 and a bit above) is driven purposefully by a pulsing electro bass and the same steam-powered drums that Stephen Morris would go on to replicate to great effect a few short years later on Unknown PleasuresShe’s Lost Control. Stop for a moment and consider just how influential Stephen Morris’s band was. Without Kraftwerk, it’s arguable whether Joy Division would’ve sounded quite as they did. No Kraftwerk, no JD, no post-punk discipline as we know it. Autobahn is, then, an important record.

That chiming keyboard motif, melodic yet melancholic, synthesised yet soulful is the tune that quietly worms its way into your head. Driving Kraftwerk forward into a new future where they’d eventually be considered kings, Autobahn endures to this day. Those unexpected airy whooshes – motorcars by Moog – that punctuate the repetitiveness transport me straight back to that bedroom in the mid 70s, the unforgiving sounds of Vauxhall Victors and Ford Cortinas keeping me half awake for hours at a time.

Get This!, Live!

Sun Electric, Outta Sight

It’s common consensus that R.E.M. post Bill Berry were poor, three quarters of the important band they had once been but far less than the sum of those parts on record. After his on-stage collapse from a brain aneurysm, you can’t blame the drummer for wanting to slow things down and call it quits (he’s now a hay farmer in Athens, Georgia), and nor can you blame the other 3 for deciding to continue.

Left-field enough to maintain credibility yet popular enough to sell out stadiums the world over, it would have taken a brave Buck (or Mills or Stipe) to suggest winding things up, but their recorded output from albums 11-15 demonstrates a band limping along like a dog on three legs, one of them cocked and ready to piss their entire legacy up the wall. If you’ve the time and inclination, you could definitely put together a decent compilation of hidden gems from a run of albums that have garnered less plays collectively in this house than Maxinquaye (has anyone listened to Tricky since 1995?) Airport Man from Up, for example, would feature. As would Daysleeper from the same album and perhaps (off the top of my head) Imitation Of Life, Leaving New York, The Lifting, The Great Beyond, Summer Turns To High, Suspicion…. There’s been a few then, but none of those tracks, none of them, would’ve made the cut for 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the final R.E.M. album featuring Bill Berry’s essential contributions, the album that has quietly wormed its way into the Top 3 of the band’s back catalogue.

Yer man in the street may well point to the twin globe-straddlers Out Of Time and Automatic For the People, but the more switched on have other ideas. In a three-way tie with Murmur and Life’s Rich Pageant, New Adventures In Hi-Fi jostles with these ears for pole position. Michael “It’s R.E.M. at its peak” Stipe and Mike Mills are of a similar opinion.

It usually takes a good few years for me to decide where an album stands in the pantheon of recorded work we’ve done. This one may be third behind Murmur and Automatic for the People,” said Mills to Mojo at the time of release. He knew. As Oasis et al went about their boorish business of climbing up the charts and dumbing down the nation, R.E.M. were quietly writing and recording the best album of the era, on the hoof and totally as they went.

Wrapped in a fold-out sleeve that features blurry, arty black and white shots of landscapes, lakes and long-lost diners taken by Stipe from the tour bus as they whizz past on the way to the next show on the Monster tour, it’s a terrific collection, a proper ‘road’ album.

Continuing a theme started by previous support act Radiohead, who recorded many of the backing tracks for The Bends in soundchecks and downtime, R.E.M. set about recording everything as they toured. It was a pre-determined move, the band keen to capture spontaneity with the thrill of capturing a one-take beauty fuelling their focus. From dressing room writing sessions in Philly to soundcheck workouts in Phoenix, the whole lot was committed to tape and analysed while the band’s tour bus zig-zagged its way across America. A lot of the lyrics and a few of the song titles – Departure, Leave, Low Desert – reflect the notion of travel and the end result was the longest-running R.E.M. album to date, a road-worn pick ‘n’ mix of Monster-era rock, pastoral pop and cameos from Patti Smith.

The understated opener, the slowly creeping and crawling How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us is a cracker and unlike anything the band had released to date. The 5 note piano refrain and the spy theme guitars carry it, but peer underneath and you’ll spot the shoots of electronica that came into full bloom on the next album, Up.

R.E.M.How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us

Departure carries on spectacularly where Monster left off, grooving on a turned-up-to-11 Les Paul riff reminiscent of Green‘s Pop Song ’89. Mike Mills’ harmonies soar like they haven’t since Out Of Time‘s Belong while Stipe fires off a rapid, alliterative opening line about just arriving in Singapore, San Sebastian, Spain and Salt Lake City’s salt flats after a 26-hour trip. Travel again.

R.E.M.Departure

Elsewhere, Stipe crowbars in obscure references to fuck-ups, fighters, and motorcycle riders and, man!, I could listen to him sing the words ‘motorcycle rider’ all day long. Departure is almost R.E.M. by numbers, but more importantly, it’s one of the last truly fantastic rock tracks the band would release.

The last words should go to the closing track. Electrolite may well be the jewel in the album’s crown. The product of a Phoenix soundcheck, wonky start ‘n all, it’s classic R.E.M., the track to turn to when you need to remind yourself what a great band they once were. Michael Stipe’s lyric, a reflection of his life in L.A. and the people watching he did on Mulholland Drive, sat untouched for two years until the right tune came along. It duly did in Phoenix, with Mike Mills offering up the piano-led track that provided the scaffolding for the finished article.

R.E.M.Electrolite

Stipe’s Martin Sheen, Steve McQueen, Jimmy Dean refrain is the clincher, a lyric harking back to the glory days of Hollywood, an unintentional metaphor as it would turn out, for his own band’s golden era.