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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

I’ve been playing Donkey Kong Country for nearly 25 years, which is most of my life. Not only did I play it a lot back then, but I still play it as part of a Zen thing. If I don’t have anything to do, I might fire up a Donkey Kong Country game and think about other things while I mindlessly breeze through the stages. So, Donkey Kong Country is actually a relatively large part of who I am, compared to most other mundane things about my life.

Gnawty

Amazing.

We got three Donkey Kong Country games when it was still a contemporary series. Though opinions vary on the different entries, they all followed the same basic template: the games were about primates, and while the expected, nebulous comedy aspect was there (insofar that apes are inherently goofy when not tearing off people’s faces), Country transcended this idea and put forth a surprisingly deep, moody atmosphere. The art was dark and beautiful, and the music rarely played up the hijinks, instead opting for elegance or a certain dire mystique. The gameplay was traditional side-scrolling with emphasis on secret areas.

Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble is usually regarded to be the worst of the three, albeit worth playing. They were starting to make an even greater departure from the tone of the original Donkey Kong Country, with more muted aesthetics and alien-looking enemies, plus sort of realistic themes to the world and stages. This usually happens by the third entry in a series, unless the creators are really committed to a particular formula. It isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but one way or another things may have been getting a little stale, in this case.

So, when Donkey Kong 64 was looming on the horizon, they opted to put one foot in the water and essentially reboot Donkey Kong Country rather than continue the plot of the SNES series directly. Nintendo did this to great effect with Star Fox 64, which for all intents and purposes was the same story as Star Fox. They took all the best aspects of the original game and created a superior experience, but still managed to make it feel fresh with enough seamless additions and tweaks to the gameplay. If you went into Star Fox 64 looking for a respectful successor to the original game, you were in for a delight.

The same cannot be said of Donkey Kong 64. This is about when Rare started to play up the laughs. Banjo-Kazooie preceded it by a year and soft-tossed a number of ideas that permeated Rare’s next ten years of games—more overtly cartoonish styles, gross-out humor, and a looser, easier feel to the gameplay. Rare was developing exclusively for Nintendo at that point, and the Nintendo 64 was clearly geared toward younger audiences compared to the PlayStation, so it’s expected that they were under pressure to go in this direction. Kids love cartoons, anthropomorphic toilets, and a challenge they can handle.

Now, for Banjo-Kazooie, this worked fine, mainly because it was a new intellectual property. No one had any expectations about it, other than that it was going to be inevitably held to the standard of Super Mario 64. But with Donkey Kong 64, we got something different. When you boot it up, you get slapped in the face with the “DK Rap” (and watermelon life force—hmm). Diddy, most of the supporting Kongs and animal buddies, and the Kremlings are back, but the playable roster is mostly new characters that are basically circus sideshow freaks. The Kongo Jungle is more or less recognizable, but the rest of the stages are stock settings. Again, these same things can be said of Banjo-Kazooie, but it’s not unfair to have a certain degree of expectancy with what is clearly meant to succeed or even supplant Donkey Kong Country. Super Mario 64 delivered on the promise of 3D by setting the bar very high in terms of control and functional aspects of 3D like the camera. Donkey Kong 64 didn’t produce a memorable 3D experience, and it didn’t satisfy anyone who loved the previous series.

It was playable, but no one really cared if they got a Donkey Kong 64 2. Rare would never make a Donkey Kong game again as they were subsumed by Microsoft, though Donkey Kong would survive because, of course, it was under license from Nintendo. But because Rare owned other key aspects of Donkey Kong Country, continuing the tradition was tricky. It wasn’t until almost 10 years later forces managed to conspire that allowed the series to continue, two console generations later on the Wii as Donkey Kong Country Returns.

I did not play Returns. I did own a Wii, but for various reasons I didn’t play the game—I didn’t really like the Wii, I no longer had a ton of disposable income at that exact point in my life, and I knew it wouldn’t be a true successor to Donkey Kong Country, although I suspected it was probably worth playing. If any one thing bummed me out, it was the lack of Kremlings. On paper, this shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Returns simply re-skinned them as “Tikis,” freeing them to do with them whatever they’d have done with Kremlings. But this opened up a different can of worms. For one, nobody fucking likes vacation settings. Gamers are introverts; they sit in their dimly lit rooms and avoid sunlight and socializing. Why did Nintendo get such a hard-on for this stuff once GameCube rolled around? Super Mario Sunshine, what’s next, Star Fox: Key Largo?

vacation

I play video games so I can get away from yuppies, you assholes.

By this point, I was pretty much done with console gaming anyway. I’d more or less abandoned my Wii and Xbox 360 and stuck to PC gaming for close to a decade. But I did eventually buy a Switch, mainly because I was intrigued by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey in a way that console gaming hadn’t done since 5th generation. When Returns’ sequel Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was ported to the Switch (having originally been a Wii U title), I decided it was a low-risk investment given that I already had the console. I knew it wouldn’t deliver on the promise of Donkey Kong Country, but what the hell—there were key people from the original project working on it, so at worst it would maybe just be a solid 30-hour-plus time-sink.

The villains this time are “Snowmads,” which are arctic creatures. Those are not altogether incongruent with the original series, which had seals and snow stages. At this point I have to be fair and point out that Returns by and large was not a vacation-themed game; it still had all the typical Donkey Kong Country stages as far as I know, it was just the Tiki shit that made it come off like an island vacation. And I realize Donkey Kong Island itself is supposed to be a tropical setting, but it was obviously more of a “Lost World” than it was a paradise. I grouped DKC more with the ambiance of cinematic platformers (i.e. Another World or Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee) than I did with Mario Sunshine.

Anyway, Freeze doesn’t take place on DK Island, but you wouldn’t really know the difference. It’s all the same stuff, just brighter, sunnier, more upbeat. The introductory level, Mangrove Cove, is a seaside jungle level. The throwbacks begin immediately, as you can turn around and run backwards into a crashed plane or something and get a red balloon, similar to how you can go into Donkey Kong’s hut in Donkey Kong Country‘s first level, Jungle Hijinxs. I say “or something” because I didn’t really watch any of the cutscenes. As I understand it, the four main Kongs are celebrating DK’s birthday when the Snowmads arrive and mess things up. This didn’t really interest me, because part of the charm of the old games was the fact that the stories were hilariously simple. However, the cutscenes and other asides do seem to feature a lot of inordinate primate screaming, which is a plus.

The first thing that hits me, of course, is the control. Because DKC was like a second skin to me, I’m quick to notice all the differences. At this point, I should explain that during the course of the main game, Donkey Kong is the only character you truly control. When you find DK Barrels, they either rotate between Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky, or they contain a specific one for whom the level is somewhat tailored. When Donkey is alone, he can do all the basic things he could do in DKC. He can walk, run, ground-pound, roll, and throw barrels. When he’s partnered with Diddy, he can hover for a limited time. With Dixie, he can use her hair to either get a small lift in the air or hover in a slightly more erratic way than Diddy (unlike in DKC2, her hair will “run out of steam”). With Cranky, he can slam downward with Cranky’s cane, which allows you to bounce high, traverse spikes, and defeat some enemies more quickly.

Donkey Kong, like in the original DKC, is not expressly agile. In the original series, this wasn’t a problem because there was always a Kong in the pair that was at least reasonably agile. In the new game, he is a bit more homogenized to account for every possible situation, but he still doesn’t feel nimble. The variable speeds take some getting used to because roll-jumping—which was an essential skill in the other games—is now much more explosive. If you’re not careful, you can far overshoot your jumps. On the other hand, if you don’t get used to and utilize this speed and power, you will find your jumps don’t reach, because DK can’t get a lot of air otherwise. Of course, this is offset by having the other Kongs, in this case not Cranky because slamming the ground is very much the antithesis of “getting air,” but with Diddy and Dixie. That is to say, if you don’t gauge your jump very well, you can sometimes adjust with hovering.

Here’s where they kind of dropped the ball. For one, Cranky is just not that useful. There are a handful of levels and one boss fight where he is essential, but most of the time he’s either not practical or, in the case of levels based primarily around pitfalls, entirely useless or even detrimental. Cane-bouncing is fun, but most of the levels just don’t really have situations where it comes naturally. Even when there are floor hazards you can bounce across, there are still vines above them because the game knows you might not necessarily have Cranky. Furthermore, although he can kill enemies with one stomp that would normally take three, you are pretty much depriving yourself of free loot this way, because you get more bananas and coins the longer you sustain a stomp combo.

Diddy is basically useless, or rather he is functional but wholly inferior to Dixie. I think the advantage is supposed to be that his hover can cover more ground, but I find that it’s far more likely I need the extra height than I do the extra few feet horizontally, because Donkey Kong can propel himself great distances as it is with the roll-jump. So Dixie will be your bread-and-butter, although the characters have other benefits. You can play as them separately in Hard Mode, and they have projectile weapons. As I understand it, each Kong also has an underwater benefit, but I find these never come into play except that you need Dixie for certain strong currents that lead to optional paths. You also have “POW” abilities—charged-up powers that affect every enemy on the screen and are different for each supporting Kong. Diddy turns enemies into red balloons, Dixie turns them into heart armor, and Cranky turns them into banana coins.

Coins are for Funky’s shop. There, you can buy various temporary buffs, figurines, and Squawks, who helps you find puzzle pieces in each level. Puzzle pieces are roughly equivalent to Kremcoins and Bonus Coins from the other games, although K-O-N-G letters are also more important now. Each world has a number of levels, some of which have alternate exits à la Super Mario World that lead to side levels, and if you get K-O-N-G in every level, you open up that world’s “challenge” level which has no checkpoints and tends to be filled with pits (sorry, Cranky). There’s also an extra world like in the other games provided you get all the bonus content and beat the final boss. Funky is also playable in the Switch version; he can’t travel with a second Kong, but he’s stronger and has a bunch of unique abilities, so it’s sort of like playing as Richter in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. So for content, the game gets an “A.”

But does it capture the magic of the originals? Not really. I only bring this up this unfair comparison because clearly Nintendo was trying to capitalize on this. They listened to the fans that wanted the classic characters like Donkey, Diddy, Dixie, Funky, and Cranky, as well as iconic animal buddy Rambi (who was conspicuously absent from DKC3). They also enlisted David Wise who worked on the original three games’ soundtracks, and made sure to include cues from those games. They knew which songs people liked, and remixed “Aquatic Ambiance,” “Stickerbrush Symphony,” as well as other lesser musics like the bonus rooms’ victory or defeat tunes. Although I appreciate this, I find the soundtrack to be too reliant on these throwbacks, and ultimately not to have much charm of its own. Not to mention, the remixes aren’t really anything to write home about. I also didn’t care for the symphonic music that plays in the last world when you play the “siege” levels. I get that they were going for a Nordic thing with the Snowmads, but it just makes me feel like I’m playing Ape of Thrones.

Ultimately, although the moods are too bright compared to the original games and the controls not as satisfying, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is still a solid video game. I can’t be too picky about the changes in the series because I know that if it was too derivative, that would be even worse. There are things that even the developers can’t control that make a true successor a virtually impossible task, so it’s best just to appreciate the honest effort they made here, which resulted in a good challenge that gets most of the key aesthetic elements right.

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“An Evening with Robyn Hitchcock” Concert Review, November 18, 2017 at City Winery, New York

Jonathan and I rode into Lower Manhattan around 6:15, my timing a little too accurate as usual. We parked on Spring Street and made our way half a block to City Winery and began camping out at our six-person table in the center of the venue. My estimation of the view from our seats was spot-on; we were positioned cleanly in front of center stage, but not so close that we would have to crane our necks. We chatted with another fan at our table over food, whom I’d complimented on her Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust t-shirt. Lowe’s “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “Nutted by Reality” came on over the PA. She told us about a show in which Robyn and Elvis Costello appeared on stage to sing with Lowe. I remarked that it’d be cool if Pete Buck walked up on stage on this night.

Robyn barreled onto the stage and began playing “My Wife and My Dead Wife” with no introduction, then immediately broke into “Balloon Man.” Get them out of the way—smart. He looked ever so slightly disgusted with himself as he adjusted one of his cuffs, then explained that Balloon Man and the President are not dissimilar. Admittedly, if there’s one place where he might feel obligated to play “Balloon Man,” it’s Manhattan.

His vaunted between-song banter did not fail to entertain throughout the night. He introduced “Trilobite” which a long bit on how millions of years in the future a race of advanced cheetahs may discover the ruins of our civilization and mistakenly come to the conclusion that hi-fi equipment was the dominant species of our time. He played “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs” during the second set and talked about his morbid fascination with the movie Magnum Force, which Jonathan had to later explain to me in the car.

As always, Robyn paid homage to his influences. He broke out Syd Barrett’s relatively obscure “Wined and Dined” near the beginning of the first set. He remarked after that many singers of the ’60s developed techniques that allowed them to pierce through bad PA systems and that this was no longer necessary because even our phone recordings sound better than state-of-the-art equipment from back then. He then asked the “disembodied voice of the evening” to give him a particular sort of delay on his guitar, steeled himself, and proceeded to blast his own anachronistic screech through the Winery’s state-of-the-art PA. “Best thing in the world: the Beatles, and the most important singer in the Beatles: John Lennon,” he lectured politely, before playing a note-perfect “Dear Prudence.”

Hitchcock’s guitar-playing, which I’ve always found to be an underrated aspect of him, was in full force (magnum force, even). While not a transcendent guitarist, I prefer him to his contemporaries because he has more character. When he fumbled the intro to “Glass Hotel,” stepping back from the microphone to utter a furious “Damn it!” I only thought this added to the charm. The piano, which loomed large during the first set, was first utilized by special guest Mike Mills (hey, I was close) for “I Wanna Destroy You” to open the second set. Robyn quipped, “And now for the only thing scarier than Mike Mills on the piano, which is me on the piano,” and played “Harry’s Song,” “Somewhere Apart,” and “Executioner.” Emma Swift then came on to support him for “Briggs,” “I Used to Say I Love You,” and “Glass Hotel.” He then wrapped up the set with a few fan favorites and stepped off stage for a brief moment before playing “Sound and Vision” for the encore. Weird! But cool.

As the crowd funneled out the door, Robyn made his way to the merch table to sign memorabilia and take selfies. Jonathan said we should go up to him. I declined, the usual things running through my head. What can I say to this guy that he hasn’t heard thousands of times already? What if he’s aloof? Eventually he convinced me, insisting he’d buy me something from the table; I acquiesced. As it turns out, Robyn is very pleasant. We shook his hand and Jonathan introduced us. “My wedding DJ refused to play ‘Kingdom of Love,'” I said with a smile. “On what grounds?” he asked with feigned indignance. He asked politely how long I’d been married and offered kind words, and we left.

And that was our evening with Robyn Hitchcock.

 

Playlist: “Necessary Lust”

This playlist, a mash-up of Dave Edmunds’ Repeat When Necessary and Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust, attempts to best represent what a Rockpile album culled from those sessions would have looked like. The songs were all recorded in the same time frame, but because of Edmunds’ and Lowe’s recording contracts, had to be released on separate albums.

  1. “Sweet Little Lisa” (Repeat When Necessary)
  2. “Cracking Up” (Labour of Lust)
  3. “Crawling from the Wreckage” (Repeat When Necessary)
  4. “Born Fighter” (Labour of Lust)
  5. “Switchboard Susan” (Labour of Lust)
  6. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (Repeat When Necessary)
  7. “Queen of Hearts” (Repeat When Necessary)
  8. “Cruel to Be Kind” (Labour of Lust)
  9. “Girls Talk” (Repeat When Necessary)
  10. “Home in My Hand” (Repeat When Necessary)
  11. “Love So Fine” (Labour of Lust)

Only one true problem exists with this project, which is that Labour of Lust is worth hearing in its entirety already, so cutting up that album feels like a poor exercise. With that in mind, I tried to create a different kind of experience, with a few principles in mind:

  • Edmunds’ songs—90% covers—were chosen somewhat on the basis of more relevant songwriting personnel, such as Graham Parker (“Crawling from the Wreckage”), Elvis Costello (“Girls Talk”), and Rockpile member Billy Bremner (“The Creature from the Black Lagoon”). Coincidentally, these are the best songs from his album anyway, for the most part. This approach seems to mesh better with Lowe’s output.
  • Conversely, I put Lowe’s more rock-oriented songs on there, including cover “Switchboard Susan” and band-penned “Love So Fine” because they flow better with Edmunds’ rock ‘n’ roll.
  • I put “Sweet Little Lisa” in the beginning as a nod to it often being used to open Rockpile’s shows, and buried “Cruel to Be Kind” because I thought maybe Lowe might appreciate that.
  • The “A-side” (songs 1–6) is focused mainly on frenetic songs, while the “B-side” (7–11) is more glossy, melodic, and soppy to begin with, although it does devolve into the crass “Home in My Hand” and debased “Love So Fine.”

GWAR—Hell-O

Yeah, sure, it’s fun, but is it art?

GWAR’s first album, although not as mythologized as their later releases, fits in fairly well in their discography. After all, hardcore punk and thrash metal hold hands from time to time, so the transition makes sense—more sense than the Bee Gees going disco, if you think about it. But Bee Gees this is not; Hell-O is a nasty affair, ranging from sodomy to bestiality to—hold your hat—anti-patriotism. On this album, these things are presented more as general statements than as part of the GWAR story, but I’m sure you can consider the things in here to be retroactive continuity. My personal favorites are “Slutman City,” which should be self-explanatory, the raging “U Ain’t Shit,” “Je M’appelle J. Cousteau,” a lurid new chapter to the famed explorer’s life, and the eponymous “GWAR Theme.”

Talk Talk—It’s My Life

Maybe I don’t know if I should change
A feeling that we share
It’s a shame
Number me with rage
Number me in haste
This eagerness to change

It’s My Life isn’t an upper-echelon album. As far as Talk Talk goes, it’s not far beyond The Party’s Over. Like that album, it’s front-loaded, but even those songs have problems. Take “Renée” for example, the most off-putting song they ever did. Musically, it’s an OK little lament, but Hollis just sounds so ridiculous during the chorus. And with “Dum Dum Girl,” another song I hate to hate, I appreciate the irony, but that doesn’t make me enjoy its dopey melody. That song and two others were co-written by Tim Friese-Greene, the band’s new producer and unofficial fourth member. You’ll never see him listed as such, but that’s what he was, playing keyboards, sharing writing credits, and even sitting in on tour at times. I’m sorry, but what do you call that?

He replaces original keyboardist Simon Brenner, although Ian Curnow plays keyboards on at least one song on It’s My Life. But it’s Friese-Greene I have to give credit for the interesting bits on “Dum Dum Girl” and “It’s My Life,” a hit in its own time on both sides of the Atlantic but mostly famous today because of No Doubt (at least in the U.S.). Who knows, though; Hollis wrote the best song, “Such a Shame,” on his own, as well as the excellent “Tomorrow Started.” The former begins with a lengthy, precipitous intro on the album version before veering into a The Dice Man-inspired story. What really makes the song for me, though, is a stroke of genius that lasts all of five seconds during the chorus—that keyboard line just after “This eagerness to change.” That little bit of melody just says it all; it elicits such strange and wonderful emotions both in cadence and texture that foreshadows the genius to come on later Talk Talk albums.

The rest of the songs range from forgettable (“It’s You,” The Party’s Over holdover “Call in the Night Boys”) to pleasant (“The Last Time”). Is “Does Caroline Know?” some kind of answer to the Beach Boys? Somehow I doubt it, but there’s lots of diehard fans of theirs throughout the music industry, so I’m not ruling it out. In any case, that’s about as much thought the B-side provokes from me. But when the album shines, it really shines.

Sparks—Hippopotamus

Here we are at Sparks’ 20-somethingth album, depending on whether or not you count the radio opera The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman or the Franz Ferdinand collaboration FFS, or for that matter the redux album Plagarism. When you get to that kind of number, it’s really no longer anything notable to point out. The only interesting thing to note is that even as Ron and Russell enter a point in their lives when many musicians would be doing music by rote, with Sparks you can still see and hear new patterns emerging. I begin this review of Hippopotamus by mentioning the first thing that grabbed my attention, which is a song titled “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?”

I found that to be an damnably cumbersome title, even before I’d heard the song it belongs to. And speaking to the pattern of it, Sparks have been doing this since, I want to say, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins—1994. And while you can say, yes, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (1974) did exist, that was more of an idiomatic thing. At some point, Sparks started to just make songs that were just random phrases: “I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car,” “Your Call’s Very Important To Us. Please Hold,” “As I Sit Down to Play The Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral.” And I’ll be damned if Ron and Russell aren’t having a laugh about it, considering there’s also “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song.” But they just ruin the patter of the songs, because a title is one thing but Russell tends to sing them as well, sometimes cramming as many syllables into a basic measure as is humanly possible.

And you know what? Sometimes that makes for good, quirky fun, but “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside from That How Was the Play?” is the last straw. What kind of a line is that? At least “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” had a sort of structure to it, but for “Lincoln” they just machine-gun it. And the worst part? It’s not even a “Talent Is an Asset” or “Here in Heaven”-esque story about Mary Todd Lincoln giving a darkly funny interview after her husband’s assassination. The line has nothing to do with the rest of the song, unless there’s some kind of allusion I’m missing, which I don’t think I am. This is symptomatic of much that is the Sparks of the last 25 years, which is to think up a killer concept and proceed to milk it into utterly enervated submission over 4–7 minutes.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate these songs musically, necessarily. With the Maels back to a format more in line with their classic period, I would say Hippopotamus is possibly the peak of their powers. They haven’t lost their enthusiasm for music, and 45 years of practice will make you a pro at just about anything. Russell took care of his voice—maybe he can’t do exactly the same falsetto he could in ’74, but he sounds not old, and Ron’s twisted persona still looms large, not having lost its edge. I say this because not all the lyrics are duds (“Live fast and die young/Too late for that”) and because he still looks sharp on stage. Sometimes Sparks don’t live up to their name, but Hippopotamus has the spark, and with a seemingly self-conscious effort to keep songs under four minutes, I can get on board. Maybe not with a hippo lurking in the pool—those things are nasty.

Back to Sparks hub

Cheap Trick—In Color

How do you follow one of the most auspicious debuts in all of popular music? Dial it down, spruce it up, make it shine, and put the band’s two pretty boys on the cover. Had Cheap Trick been released in the era of compact disc, In Color (and even parts of subsequent albums) probably wouldn’t have even existed. It’s not an unusual story: Cheap Trick had so many songs already in their repertoire that it took years just to release them all on record—Cheap Trick was released in 1977 and principal songwriter Rick Nielsen had been playing music since at least 1961.

The only substantial difference between Cheap Trick and In Color is in the production; the former was handled by Jack Douglas, whose résumé included kindred spirits like Blue Öyster Cult, New York Dolls, and Aerosmith (not always as producer but sometimes engineer or both). It’s the better record any day of the week, and that’s not to say In Color‘s Tom Werman is necessarily a poor producer, just that his own credits—mostly campy hair metal acts like Poison and Twisted Sister—didn’t make him a keen choice for a raw rock group like Cheap Trick.

Cheap Trick’s seminal concert opener “Hello There” opens In Color, which almost doesn’t make sense on a studio record, and Nielsen’s guitar doesn’t really roar like it should, nor does it on the should-be-menacing “Big Eyes.” The more sensitive “Downed” actually benefits from the setting, and “I Want You to Want Me” is at least interesting and cute arranged like a pop-country song, but “You’re All Talk” feels neutered. “Oh Caroline” is more faithful to the Cheap Trick sound, but “Clock Strikes Ten” is too slow compared to its live counterpart. “Southern Girls” is their triumph here, a “California Girls”/”Back in the U.S.S.R.” tribute that arguably does those songs one better.

Back to Cheap Trick hub

R.E.M.—Monster

I’ve always thought Monster was sort of middling, and relative to their other albums of the period, it might be. Over time I’ve realized that it’s a more interesting and twisted album than I gave it credit for. Everyone thinks of it as R.E.M.’s “rock album,” and it is, but that’s a reductive statement. To me, the album seems to subvert emerging pop conventions, like with the distorted vocals and halting guitar on “King of Comedy,” or mocking hard rock of “Circus Envy.” Maybe that’s giving it a little too much credit. They probably were just doing whatever they felt was right at the time, which when you’re coming off four platinum albums you’re at complete liberty to do.

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” continues the “Man on the Moon” trend of pop-culture subjects, this time focusing on a dark if oddly humorous true story of Dan Rather being accosted by a schizophrenic murderer. “I Took Your Name” and “Circus Envy” are the riffers that go along with it, and all three are satisfying in that way, if not necessarily by virtue of their messages. The druggy “Crush with Eyeliner” features Thurston Moore, and the Leonard Cohen tribute “King of Comedy” features a singer from Disney movies. “Bang and Blame” I find trite.

The dirge “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” and plea “Strange Currencies” provide an odd dichotomy as the former is a resigned tale of perfunctory romance and the latter seems to basically be a heartfelt love song. “You” lies somewhere in the middle, sounding more obsessive. “Star 69” is a case of split personality from a criminal deal gone wrong. “Tongue” is a song I can never quite decide if I love or am reviled by it; on one hand its melodies are actually really, but on the other Stipe’s vocals give me the creeps. “Let Me In” is an epitaph for Stipe’s friend Kurt Cobain, fittingly buried under several layers of distortion.

Back to R.E.M. hub

Madonna—Like a Prayer

The bruises they will fade away
You hit so hard with the things you say
I will not stay to watch your hate as it grows
You’re not in love with someone else
You don’t even love yourself
Still I wish you’d ask me not to go

Since Madonna’s first eight albums were all multi-platinum, and even the ones after that made more money than you or I will ever see in our lifetimes, it feels kind of absurd to compare any of them that way. What I can tell you for sure is that Like a Prayer was Madonna’s last earth-shattering album, as her two follow-ups sold less than half what Like a Prayer did worldwide (Ray of Light in fact sold even more, but its sales were more evenly spread, and it had fewer enduring singles). However, Like a Prayer didn’t sell as well as True Blue before it, which sold less domestically than Like a Virgin before that, so there was a clear trajectory and apex for Madonna’s fame, though she’s always been hanging there ready to strike, even now.

She was poised for success with Like a Prayer even if she pulled a Metal Machine Music, so it’s hard to tell what people really thought of it. Compared to True Blue, its brand of pop is classier and less girlish. The ballads are more adult-oriented, and “Dear Jessie” even has strings, a song which I assumed was sarcastic (“Rub his magic lantern/He will make your dreams come true”) but apparently is not. However, I do believe Like a Prayer is still colored by a sort of darkness in stark contrast with the carefree, naive True Blue. This is made most explicit on “Till Death Do Us Part,” a forgotten non-single about the horror of Madonna’s failed marriage to Sean Penn. A frantic piece of new wave/country weirdness, it’s the best song on the album, and more effective emotionally than intended tearjerkers “Promise to Try” and “Oh Father.”

Aside from that, “Express Yourself,” “Cherish,” and “Like a Prayer” still hold up, and lesser singles “Keep It Together” and “Dear Jessie” are solid as well. There’s also “Love Song” with Prince, which isn’t (and I don’t know what it is, either), and “Spanish Eyes,” which plays like an outdated True Blue holdover, but I like it. The whole thing is far from being a masterpiece, but it has so much pop goodness that you’ll find yourself playing it more often than some of your classics.