Friday, January 27, 2023

The View On Pop Culture: R.E.M., The Honeydogs, "Almost Famous", Dave Thompson's "Alternative Rock" (2001)


A few short years ago, R.E.M. were the most commercially successful “alternative” band on the planet. The Athens, Georgia foursome proved to be consistent hitmakers yet retained a street credibility just below that of bands like Nirvana or the Pixies. The band’s last couple of albums have failed to ignite any chart passion, however, a situation that may be corrected with Reveal (Warner Brothers). With drummer Bill Berry leaving the band due to health reasons, the remaining members have substituted synthesizer washes for Berry’s organic big beats. The resulting music is less powerful, but no less enchanting. After 20+ years as a band, R.E.M. know how to create a glorious noise and Reveal revels in its lush instrumentation and wall-of-sound production. Michael Stipe’s ethereal vocals propel “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)” to soaring heights while “Imitation of Life” has more pop hooks than the Georgia countryside has kudzu. An altogether beautiful collection of songs, there’s nothing on Reveal to make you forget the band’s earlier successes, but it does show you where the trio is headed.

From Prince and the Time to the Replacements, Husker Du, and the Jayhawks, Minneapolis has proven to be a breeding ground for talented musicians. The city’s latest export, the Honeydogs, hope that Here’s Luck (RykoPalm) will earn them a share of the rock ‘n’ roll dream. The Honeydogs defy any easy pigeonholing, Here’s Luck at its best when delivering rockers like “Sour Grapes” or “Losing Transmissions,” songs replete with chiming guitars and delicious vocal harmonies. They’re at their most adventuresome on tracks like “Wilson Boulevard,” which matches careful vocals and mellow instrumentation with Beatlesque flourishes and pop overtones. An inspired musical cross between Roger McGuinn and Bob Mould, the Honeydogs mix punkish intensity and roots rock sensibility with twangy rhythms and intelligent songwriting on Here’s Luck to create an entirely new breed of rock music. While only time will tell whether the band receives it just due, the Honeydogs are cranking out fascinating music in the meantime.

Filmmaker Cameron Crowe and your humble pop culture columnist have a lot in common. We’re the same age, we both started writing about rock ‘n’ roll while in high school, we were both mentored by older writers (Rick Johnson, where have you gone?), he’s rich and famous and I’m…well, that’s where the similarity ends. But because of this shared background I was prepared to love Crowe’s semi-autobiographical Almost Famous (Dreamworks Home Entertainment). Patrick Fugit, who combines just the right amounts of awe and intellectual curiosity in his role as William Miller, plays Crowe’s music-loving alter ego perfectly in the film. Assigned a story by Rolling Stone magazine, Miller goes on tour with an up-and-coming rock band, falls in love with groupie “Penny Lane” (played with great charm and beauty by Kate Hudson) and loses his journalistic innocence as he becomes privy to the band’s internecine arguments and petty jealousies. Almost Famous is a funny, engaging film that you don’t have to be a rock ‘n’ roll fan to enjoy. The DVD release includes Crowe’s original Rolling Stone articles and the HBO “making of” feature as well as a music video from the film’s fictional rock band Stillwater.

Veteran rock critic Dave Thompson has better than 70 books to his writing credit as well as countless articles and album reviews in publications such as Rolling Stone, Mojo, and Goldmine. Thompson is also one of the most well-rounded music writers that I have ever worked with, possessing an extensive knowledge of the past 25 years of rock ‘n’ roll history. All of which makes Thompson uniquely qualified to pull together Alternative Rock (Miller Freeman), an 800+ page guide to, well, “alternative rock,” part of the Third Ear book series. There are a number of essays covering almost every aspect of the alt-rock world, including various musical genres like punk and ska, specific scenes like San Francisco’s Gilman Street and info on legendary British DJ John Peel’s BBC radio broadcasts, instrumental in jump-starting the careers of many new bands. Thompson also includes an A-Z guide to individual bands that includes capsule reviews of over 7,000 recordings. Alternative Rock is an exhaustive study on the subject, an invaluable guidebook for anyone who prefers their rock ‘n’ roll on the fringes of the mainstream. (View From The Hill, May 2001)

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