For whatever reason, I've been listening to some new music lately. My relatively late conversion to the iPod, and the even later embrace of iTunes has meant that fairly recently, I've been buying some new music that I might not have discovered otherwise.
Of my recent purchases:
Death Cab for Cutie: Transatlanticism: Death Cab was making music for hipsters before I stopped listening to new music (i.e. before the kids were born), but I never quite caught the wave. After Christmas, I downloaded the title track with a gift card, and found myself going back to it, so I bought the whole album. I haven't listened to it much, but it's moody and melancholy and good for brooding, which happens to describe many of my favorite albums (even though I'm hardly a brooding person).
k.d.lang: Watershed: k.d. has produced some of my very favorite discs: Ingenue, Drag, Hymns of the 49th Parallel are all gorgeous albums. In certain moods, I've been known to favor her version of "Hallelujah" from the last album over the now-canonical cover of that song by tortured saint Jeff Buckley. This one is a bit more like her last original material album Invincible Summer. Both have some song that I like, but I imagine after a bit of time, only individual songs will stay on the iPod. I did not go see her (at $55 buck a seat) when she recently came to campus.
Punch Brothers: Punch: Perhaps you heard the NPR feature on this side project of Chris Thile of Nickel Creek. Or on Leno. They've been popping up here and there. Point is, when I tell people who know me that I've been listening to progressive bluegrass, they squinch up their eyes and noses, and say "hunh?" But this is a pretty amazing set by classically trained musicians who happen to come out of a bluegrass tradition with bluegrass instruments. The four-movement, 40-minute "The Blind Leaving the Blind" is to bluegrass what Jonny Greenwood is for post-rock. I've been listening to this constantly for about a month.
Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha was recommended to me by PReppy (capitalized that way 'cause he works in Public Relations), who has a lot of pop/indie music cred (he came of age in Seattle during grunge), and who seemed to think that it would fill in for the absence of new work by the aforementioned Jeff Buckley. Bird doesn't have that glorious voice (although it's nice), but the music is complex and textured, and I suspect that after a few more listens, I'll like it a lot. That said, it has been overshadowed by the album that I purchased at the same time...
REM, Accelerate: True confessions, though. REM was the first band I really loved, particularly after the Christian Rock phase of my adolescence. Out of Time and then Automatic for the People were the albums I hung my hat on for a while, in a time when people signaled Who They Were with the Music They Listened To. REM has always been nerd rock, and I have always been a nerd.
And even as those two albums say something about the way I identify myself (as well as 1996's underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi), the ones since Bill Berry left the band have said things about me that I care not to acknowledge: that I'm getting old, I've lost my edge, I am perhaps overly in love with the sound of my own voice to the detriment of those talents around me, and I use computers to do things that I used to be able to do myself. Up was passable and has some beautiful music, Reveal is adult contemporary with a few good songs, and Around the Sun is bad enough that I only have one song loaded onto my iPod (the lovely "Leaving New York").
So everyone's saying Accelerate is, if not a return to form, at least a good hard driving album that sounds like an REM album, rather than an adult contemporary band inspired by equal parts REM and Air Supply. This seems true, and I quite like the album, but, like Monster from 1995, this album seems to be rocking out in quotation marks. If, as the Angela Carter quote in my 6-word autobiography suggests, the "performance perfectly simulated an improvisation," then this album perfectly simulates a rock album by a rock band. But there's something just a little, well, studied about it. Like me: If I study hipness and hard living enough, I can sound just like my students, fit in with them on Facebook, drop references in class that astonish them with my currency. But I'm still a slowly aging nerd.
I'll be listening to Accelerate a lot over then coming months I guess. The songs are good workout songs, and a few of them are real gems. But as a whole, it will serve just as much as a reminder that I can still rock too, but I'll be just a bit stiffer and sorer the morning after.