Saturday, September 27, 2008

Everyone Has One...And Yours Smells Horrible: The Return to Form Album

Recently, my iPod and I were going for a jog. iPod decides we should listen to “Decent Days and Nights” by The Futureheads. This got me to thinking about how great their eponymous debut album was, and how disappointing their last two outputs have been. On those last two albums they strayed from what made The Futureheads so great. See, the Futureheads got caught in that indie rock Catch-22 of being criticized for not evolving their sound, or being criticized for getting too ambitious/pop/over-produced/weird, or all-of-the-above. As far as the Futureheads are concerned, they fell victim to the second part of the trap by venturing too far down the pop route. Now, where do they go from here? Do they continue evolving, tweaking their sound in the hope of finding something new or the correct combination that works, or do they go with the “Return to Form” album?

This brings us to the discussion point: The “Return to Form” album (hereinafter, “RTFA”). Recently, the new Metallica album has been touted as such. Were they successful? To be kind (because I can’t think of a reason why Metallica doesn’t deserve our kindness…right?), let’s just say the opinions are mixed. But let’s talk about the RTFA on a wider scale. Is the RTFA the kiss of death? A stamp that your band has reached permanent irrelevance? (Lars, put down the phone, we’re not necessarily saying Metallica is irrelevant, no need for more band therapy…right?) Has anybody successfully pulled off the RTFA? If so, who? Who is in need of a RTFA? Who has tried and failed? Let’s hear your thoughts.

--Travis Newman


Alex said...

"Everyone Has One..." is a new reoccurring feature where we want as many opinions and input shared as possible. So please, post any comments that you may have that relates to the issue at hand.

For whatever reason, the first thing I thought of was Dr. Dre's Chronic: 2001 album after releasing the compilation Aftermath and supposedly saying goodbye to gangsta rap. (Remember "Been There, Done That"?) Well, 2001 seemed to work, didn't it? Or did everyone just collectively try and pretend that the Aftermath never happened?

Btw, keep this in mind when posting a comment, I think for something to be considered a proper RTFA, they had to hit hard times before that. For example, if Radiohead were to make an album next year that is reminiscent of the Bends that would not count because critics and fans have consistently liked their evolved sound since the Bends was released.

Travis said...

@ Alex-

Can be any more of an obvious attempt at an RTFA when you name-check the "Form" album in your title? I remember kinda looking forward to 2001 when I first heard the concept, but that interest quickly dissipated. As I sit here today, I can't recall a single thing about Chronic 2001. Was "Been There Done That" the single? Was that "Keep ... Heads Ringing the Aftermath?

I personally think R.E.M.'s latest was a successful RTFA. Certainly the press kit prompted many reviewers to say as much. I think it was successful though because it's a solid album (save for that last abortion of a song) that is still on my extended playlist. It has helped them return to relevance after those mediocre previous two albums. I'm interested to hear what comes next.

R.E.M. is kind of an interesting example too because in this case the RTFA was a leaner guitar-driven rock album. This is fine, R.E.M. is/was good at this sound, but I think their finest work is on albums like AFTP and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which feature a much more expanded sound. And I actually really dig Up...which is probably a whole other argument all-together.

Alex said...

"Been There, Done That" was Dre's single on the Aftermath cd where he kind of turned his back on and said goodbye to gangsta rap. Not everyone was impressed with the new Dre and he realized this and came back with a better selling 2001. Although not as raw and reckless as the Chronic, it's still pretty much a gangsta rap album told through the eyes of its elder statesman.

I've always had a snobbery with R.E.M. and can't listen to much stuff past Murmur, Document, Reckoning, et al days. I will now listen to Accelerate so I can give a fair opinion.

Matt said...

Great idea. Alex--you are dead-on about 2001--although, at the time, I didn't realize there was anything between The Chronic and 2001. In trying to think about other albums--it goes back to the age-old problem that many of these bands have faced: once they've taken that step to pop-acceptance, there is no turning back. Seriously, does anyone think that Modest Mouse will ever put out anything as strong This is a Long Drive...., or for that matter, Lonesome Crowded West?

Alex said...

He really didn't have an album between the Chronic and 2001, but I think the Aftermath compilation was one of the first releases on his new label and he made noise that he was done with gangsta rap. Then he realized that consumers weren't done with gangsta rap and 2001 happened.

As for Modest Mouse, I have loved all their releases. I don't think they ventured out for mass acceptance, I think the masses found them. Difference. Listen to "Trailer Trash" on LCW. What is it? It's a damn good pop song, no?

I'm still having a hard time coming up with a good be continued.

Matt said...

I agree that "Trailer Trash" is indeed a "damn good pop song"--however, I don't think it would be played on the O.C. or cause hundreds of people whose previous concert experience only includef the Dave Matthews Band, to now attend their concerts, etc. I too am finding a hard time finding a RTFA. Tapes n' Tapes and CYHSY both had RTFA for the second releases--although that wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Brian said...

The new Metallica album is actually pretty damn good. I would call John Fogerty's latest album, Revival, an RTFA: back to the political, straight-ahead rockers of his CCR days (albeit with a bit less subtlety than that of "Fortunate Son").

What about the opposite of the RTFA, the Break From Tradition Album (BFTA)? Consider a band like Spoon or Built to Spill. All their albums only slightly vary an established formula, and receive generally the same amount of accolade. What happens when Doug Martsch goes electronic, or Britt Daniel goes ragged, hard, and fast? Do fans and critics react the exact opposite to the BFTA, i.e., it's bullshit, it sounds nothing like Spoon?

I just thought of my first "Everyone Has One" column: the Inevitable Solo Album...

Jim P. said...

I don't think the RTFA actually exists. I just looked through all of my albums and couldn't find a single one. I think the phrase is basically a lazy way to say "this album sounds like band X sounded like three albums ago". But that's not a return to form, that's a return to a sound. All of these albums that we've name checked (especially the new REM one) are ones that I would classify as return to sound albums. I might add the U2 album about atomic bombs to that list.

I would classify a return to form album as one where a band that was previously good sucked for a while, then came back with an album they could or would have made during the good times. I suppose this is possible, but it hasn't happened yet as far as I can tell. I guess where I differ from teh discussion is that I think the word "form" is used to describe quality, not necessarily style. Which might not be right, but it's my, you know, opinion.

A couple other things:
1. Alex, you should give some time to New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Up. Both are excellent.
2. If Modest Mouse tried to make another LCW, it just wouldn't work.
3. Fuck the Mets.
4. Kid A is the all time best BFTA. Is it still a BFTA if the B becomes the new T?

Brian said...

Jim: The B has to occur in order for the B to become the T. So yes: even though the sound/style of Kid A is now the norm for Radiohead, it once wasn't.

Alex said...

"Kid A is the all time best BFTA. Is it still a BFTA if the B becomes the new T?"

This confused the hell out of me. In fact, I'm still trying to figure it out. What does the "F" stand for? Form? Fukudome

I think I might be with Jim, I don't know if the rtfa even exists. And if it does, maybe Chronic 2001 is the only one.

Some pretty horrible smelling opinions so far, imo.

Alex said...

Also, as for the Mets, I think they just did a RTFS--Return to Form Season, with the season in question being last year. Come off the ledge, Jim.

Brian said...

BFTA = Break From Tradition Album, so F = From. I think Chronic 2001 is terrible. The guests are too many and not good enough, the sleaze seems intentional an unnecessary (thinking primarily of that porno skit), and the beats and hooks are too repetitive. 5 of 22 tracks are worthwhile; the rest just plain suck.

Finally, I third or fourth or whatever the value of Up and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. The latter is among my favorite REM records.

Travis said...

@ Jim P, Alex

As to the semantics issues with RTFA and "Return to Sound", I think there is an extensive amount of overlap here. In Venn Diagram terms, i think the intersection would be quite substantial. Basically, X band got away from what made/makes them good for a couple of albums.

For BFTA - I'd agree Kid A is probably the best, but I'd also throw Wire - Chairs Missing and Beck - Mutations as also rans.

Alex said...

"5 of 22 tracks are worthwhile; the rest just plain suck."

Well, that pretty much sums up every rap album released between 1991-2001.

Pumpkins' Adore was a pretty good BFTA, I don't care what anyone says. And I think Yankee Hotel Foxtrot should probably be mentioned, although an argument could be made for Summerteeth.

Matt said...

Some of my BFTA:

1) Rubber Soul
2) Physical Graffiti
3) No Code

As for the debate over Kid A vs. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I think that Wilco departed from their traditional sound with Yankee while Radiohead destroyed the narrow constraints and analogies associated with indie rock on Kid A--turning rock upside-down and inside-out....for the better. In other words, Kid A changed the identity and sound of rock while Yankee changed the identity and sound of Wilco forever. IMO.

The Dong Machine said...

I would have to say that Fleet Foxes was a fantastic RTFA after the terrible Evil Urges.

Brian said...

Alex: "Well, that pretty much sums up every rap album released between 1991-2001." That's just a false statement. You're not listening to the right rap.

Travis: If Chairs Missing is a BFTA, then what's 154? And I'm with you re: the sematics of RTFA vs. "return to sound." It's like hand in glove or whatever. Perceived this way, the new Magnetic Fields album, Distortion, is an RTFA. It's more like Holiday or Get Lost or disc 2 of 69 Love Songs than i.

p.s.--Sorry for changing the subject/diverting the discussion.

Alex said...

Brian: "That's a false statement."

Well, maybe I should have thrown an "almost" in there somewhere, but I could count on one hand the rap albums from that time that I can listen to start from finish. Resurrection by Common, maybe Ready to Die by Biggie, Atliens, and, well, I'm sure there's more. And even Ready to Die is filled with a few stupid skits and one or two skippable tracks. Please point me to some other hiphop records from that era that are just 12-14 good songs, with a 2-skit minimum. Anything over is immediate disqualification.

Brian said...

Two-skit minimum? Not a problem. I listen to all of these albums regularly:

A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders

De La Soul - De La Soul Is Dead, Buhloone Mindstate

Digable Planets - Reachin' (A New Refuatation of Time and Space), Blowout Comb

The Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde

Wu-Tang - 36 Chambers

Digital Underground - Sex Packets

Outkast - Aquemini

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