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I picked up Spiritualized's latest, Songs in A&E, late last week, and so far it's looking like the first worthy successor to Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, the masterwork from Jason Pierce and company. I'm not sure that anything will ever really measure up to the majesty and otherworldliness of that record, but it's amazing to even to get a small taste of something that could have stood shoulder to shoulder with the best tracks on that album.

I'm not sure I would recommend any of the albums that came out after Floating in Space to people who loved that record as much as I did, but I'm on the verge of doing that with Songs in A&E. It's generally not as complicated as Floating in Space (an issue I've had with a lot of his work post-Floating is that it just sounds too straightforward, too easy to decode), but there are lots more of those dreamlike moments that are abundant on Floating but less prevalent on his other more recent albums.

Still figuring out No Age's Nouns, but "Teen Creeps" has definitely won me over.

Radiohead's entire catalog of full-length albums is now on iTunes. The reason they had disallowed iTunes sales in the past is because they didn't want people to be able to buy things track by track; they wanted to sell whole albums only, and iTunes wouldn't allow that.

You can buy songs one at a time now, so Radiohead clearly didn't win any concessions from Apple in that regard, and you have to wonder why the band suddenly changed its mind about something the clearly felt was important. They did test the waters with In Rainbows earlier this year and Thom Yorke's solo album the year before that, and maybe that got them comfortable enough that they felt it was time to add the rest of their catalogue.

I don't see how it ever should have mattered, really, because for the band, it seemed less about the money generated from a complete album sale than it did keeping the works bundled as coherent artistic statements. But whether they like it or not, their fans have been splitting their albums into individual tracks and throwing them into random shuffle playlists on their music players for years, so they long ago lost control in that regard.

Oh well. It was a good decision. Better for their fans, which ultimately means better for the band.

There are a lot of people panning the new Death Cab for Cutie album, Narrow Stairs, and since I've been relatively disappointed with their last two, Transatlanticism and Plans (also their two highest profile releases), I wasn't expecting much from this. But I think it's my favorite since the album that made me fall in love with them, The Photo Album, and it's the only time since that record that I've heard new songs from the band that create the same kind of atmosphere that Photo Album did.

It starts off very strong. The first two tracks, "Bixby Canyon Bridge" and "I Will Possess Your Heart" are long, slow burners, but they are both worth it——the 8 1/2 minutes of "I Will Possess Your Heart" just fly by, and I'm the kind of guy who normally loses interest around minute 4. "No Sunlight" is one of those pure sunny pop singles that the band seems to deliver at least one of on each album, and the fourth track, "Cath", doesn't seem like anything special at first, but it just sucks you in (it's probably the one that runs through my head most often).

There are missteps, of course——the next two tracks are pretty weak, especially "Talking Bird", and there's a little more uneveness towards the end of the album——but as a whole, it's remarkably listenable (I've listened to it six or seven times in the last couple of days, and I haven't really listend to much else even given the remarkable new record from Spiritualized).

"Motion Picture Soundtrack" from Kid A is one of my favorite Radiohead songs. On the CD, the seven minute track has a nice 3 1/2 minute pause of dead space that interrupts the actual song, which made it difficult for me to truly love it——that is, until I took it into a music editing program, chopped out the empty part, and stitched the rest of it back together to form a new song that was 3:19 long.

After Radiohead made their major releases available on iTunes earlier this week, I was poking around to see if there were any bonus tracks or anything bundled with the iTunes versions, and imagine my surprise when I saw the running time for "Motion Picture Soundtrack": 3:20, almost exactly the length of my version that chops out the silent part in the middle.

I'm glad the band decided to do this, because it's a great, great song, but all that dead space (more than half the length of the original track) is incredibly listener-unfriendly. But I have to wonder: it was clearly meant as some sort of artistic statment, so do they no longer feel that whatever point they were trying to make is no longer worth making? Or are they simply acknowledging that it was kind of a dickish thing to do by undoing it now? And will future pressings of the CD include the orignal seven minute version or the newly streamlined version?

I've already taken care of this myself, but if I didn't have the ability to edit the track down, I almost certainly would have purchased the iTunes version to replace the ripped version in my iTunes library. The song is amazing, but the silence in the middle was annoying enough to spoil it.

I'm starting to think, given the quality of the last couple of albums from Modest Mouse and R.E.M., that openers the National have a good shot at putting on the best show from this triple bill.

Okay, I don't think I totally hate everything on the new Islands record. But I dislike a lot of it, and I love only a little bit at this point. "Kids Don't Know Shit" starts out slowly, but it builds into something pretty amazing (the strings save this one). Great title, too.

The National were the openers for last night's show at Merriweather Post, and they played a short 40 minute set drawn mostly from their latest album, Boxer. Which was cool, because that's the only album of theirs that I currently own, and I like it quite a bit. Singer Matt Berninger's deep, quiet baritone seemed to get overwhelmed at times in the live setting, but the drummer was just as amazing as I thought he'd be given his performance on the record. It was a pretty good set, and I'd love to see them again in a smaller venue at some point.

Modest Mouse were the middle band of the night, and they played an incredibly short set that drew significantly from their two recent, more popular albums. We did get renditions of "Trucker Atlas", "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes", and "Out of Gas", and the band (including new recruit Johnny Marr) was pretty tight, but it was hardly the near-religious experience I had when I saw them in a tiny club in Baltimore a year or so after The Moon and Antarctica was released.

I think I've finally realized what's wrong with Modest Mouse these days, and it's got nothing to do with the music: it's Isaac Brock, specifically his new favorite singing style, the yelp. So many of their newer songs feature a vocal style that's a cross between a bark and a shout, and it just get's tiresome after a while. He used to know how to employ that in moderation, mostly bringing it in for a climax or for a punctuating statement, but he does it all the time now——he was even doing his yelpy thing on "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes", whereas on the album it's a much more subtle performance (at least on the verses).

I still love their old stuff as much as I ever did, but there's too much studio sheen on the recorded material, and Isaac is way more assertive vocally than is necessary. I still think they've got some great albums in them, but I don't know if they are aware enough of what made them so great in the first place to steer the ship back in that direction.

R.E.M. was the headliner for the evening, and despite strong crowd support for the National and Modest Mouse, they only got to their feet en masse for R.E.M. The band played a ton of stuff from the latest record (seven or eight songs, I can't remember exactly) and a lot of the bigger, more muscular hits from the latter two-thirds of their career ("Finest Worksong", "What's The Frequency Kenneth", "The One I Love", and "Orange Crush", to name a few). "Driver 8" from Fables of the Reconstruction was a nice little surprise, as was "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville", which featured bassist Mike Mills, the song's author, on lead vocals (not a surprising selection given that the Rockville of the title is a suburb of DC less than half and hour from Merriweather).

They also played "Man on the Moon", which remains a favorite of mine despite its ubiquitousness, and "Electrolite", which might be the best song they've ever recorded (it's certainly one of the highlights of the last half of their career). There were no songs from Chronic Town or Murmur, and that was a little disappointing, but overall it wasn't a bad set, and the live performance seemed to improve the quality of the Accelerate songs, which are a bit too slick for me on the record.

Another point of interest about the R.E.M. show was Stipe's change to the lyrics of "Little America". Originally the lyrics to this song had a dual meaning, referring to both the band's endless touring schedule in their first few years and to the direction the country was heading under Reagan. The line "Jefferson, I think we're lost" is the song's anchor, and it concerns both to the drifting away from Jeffersonian ideals and to their manager, Jefferson Holt, who was presumably the one driving the band around in those early days.

A few years ago, however, the band had a pretty bitter falling out with Jefferson Holt, and so whenever the time came to sing that line, Stipe would stick out his tongue and make a retching noise instead of saying the name Jefferson. Near the end, he said Washington instead of making that noise, which returns some of the earlier meaning of the line, because it can be read as either a plea to another of our founding fathers, or as a criticism of the current rulers of our nation who inhabit the capital city that bears our first president's name.

Anyway. The omission of Jefferson's name and the single use of Washington's name in its stead both changed the meaning of the song, and it was a bit heavy-handed. The political aspect of the original lyrics was much more veiled and subtle; here, it was all too obvious, and it was also a little disappointing to see them be so disrespectful to such a big part of their mythology as a band (Jefferson Holt was so integral to the band's success that he was essentially a fifth member, albeit a non-performing one). I have no idea what led to their parting of ways with their former manager, but for the bile to last this long, it must have been something pretty serious.

Before we went to see R.E.M., my brother asked me if Stipe's stage persona was as policital as his offstage involvement in politics would lead you to believe, i.e., if he was like Bono and used the stage as a bully pulpit to preach about his views. Stipe as an individual is more political now than he was the last time I saw the band live, but R.E.M. have always been politically aware and active (I remember they were one of the loudest voices in the drive to get rid of the oversized cardboard CD packaging from the late 80s, and they were also prominent in the Motor Voter movement to allow voter registration when you apply for a driver's license). Still, I saw R.E.M. several times when I was in high school, and I don't remember anything overtly political from their concerts, other than some of the songs themselves.

It was clear almost from the first song that this has changed. Most songs from the latest album have a political backstory (for example, "Houston" is about the Katrina fiasco, and "Mr. Richards" is about Dick Cheney) which Stipe made sure to elucidate before each song that had any sort of political point of view, and there were plenty of songs from the back catalog that are obviously political ("Orange Crush" refers to Agent Orange, and "Fall On Me" is about pollution). And "Ignoreland", a song that I'd previously seen as politically neutral, was brought firmly into the political realm when Stipe gave the story behind the lyrics: it's about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that ushered in the Reagan/Bush administration.

To cap it all off, near the end of the show (in between the Dick Cheney song and the pollution song), Stipe pulled out an Obama button and pinned it to his lapel, putting to rest any debate about his political point of view (as if it's that hard to figure out anyway: I'm guessing creative types from college towns who are also members of the homosexual community are pretty solidly in the liberal camp 99% of the time).

But despite the strong political overtones to the setlist and the between-song monologues, it was a pretty light-hearted show; Stipe was in an amazingly chipper mood, all grins and smiles, a very animated stage presence. I remember their older shows being almost like theater; he took his performance very seriously, and I can hardly remember him smiling at all. But his joy at being onstage was sincere and infectious, and his charisma was going full blast; he made the gigantic outdoor amphitheater venue seem a lot more intimate than it actually was. Even us lawn folks felt a real connection with him that night.

Final note about the R.E.M. concert: "The One I Love" is not really a love song, people. I don't care if that's what they were playing on the frat house sound system the first time you drunkenly groped one another 20 years ago——it's completely inappropriate to sing along with the band in tandem with your significant other if you actually care about that person.

I just realized that "Go Slowly", a song that Radiohead played at the concert we went to in May, is not actually an unreleased track as I wrote in my entry about the setlist; like "Bangers and Mash", it's one of the tracks that was on the bonus disc that came with the limited edition box set for In Rainbows. My bad.

Alright, I've been listening to all the song clips from My Morning Jacket's new album, Evil Urges, and while I'm still in love with "I'm Amazed", I don't think I'm going to convince myself to buy the whole record——the Prince-like falsetto and disco grooves on some of the tracks are just too much for me to take. And, you know, I like Prince, and I like a lot of bands that have appropriated disco as part of their palette of sounds. But it just doesn't work for My Morning Jacket.

So it looks like "I'm Amazed" will get purchased as a single, along with anything similar that I can ferret out from the iTunes tracks, but I'll have to take a pass on the full album.

So if you don't for some reason already own Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville (or, more likely, if you've destroyed your copy by playing it too many times), it's being reissued today and you can go out and grab it again. This is still one of the best records made in the 90s and one of my favorites of all time, and if you've never heard it then by all means go out and get it right now.

You also have my permission to pick up her savagely underrated sophomore disc, Whip-Smart. But don't you dare touch anything else she's released. I know it will be tempting, because you won't be able to believe that somebody who made two albums as brilliant as these could possibly fuck up the rest of her career by releasing completely unlistenable records, but Ms. Phair absolutely did. If you must, you can download "Headache" from whitechocolatespaceegg. But nothing else. Promise me.

I'm starting to like Tokyo Police Club's Elephant Shell a lot, and I'm starting to really love a few tracks. My initial reaction to it was much more positive than my initial (and ongoing) reaction to Voxtrot's debut full length, but I can't figure out now why I didn't embrace it immediately.

Cartoon Network is rerunning the brilliant but almost completely unknown Mission Hill series, and in one episode the hipster character comes back from Japan with cigarettes that play songs while you smoke them. I have no idea if these ever really existed, but I think hearing cutesy Japanese songs coming from the cigarette of a nearby smoker is probably one of the only conceivable things that could make standing next to somone smoking a cigarette even less tolerable than it is already.

I used to think This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About was Modest Mouse's weakest album, but I'm trying to think if anything on their last two releases is anywhere close to being as good as "Ohio" or "Tundra/Desert" or even a relatively minor song like "Beach Side Property". And I think you can put pretty much any track from Drive head to head against anything from the most recent releases and the stuff from the debut full length is going to win every time.

There are moments——sometimes depressingly brief moments——that I find fulfilling on the Islands' new disc, and there are even some complete tracks that aren't irredeemable. But all in all, I think this might end up as my biggest disappointment this year, given how much I was expecting to like it.