Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Whistle as the wind blows..."

R.I.P. R.E.M. One of two or three of the most formative bands in my life, and although I was sorely bummed to hear that they had decided to call it a day (to quote directly), after some thought, I was fine with it. Although they haven't put out dross lately, neither has their recent output been staggering.

Now, simply because I can, and I'm that kind of blogger (witness, oh, just about everything I've written here), here's my short takes on R.E.M.'s output, and what you should listen to at least once before you write it off.

Chronic Town - Never heard all the way through. But those short 30-second teasers sure sound fun. I may pick it up, just for the fun of it now. It certainly sounds like nothing else out there at the time...even amongst their fellow Athens comrades, R.E.M. sounds original, mature yet green behind the ears.

Murmur - I'm one of maybe two or three R.E.M. fans in the world who just doesn't get this album. "Perfect Circle" is, indeed, perfect and complete in its incompleteness...spidery and delicate, mysterious and soothing all at the same time. Bill Berry once said that to him, R.E.M. never felt like a band until they performed this song for the first time; for him, this is where it all coalesced. And I dig "Laughing," too...I mean, how many singers, no matter how literate, would ever write a song about Laocoon? But otherwise, I just don't get the adulation this album garners. "Talk About The Passion" is wimpy and boring. "Radio Free Europe" is also yawn-worthy. (The Hibtone recording is more kinetic and scads better, but still not awesome.) And don't get me started on "Moral Kiosk."Just like Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, this one is easier to appreciate than love. And yes, it still sounds like nothing out there, existing in its own unverse. Mumbling and arpeggios never sounded so cryptic. But that's no reason to think it's the best album of 1983, or one of the top 10 of the 1980s (both inexplicably averred by Rolling Stone).

Reckoning - Son of Murmur. But perhaps a bit better. Sue me for being obvious, but "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" and "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" were two of my favorites from the early years. And "Harborcoat" was more exciting than anything on Murmur. (It did take like three decades to finally comprehend why "Seven Chinese Brothers" was so great, though, when I heard the Decemberists nearly duplicate it exactly with "Calamity Song.") The tone was still the same, though, and most of the songs remained inscrutable.

Fables of the Reconstruction - Very transitional. All of a sudden, the production became a lot cleaner, even as Michael Stipe's mumbles remained. But the excitement on Reckoning was suddenly suppressed and subdued and uncomfortable. I mean, any album that leads off with such a tense and unsettling song as "Feeling Gravitys Pull" can't be happy (even if that song is pretty excellent). And even the easier-going songs like "Green Grow the Rushes" have an undercurrent of unease. Best song: "Wendell Gee," a beautiful tearjerker about a misfit who somehow dies by entering a tree whose excavated middle he replaced with chicken wire. When the wire turned into lizard skin, the tree collapsed on him. Seriously. It doesn't get much weirder than that.

Lifes Rich Pageant - R.E.M. clears its throat, throws off all the murk, the overgrown kudzu, the mumbling, and the pristine mystery, and dives headlong into full-blown rock and roll. Thank GOD. This is one of their best two or three albums, and the best of their early years. Optimistic, passionate (not just "talking about the passion," but finally living fully in it), idealistic, loud, and messy, here is where I'd recommend anyone who hasn't gotten into early R.E.M. should start. Even if it's not particularly representative of anything earlier than that, it's better. Best songs: "Begin the Begin," "These Days," "Fall On Me," "Cuyahoga," "I Believe," "What If We Give It Away?", "Swan Swan H," "Superman."

Document - And R.E.M. remains bad-ass. Even clearer enunciation and production, more approachable songs, and the boldest, most political record yet. It's a shame that the second side kinda sucks (exceptions: "The One I Love," [yes, really], and the frenetic "Lightnin' Hopkins."), but the first side is damn near unimpeachable.

Eponymous and Dead Letter Office - The end of part 1 of R.E.M.'s career (basically, their contract with IRS Records). Eponymous is the greatest hits (with the aforementioned Hibtone recording of "Radio Free Europe," a cleaned-up "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville," and a cheesy version of "Finest Worksong" with unwelcome brass. Dead Letter Office is R.E.M. clearing out its back pages, B-sides, outtakes, and random paraphernalia. Instructive and often amusing, particularly when the band drunkenly slurs "King of the Road" or performs "Voice of Harold," which is really Michael Stipe singing the liner notes to some gospel perfomance, set to "Seven Chinese Brothers." Also discloses some of R.E.M.'s influences (Aerosmith, Velvet Underground). Even more worthy now that Chronic Town has been appended to it.

More to come later...

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