Saturday, February 25, 2012

I (think I) Believe in Ryan Braun

(Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal)
Each time a baseball player -- be it a star or some lesser known role player -- tests positive for performance enhancing drugs, you hear a familiar refrain from the "sports talk" world...."If I were suspected of using PEDs and I were innocent, I'd be proclaiming my innocence for all to hear."  Some players have done just that, only to find their reputations further damaged when their stories fail to hold up (yeah, looking at you Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro).  When news leaked that Ryan Braun had tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone, he emphatically denied that he was guilty, but unlike Rocket and Raffy, spared us the finger wagging theatrics (at the advice of his legal representation).
As it turns out, that was very good advice.  Braun has been mostly quiet while we've been waiting for the verdict from his appeal -- though he has taken a few opportunities to remind us that he's not guilty.  Earlier this week, his 50 game suspension was overturned -- the first time that has happened -- due to a delay in delivering his urine sample to a Fed Ex shipping facility after it had been collected on October 1.
Braun met the media yesterday (2/24) and, at least to my ears, sounded every bit the innocent man that he's proclaimed himself to be.  But while he sounded like an innocent man, there are still lots of questions surrounding his positive test.  We don't really know why his testosterone levels were elevated, but we do know that the testosterone detected was synthetic.  We do know that roughly 44 hours passed between his urine sample being collected and the sample being delivered to Fed Ex for shipping to the testing facility in Motreal...but we don't know exactly why it took so long.  And we know that under Major League Baseball's testing system, all of the details that we have come to know should never have become public knowlege...but we don't know who is behind the leaked information.
Had things gone according to the rules, none of us would have ever known that Braun tested positive and that he had appealed the decision and won.  Regardless of what questions you might have at this point of the story, that's a disservice to Braun, the Brewers and baseball fans in general.  The system was put in place for a reason, and while it mostly worked (Braun doesn't have to sit 50 games, after all), there are those that will never believe he's clean.  If he continues on his current career pace, that just might cost him a spot in the Hall of Fame.  That's not fair.
I'm not a Brewers fan, and prior to last season, really didn't care much for Braun (the change of heart, I'll admit, is due to the fact that he kept me in the running in my fantasy baseball league last season).  But, I've appreciated what he has done in his career to this point, and I hate the fact that yet another baseball star is tainted with the "CHEATER" label.  
I feel like there are more facts out there that will come to light in the coming weeks, and from what I've seen so far, I believe that Braun is the innocent man that he claims to be.  I don't see the fact that he got off "on a technicality" as proof that he's getting away with cheating -- I simply think his representatives looked at the case and used the defense that gave them the best chance to overturn the ruling.  I'm nowhere near knowledgeable enough when it comes to the science of these tests and how the results might have been impacted by the delay in delivery.  I don't know that I believe the sample was tampered with, either.  What I do know is that, to my eyes and ears, Braun doesn't look the part of a drug cheat, and more importantly to me, he isn't carrying himself like one.  He sounds very reasonable, and like a man that believes himself to be innocent.
Perhaps he's just a good actor.  Lord knows, it won't be the first time I've believed in an athlete only to be proven wrong.  I think it's hard to fake sincerity on this level, though.  McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Giambi, etc, always seemed to me like they knew they had done wrong.  In fact, I think Braun's speech ranks right up there with Andy Pettitte's -- though there are some obvious differences there as Pettitte's involved an admission that he had used HGH.  But where I find them similar is that I believe that Andy only had the one transgression, even though you're tempted to question the convenience of that story (and, yes, it is true that I am a Yankees fan -- especially of the teams of Pettitte, Jeter, Posada and Rivera -- so I wanted to believe his story).  And I want to believe in Braun.  As with Pettitte, there's some bias there because my chances of winning a game are better if Braun is playing a full season.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't have questions.  I'd be foolish if I told you I expected answers to all of them.  So, for now, I'll just stick with my gut and believe in the player -- and hope that, as has often been the case, I won't end up wishing that I hadn't.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

One last look back at 2011

Before closing the books on 2011, seemed like a good time to look back on some of the bigger things that happened.  Being a blog on, that will obviously be the focus, but I’ll waste a little bit of space to talk about some favorites in music, TV, movies, etc.
And what a year it was to be a Cardinals fan.  Not an awful one to be a Yankees fan, either.  The Cardinals brought home their 11th world series title with an unlikely run that didn’t see the Wild Card locked up until the final day of the baseball season.  The Cards backs were literally against the wall throughout most of August and all of September and October, culminating in a World Series game 6 that was arguably the most exciting game in World Series history — unless of course you were rooting for the Texas Rangers.  That game 7 was a bit of a letdown is a huge testament to what a great game #6 was.  The Cardinals came back twice to win the game finally forcing a decisive game 7 after hometown hero David Freese’s walk off home run in extra innings.
The post season, as a whole, was a fitting encore to a final day of the regular season that was equally exciting.  The Wild Card berths were in doubt until late into the evening.  The Cardinals easily beat the Astros to guarantee a shot at a one game playoffs.  Then the Braves choked away a lead against the Phillies (an especially bitter pill for Braves fans, as the Phillies had little to play for except keeping their division rivals out of the playoffs).  With the benefit of hindsight, the Phillies might have found more luck if they’d let the Braves win that game, as their vaunted pitching staff came up a bit short against the Cardinals’ team of destiny.  Seemingly within minutes of the Phillies putting an exclamation point on the Braves collapse, the Yankees saw the Rays pull off an improbably come back to win their game while the Orioles stunned the Red Sox to send them home without October baseball. The Braves collapse was probably the more drastic of the two, but the Red Sox being such a high profile club meant a shakeup of epic proportions for the New England team.  Terry Francona was fired amid claims that he’d lost control of the club house (which included the bombshells that pitchers John Lackey and Josh Beckett were drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games), and a couple weeks later, Theo Epstein said good bye to become the savior of the Chicago Cubs.
While the Yankees did endure another less-than-successful October, it was a good year in the Bronx.  The Yankees captured another AL East crown, and better still saw the rival Red Sox revert back to their pre-2004 persona with an epic collapse that left many Red Sox fans sniping at the hated Yankees.  I’d be lying if I suggested that this didn’t give me at least a little bit of joy — and is a big reason that another poor showing in October didn’t cause the usual hand wringing that a typically accompanies a divisional series exit from the playoffs.  It also helped that the Yankees provided their fair share of magic over the summer.  Derek Jeter became the newest member of the 3,000 hit club, and became the first lifetime Yankee to reach the milestone.  After enduring a rough start to the season, Jeter returned from the DL and capped his magical run to 3k hits by collecting #3,000 on a surprising home run.  The day itself turned out to be a classic Jeter game as he provided most of the Yankees’ offense in a win over the Rays.  The season also saw Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera become the all-time saves leader — a mark that is not likely to be eclipsed any time soon.  The “core four”, as they had become known during their 2009 championship year, shrank to three as Andy Pettitte retired prior to the 2011 season.  The year played out with the knowledge that it would likely be Jorge Posada’s last in Yankee pinstripes, and while he has yet to officially retire as I am writing this, I’m really hoping that he does decide to call it a day.  It appears that Jeter and Rivera still have at least one more year together for fans to look forward to in 2012.  The Yankees (and Red Sox) closed out 2011 with what has been a surprisingly quiet off season that has seen the big name free agents (aside from Prince Fielder and Yeonis Cepedes — who have yet to be signed) sign with other teams.
The big free agent domino, of course, was Albert Pujols signing with the Angels — a tough pill for Cardinals fans, who ultimately realized that the team likely did the right thing as their last offer would have committed a huge sum to an already 32 year old slugger.  Pujols will be missed, and probably cursed by many Cardinals fans.  While I’m sad to see him go, I do realize it was probably the right move on the Cardinals’ part.  The Cardinals did offset the loss of Pujols by resigning Rafael Furcal and bringing in outfielder Carlos Beltran.  It won’t replace what’s lost in saying good bye to Pujols, but with the Brewers losing Prince Fielder to free agency and Ryan Braun slated to miss the first 50 games of the season due to a positive PED test, the Cardinals shouldn’t have much competition in the NL Central — though the Reds are a talented team and should be a force in 2012.  Regardless of what happens, 2011 will be a tough year for baseball to top.
And with that, I’ll put an end to the baseball talk for now.  Which means I’ll waste some space talking about a few of my other favorite things from 2011…
Favorite Television:  Hands down, the best new show that I watched in 2011 was Showtime’s Homeland.  I came to the show fairly late — just as the first season finale was about to air.  I had read a lot of good reviews of the show and decided to check out a few episodes that were available on-demand.  4 days later, I had watched the entire first season including the season finale.  Claire Danes gave an emmy worthy performance as a CIA analyst while one of my favorite actors, Damian Lewis, was equally good as a rescued POW turned suspected terrorist.  I won’t say too much more for those of you that haven’t yet seen this show, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The best returning show, for me, was Parks and Recreation.  This show started out as a clone of the Office (which, by the way, should have been cancelled with Steve Carrell’s exit — I thought it might be able to reinvent itself, but decided to got he easy route and is trying to capitalize on Ed Helms’ post “Hangover” popularity.  And is failing miserably), but is now perhaps the most satisfying comedy on television.  It is a show the requires a little bit of patience — you have to get a feel for the characters before you really become hooked.  But once you invest a little time, you’ll realize that the show features some of the best written stories and characters that we’ve seen.
Favorite Movies:  Having a young daughter at home has severely limited my movie watching to films available on DVD, so I haven’t seen many of the year’s most highly regarded flicks.  Those that I did manage to see were more of the blockbuster variety — Bridesmaids, XMen: First Class, and the final Harry Potter.  I found Harry Potter to be a bit of a letdown, though I think on the whole, they did as good of a job bringing the books to life as was possible.  I was also disappointed in Bridesmaids…but I suspect that has as much to do with the fact that I did not see that film until New Year’s Eve, and had heard so many raves about the film that it couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations that I had.  I did not have such high expectations for XMen, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.  I liked the first two movies, but found the third movie to be close to awful and the Wolverine solo movie not much better.  But First Class was a great mix of retro style, thrilling super hero action and a surprisingly deep story.  If you’re not completely sick of the super hero blockbuster by this point, then I think you’ll find it a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours.
Favorite Books:  As with movies, I don’t read quite as much as I’d like to.  I did enjoy Ian O’Connor’s biography about Derek Jeter — and think most baseball fans would feel the same unless they absolutely hate Jeter (which I know many do).  I found the “ESPN book”, Those Guys Have All the Fun, to be interesting, but ultimately far too long and conciliatory to ESPN (and I find that I like ESPN less and less these days).  I found Erik Larson’s tale of pre-WWII Nazi Germany, In the Garden of Beasts, to be a great read — and still find it amazing that the powers that be in the 1930′s were able to turn a blind eye to the horrors of Hitler’s reign.  I have not yet finished the book, so I can’t count it as a favorite of the year, but at just under half way through Stephen King’s latest, 11/22/63, I have to say that it’s the best King novel I’ve read in a long, long time.
And, finally, my top 10 album for 2011… I found 2011 to be a great year for music — or more specifically, for music that I happen to like.  A few “ground rules” for my list — these are the albums that I liked the most on the year, which means that I own the albums.  So if your favorite isn’t represented, I’m not slamming it — it’s either not my cup of tea or I just never got around to hearing it.  I had a tough time with this list…as I knew that my favorite album of the year was released very early on in the year.  The fact that the same band, R.E.M., happened to call it a career in the same year attached a certain sentimentality that would be tough for any other album to overcome.  But, two late entries actually end up captivating me a bit more — perhaps because they were a bit fresher in the memory banks.  I also left off best-of sets from R.E.M. and Pearl Jam (well, PJ20 was sort of a best of for die hard fans).  So here goes….
10.  ”The King is Dead” – The Decemberists:  Did I mention that I’m an R.E.M. fan?  Probably had a lot to do with me liking this one.  The Decemberists stopped making concepts albums and featured Peter Buck as a guest performer in an homage to R.E.M.’s younger days.  The only knock is that the homage feels a little bit too much like a retread at times.
9.  ”Whatever’s On Your Mind” – Gomez:  Again, I’ll stress this is my list of favorite albums of the year — not necessarily those that make the biggest contribution to music.  And I’m not saying that as a slam on Gomez or any other band on this list.  What Gomez might lack in treading new ground however, I feel is made up for by the fact that they’ve started to revisit many of the things that made their earlier work so interesting, while still embracing the more “Adult Alternative” sound that typified their previous two albums.
8.  ”Wasting Light” – Foo Fighters:  Best Foos album since their first.  Another band where you might slam them for not treading new ground, but I think you have to give them credit for doing what they do as well as it can be done.  Another one that sounds great blasting on the car stereo.
7.  ”The Whole Love” – Wilco:  I do like Wilco, but more often than not, their albums tend to be those that I feel like I should like as opposed to ones that I actually really end up liking.  This one is a bit more experimental than their last few, but I am not sure they’ve produced a song that I’ve liked more than “I Might” since the “Being There” album.
6.  ”Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes:  The opening song grabbed me right away, and before long, the whole thing settled in as one of the better albums I’ve heard in a long time.  It feels retro and current all at the same time.  Not an easy trick.
5.  ”Codes and Keys” – Death Cab For Cutie:  I think this was a very underrated album.  It’s happier than previous DCFC albums (but not so much so that it’s annoying).  Ironically, one of the better songs – “Stay Young, Go Dancing” – is also the most out of place.  Feels more tacked on than “Her Majesty” at the end of Abbey Road.
4.  ”Bon Iver” – Bon Iver:  Downloaded this one strictly based on word of mouth, and am very glad that I did.  The first song grabbed me, and I was hooked.  And yes, the last song sounds like something from the Karate Kid 2 soundtrack.
3.  ”Collapse Into Now” – R.E.M.:  Prior to December 6, this would have been my choice for favorite of the year — unfairly so.  This is the best post-Bill Berry album R.E.M.released, and it plays like a greatest hits album.  Each song harkens back to earlier times, but doesn’t sound like a rehash.  It Happened Today is perhaps my favorite R.E.M. song to be released in 10 years.  Knowing what we know now, it is also a fitting swan song.  The lyrics in many songs — notably All the Best and Blue — sound like a band saying “so long…”.  And doing it with style.
2.  ”El Camino” – The Black Keys:  While I liked “Brothers”, I wasn’t blown away by it.  There are great songs, but I have found that I can rarely sit and listen to it start to finish.  Hardly the case here — as each song builds on the last.  This is going to sound incredible blasting out of the car windows when summer rolls around.  There are no lame ballads, no missteps.  Every song is great, and the album is a perfect length, clocking in just under 40 minutes.
1. “Undun” – The Roots:  I didn’t intend to buy this one, and just downloaded it on a whim after reading one of the many glowing reviews of the album and an article where Questlove mentioned it was inspired by a Sufjan Stevens song (really….a hip hop band that is inspired by a weird folkie from Petosky, MI…how cool is that?).  It tells the story of Redford Stevens…in reverse.  I have no idea why — I’m not a huge hip-hop fan, and there’s little I can identify with personally in the subject matter — but there’s just something about the music that grabs you, pulls you in and begs you to listen for more.  And, like “El Camino”, it clocks in at an economical 38 minutes.
A few honorable mentions that spent a good bit of time playing on my iPod, but fell outside my top 10:  ”Zonoscope” – Cut Copy, “21″ – Adele (I simply lover her voice), “Kiss Each Other Clean” – Iron & Wine (a step back from “Shepherd’s Dog”, but still really, really good), “Angles” – The Strokes (saw them open for Pearl Jam, and liked them almost as much), “Ukulele Songs” – Eddie Vedder (bought this during my PJ kick this year but surprised at how good it was — and the version of Can’t Keep buries the “Riot Act” version by a mile), “Dye It Blonde” – Smith Westerns (how do 19 year old kids do such a dead-on George Harrison impersonation?), “Stone Rollin’”  - Raphael Saadiq (retro without sounding cliche), “2011″ – The Smithereens (proving they are still a dependable, if somewhat predictable, band).

Thanks for reading….bring on 2012.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Less Brains, eh Braun? (and a bit more on Albert)

Big news in baseball — Ryan Braun may be baseball’s latest PED cheater.  I’m not a Brewers fan by any stretch of the imagination, and honestly, some of their little celebrations over the years have really annoyed me.  At one point, I thought Braun was most likely to have a ball thrown at his ear because he seemed to spend a little too much time admiring his own handiwork. 
But, as often happens to me in this era of fantasy sports, picking up Braun on my NL only fantasy keeper team has softened my opinion of him.  Especially coming off an MVP season where he almost single handedly kept my team in the running for the league title.  With the defection of Pujols to the AL, Ryan Howard’s achilles injury and the chance that Prince Fielder would also wind up on the AL, I was feeling pretty good about my decision to hang onto Braun, even though I had him at an inflated price ($50 for you roto-heads, thanks to the owner that originally drafted him).  
Now, I may well find myself without his services until May.  Tough pill to swallow, for sure.  But, one thing you always hear pundits say is that if they stood accused of using PEDs, they’d scream from the mountain that they were innocent.  Braun’s done that, and issued a statement professing his innocence.  Love him or hate him, I hope he does prove his innocence.  Baseball has too many stains on its reputation already, and I don’t want another star tainted this way.  Braun is an exciting player to watch, and it would be a shame if we had to discount what he’s done to date.  So, even though my thoughts are somewhat driven by my unhealthy addiction to fantasy baseball, hope this one is ultimately proven false.
Speaking of PED and players suspected of using them, Pujols is a guy that had drawn his fair share of speculation on the topic.  I myself have some doubts, mainly because he’s had a few injuries, such as last year’s arm fracture, that he came back from pretty quickly.  There’s some obvious bitterness to the sentiment, but there’s a tiny part of my brain that wonders if his jumping at the big payday in Anaheim has anything to do with the HGH testing that is part of the new CBA.  And, yes, you’d be correct in assuming that I’d never put that thought to print if he had re-signed with the Cardinals.
Seeing Albert in an Angels uniform was weird, but as with the whole thing, not as weird or painful as I thought it would be as we’ve worked our way towards this day.  I do wish the man well.  I do think that he believes this is about more than money, and that Arte Moreno made him feel a bit more wanted than DeWitt and Mozeliak did.  I also think that the Cardinals did the right thing by not going to the extreme to keep him.  Furcal’s now back in the fold, and talk that the Cards are going after Beltran is still out there.  No, that doesn’t replace Albert, but it does set the Cards up with a decent enough chance at making another run in 2012.  The offense will be a bit less than it was, but with Waino coming back, the gains to the starting rotation offset that a bit.  And Cardinals fans can rest easy now that it’s apparent that the team isn’t just pocketing the savings.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Goodbye #5

With the first 24 hours of the post-Albert Pujols era now in the books, it's time for a little reflection.  Obviously, first post in a long time and to say a lot has happened would be an understatement.
The Cardinals are World Champs -- and as ulikely a champion as we've seen since the 2003 Marlins (or as the popular joke goes, the 2006 Cardinals).
But the big news now, of course, is the departure of Pujols.  Looking at things now, it seems like we saw this one coming, but that doesn't soften the blow.  All season, the standard quote regarding Pujols' impending free agent status was something like "I just can't imagine him anywhere but in St. Louis."  But, to me, that always felt more like wishful thinking than anything near a fact.
My first reaction was the same as most Cardinals fans....disbelief followed by anger followed by disappointment.  This quote from a 2009 article on is exactly the type of thing we'd heard Albert say time and again when he discussed being a free agent for the first time in his career:
"Do I want to be in St. Louis forever? Of course," Pujols said. "Because that city has opened the door to me and my family like no other city is ever going to do. I don't want to [go to] any other city, but if that time comes I'm pretty sure wherever I go they are going to do the same way -- hopefully, open the doors. But I don't think it's to be anything compared to St. Louis.
"People from other teams want to play in St. Louis and they're jealous that we're in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make $3 or $4 more million a year? It's not about the money. I already got my money. It's about winning and that's it. It's about accomplishing my goal and my goal is to try to win. If this organization shifts the other way then I have to go the other way."
As fans, we want to believe that all of our favorite players fall in line with this line of thinking.  And I do believe that Albert wanted to stay in St. Louis....really, I do.  I also think that had the Angels not stepped in with such a huge offer (and full no trade protection), then Albert would have accepted the Cardinals offer.  But, the Angels played this perfectly.  They let the suddenly flush Marlins up the bar, and then swooped in full force -- no doubt inspired by losing out on every big name they had pursued the past few offseasons.  This time, they did not get turned away.  And with that, Albert is now a former Cardinal.
In spite of the sting at watching perhaps the greatest player of this generation move on, you have to realize that we've been lucky enough to witness an 11 year run that rivals the greats of the game.  Albert's numbers belong in the conversation with names like Ruth, Dimaggio, Mantle, Musial and Williams.  That hasn't changed.  And he did it wearing the birds on the bat.  And now he'll do it wearing the red and white of another team.  That is the nature of baseball (and pro sports, in general) in 2011.
And I'm OK with that.  I'm not on the ledge.  Really.  Will the 2012 Cardinals suffer from the loss of #5?  Probably.  Are they doomed to be a repeat of the 2007 Cards?  I don't think so.  First off, the roster isn't as much of a patchwork as the 2007 Cards were.  The rotation is in decent shape -- Carpenter, Wainwright, Garcia and Lohse/Westbrook are still a solid 1-4, and fifth starters are a little easier to develop and/or sign than the other positions in the rotation.
The bullpen also seems to be in a bit better shape...Motte may not be the next Mariano Rivera -- or even the next Jason Isringhausen, for that matter -- but he showed he's learned how to handle the ninth inning in pressure situations.  Kyle McClellan, Mitchell Boggs, Scrabble (not going to even try to pretend that I can spell his last name)...these are solid building blocks.  The team wants to add another lefty, and there are still some big name late inning guys on the market (such as Ryan Madson) that could make it possible for the Cardinals to be a team that doesn't have to score more than 3 runs a game to win.
On offense, Berkman and Holliday still give the Cardinals some thunder in the middle of the lineup.  Add to that a (hopefully) healthy David Freese and Allen Craig, and it could be more than adequate.  There are some "ifs" -- will Craig be exposed with more at-bats?  Will Freese stay healthy for a full season?  Who is going to play shortstop and second base?  What about a full year with John Jay as a regular rather than a 4th outfielder?  Is Furcal coming back?  What about adding Carlos Beltran?  Or Jimmy Rollins?  Or does the team make a run at Prince Fielder -- who just might decide to take a shorter term deal in hopes of having a second turn on the free agent market in a few years.  Regardless of the path they choose, Mozelik has earned a vote a confidence in my opinion.  This Cardinals team has felt like a playoff contender every year that he's been in charge, and I don't think that will change in 2012.
And again, I don't think this team was ever going to repeat.  It's tough to win a World Series.  It is even tougher to do it a second time.  That bullseye is on the Cardinals' backs now -- and that was true whether #5 was staying or not.  I'm hardly the first or last to say this, but in reality, this probably sets up the Cardinals better for the next 10 years than if Albert had taken the $210 million/9-10 year deal that was reportedly on the table.  True, Cardinals fans would probably tolerate a decline in his skills through his late 30's/early 40's more than any other fan base, but the fact remains that Pujols is most likely not going to get any better than he has been for the last 11 years.  To pay a premium for those years is not something a successful franchise does.  One of the things that made the Atlanta Braves so successful for so long is that they were not afraid to change the individual parts to improve the whole.  They weren't afraid to send a good player packing if it meant saving the team from a bad contract that would hinder the team for years.  True, they never faced that type of dilemma with a player like Pujols, but the point is the same even if you're only talking about David Justice.
So this is a sad day for Cardinals fans, but it isn't really a bad day.  The Cardinals still have a good team, and have the financial flexibility to address some things that they would not have had if Albert stayed.  Someday, we'll look back fondly on the career of Albert Pujols, who will go into the Hall of Fame as a Cardinal.  We'll marvel at the 3 homer game against Texas, the time he put out one of the letters in the in the 'Big Mac' sign, how he played second base for a few innings in 2010 and played a few games at third in 2011.  Maybe we'll even be giving him a standing ovation as his #5 is retired (though personally, I'm not quite ready to afford him that honor just yet).  But as someone said on twitter yesterday -- "I was a Cardinals fan before Pujols and I'll still be one after Pujols."  We root for the birds on the bat.  Period.  It's a shame that Albert Pujols is no longer wearing them.  But it is not the end of the world.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

REM: The Warner Bros. Years

My original plan had been for this to be 2 posts, but a few more days to "ease the pain" of REM's breakup have made me realize that I'm basically now just doing it to follow up on the previous post and then I'm back to blogging about baseball and other sports.  So, a quick spin through each of REM's albums for Warner Brothers.

Green was released the day that George Bush (the first one) was sworn in.  REM's first for a major label also saw the first time that lyrics for a song were printed in the album's liner notes.  "World Leader Pretend" was a continuation of political themes in REM's music.  Green also features the first songs where Peter Buck played mandolin (crowd favorite "You Are the Everything", "The Wrong Child" and "Hairshirt").  The acoustic numbers were balanced out by several arena-ready rockers -- "Pop Song '89" (which despite its title has held up very well over the years), "Get Up" (completing arguably the second best 1-2 punch to open an REM album), "Orange Crush" and "Turn You Inside Out".  The song "Stand" became a huge hit and for many fans (excluding myself) has become one of the more cringe inducing songs in the REM catalog.  Another oddity is that on the front cover, the letter 'R' in both the words GREEN and REM has a number 4 superimposed over the letter.  When you check the numbered track listing on the back, track 4 ("Stand") has a letter 'R' instead of the number.  Probably one of those silly little meaningless things the band did knowing their fans would probably spend hours trying to come up with a hidden meaning.

Green spawned a massive tour (which included my first show in 1990 in Champaign, IL).  After such a lengthy tour, REM took a bit longer to finish their next release...and biggest hit to date.  Anticipation was high for Out of Time.  It marked the first time that REM let more than a year pass between releases.  Thanks to "Stand", REM was firmly entrenched in the mainstream now.  As you'd expect, REM did an about face from the arena rock sound of Green in favor or a much more lush sound.  Lead single, "Losing My Religion" and the accompanying video became an unlikely hit (and added another song to the list of overplayed songs that would eventually cause more eye rolls than agreement when you told someone you were an REM fan).  REM also brought in some notable guest stars - Kate Pierson of the B-52s and rapper (yes rapper) KRS-One.  Pierson sings back up on "Shiny Happy People" (the one REM song I almost always skip when it pops up on the iPod) and album closer "Me In Honey" -- one of the stronger tracks on the album.  KRS-One raps over the end of opening track "Radio Song".  As they'd done before, REM threw caution to the wind -- songs featured mandolins, strings.  Stipe's vocals were now fairly clear and much more prominent in the mix (though the lyrics proved to be as cryptic as ever).  This album is also Mike Mills finest moment.  His harmonies had long been one of the secret weapons of REM's sound, perfectly complimenting Stipe's voice, but on Out of Time Mills takes lead on two of the better tracks - the Brian Wilson-ish "Near Wild Heaven" and "Texarkana" (one of my favorite tracks on the album).  The album was REM's first #1 and was nominated for album of the year but ended up losing out to Natalie Cole's Unforgettable -- something that irks me to this day.

REM decided to take a break from the road and did not tour in support of this album.  While it took more than a year for the follow up, Automatic for the People seemed to follow very quickly - mainly because REM was now a fixture on radio and MTV.  "Alternative" music was no longer an alternative to the mainstream -- Nirvana's Nevermind is often credited as the album that broke alternative, but the truth is that bands like REM had been paving the trail for years.  Like it's predecessor, Automatic worked its way to the top of the charts.  The album is full of many melancholy tunes that deal with mortality....some very directly ("Try Not to Breathe", "Sweetness Follows"), other's less so ("Monty Got a Raw Deal").  Lead single "Drive" became an unlikely hit and couldn't have sounded less like "Losing My Religion".  "Everybody Hurts" became the huge hit, adding another drop in the bucket of REM songs that caused detractors to roll their eyes and long time fans to bemoan the fact that their cult band was now a hitmaker.  Overplayed hits aside, some of REM's best work can be found on this album -- "Man on the Moon", fan favorite "Nightswimming" and "Find the River" (another personal favorite).  "Ignoreland" -- a rant against a Republican lead government -- was the only 'political' themed track.

Two straight mellow records left REM ready to rock -- and lead many to feel that they were simply cashing in on the grunge movement.  Monster was yet another about face, but the results were mixed.  The album was well received initially, but the backlash against REM's popularity had been steadily growing.  The album features many strong tracks, such as "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", "Star 69", "Circus Envy", "Crush With Eyeliner" and the Kurt Cobain inspired "Let Me In".  But the album as a whole has not held up as well as some of their other albums and the heavy guitars give the album an early 90's feel.  Songs like "King of Comedy", the "Everybody Hurts" style "Strange Currencies", the odd falsetto driven "Tongue" (the song the band played as Bill Berry suffered from a brain aneurism) and the almost tuneless pair of "Bang and Blame" and "I Took Your Name" all drove this album to be a common inhabitant of the bargain bin at your local record store.

This was followed by one of the longest and most underrated efforts - New Adventures in Hi Fi.  Many of Hi Fi's tracks were recorded during soundchecks for the Monster tour, giving the album feel almost like a live album.  Sonically, it settled in somewhere between the noisy Monster and REM's earlier work.  This was the first one that was declared to be a "return to form".  At fourteen tracks and an hour in length, this album would have been a classic had REM exercised a little extra restraint.  "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" -- with it's weird spaghetti western style melody and haunting piano -- sets an immediately weird tone making this the WB era counterpart to Fables.  Stand outs included "The Wake Up Bomb", "Undertow", "Bittersweet Me" and "Electrolite".  "Leave" checks in at over 7 minutes giving it the honor of being the longest song in the REM catalog.  Several songs feel like retreads of others - "Departure" and "So Fast, So Numb" don't sound radically different from "Undertow".  "Low Desert" is nearly as tuneless as Monster's "I Took Your Name", and instrumental "Zither" just feels like oddity for the sake of oddity.  "E-Bow the Letter" featured guest vocals from Stipe's hero, Patty Smith, and is perhaps the weirdest (though underrated) REM single ever released.

Bill Berry's health issues zapped some of his passion for the rock and roll lifestyle, and in 1997, he left the band after extracting the promise that his departure would not spell the end of REM (the band had always maintained that if any one member left, they would never be able to continue as REM -- if they continued at all).  Many fans wish they'd have kept this promise, and 1998's Up did little to really change anyone's mind.  It is far and away REM's most challenging and odd record.  Berry's contribution to the band may have seemed minimal, but the shift in songwriting and mood is evident.  Rather than replace him with session drummers or a full fledged replacement, REM added electronic percussion to many of the tracks.  The mood is somber and very introspective.  For the first time, full lyrics are included with the album.  Lead single, "Daysleeper" sounds like an outtake from Automatic and gave the impression that REM as a trio would sound a lot like the quartet, though a listen through the full album would prove that to be misleading.  The album starts out with "Airportman" which flows immediately into the one rocker on the album - "Lotus".  "At My Most Beatiful" lives up to the title and sounds like it could have been co-written by Brian Wilson (Stipe admitted that this was his tribute to one of Mills' and Buck's heroes).  The album is interesting and like Hi Fi, much better than it's given credit for being.  Hi Fi was the first step in REM's descent into being much less relevant to the mainstream, and Up only sped up the process.

2001's Reveal proved to be a bit sunnier, and REM sounded much more comfortable as a trio than they did on Up.  Many would trumpet this as yet another return to form.  There were some classic REM sounding songs to be found -- "Imitation of Life" featured almost the same chord structure as "Driver 8" and sounded like a lost track from the 80's era albums.  "She Just Wants To Be", another of the albums stronger tracks, seemed to encapsulate the prototypical later-era REM song.  Minus the electronic accents, "Disappear" could have been an outtake from Out of Time.  Reveal feels like a summer album -- it has a tracks named "Beachball" and "Summer Turns to Hight", after all -- and while the happier sounding melodies were a welcome change from the previous album, many of the songs feel almost formulaic in hindsight.

2004 brought another "return to form", and the one REM album that made many of their most devoted fans question whether or not it was time to call it a day.  Around the Sun is the low point for REM.  There is nothing truly terrible on the album -- and in fact, its high points are as good as anything in the post-Berry era.  "Final Straw" shows that REM's political fire is alive and well.  "Leaving New York" is a surprisingly straightforward love song.  The big problem I have with the album is that it sounds like a stab at "Adult Alternative" schmaltz.  Songs follow fairly standard verse-chorus-verse structure and the lyrics are rarely cryptic at all.  Though my initial reaction was positive, this is the one REM album that I rarely listen to - hence the lack of mention of many specific tracks.

While REM albums were suffering a bit, the band was touring regularly, and becoming quite a good live band.  They had added Bill Rieflin and Scott McCaughey as full time touring members, and with 2008's Accelerate, the duo became defacto members of the band.  Accelerate proved to be a very appropriate title.  The album clocks in under 35 minutes with only two songs exceeding 4 minutes.  The usual "return to form" description felt a bit more appropriate this time around, as many of the songs featured here would not sound out of place on any of the Warner Brothers releases.  It's not a great album thanks to a few minor missteps, but it was easily the best post-Berry album yet.  "Sing for the Submarine" sounds a bit too forced of an attempt at weirdness, but does name check several older REM songs.  Other songs, such as "Hollow Man" and "Until the Day is Done" sound a little bit too much like "REM by numbers", but the highlights were reason for fans to be optimistic.  "Living Well is the Best Revenge", "Man Sized Wreath" and "Supernatural Superserious" get things rolling into high gear.  "Houston" finds Stipe telling a post-Katrina inspired story, showing that time hadn't mellowed the band's political fire.  I've always read that Pearl Jam's "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" is one of the better REM-songs-not-written-by-REM songs, and "Horse to Water" sounds like a return of the favor.

With REM rocking again, hopes were high for Collapse Into Now and for the most part, fans were rewarded.  I do recall a few reviews of the album calling out the fact that this was the final album due under REM's current contract with Warner Brothers and that elements of this album felt like a swan song.  Of course, as of 9/21/2011, we know that is exactly what Collapse is, and it's not a bad way for the band to go out.  Another "return to form" album, it sounds very much like Out of Time era REM.  I believe the first five tracks are as solid a start to an REM album as anything they had released that album.  On the negative side, REM could have written many of these songs in their sleep.  Stipe's lyrics have become far more understandable over the previous few albums, and with most of these tracks, you get what he's singing about almost immediately.  That doesn't mean the lyrics are bad, however, as he turns several interesting phrases -- beginning with "Discoverer" (Just the slightest bit of finesse / might have made a little less mess).  Listening to the album today, and you pick up on lyrics that seem to suggest that REM knew this would be it as they were making this one.  Stipe says in "Discoverer" that "this is not a challenge, it just means that I love you as much as I always said I did."  Your first inclination is that he's talking to a friend or partner, but he might just as well be talking to their fans.  "All the Best" sounded like a goodbye from the first moment you read the lyrics..."I'll give it one more time / I'll show the kids how to do it, fine..." and "It's just like me to overstay my welcome, man."  "Uberlin" is one of the better songs they've written in years, and "Oh My Heart" is an update on the characters from "Houston".  "It Happened Today" is as cryptic as things get lyrically, and the song takes off into a wordless chorus by Stipe, Mills and guest Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam played this song in tribute to REM during their 9/21 concert in Calgary).  "Everyday is Yours to Win" sounds like an update on "Everybody Hurts" -- or alternately some thoughts to prop you up as you mourn the loss of your favorite band.  The album closes with "Blue" -- which, thanks to Patty Smith's appearance sounds like "E-Bow the Letter" crossed with "Country Feedback" and lyrics that were recorded in the same manner as "Belong".  Stipe declares that he wants his "Brothers Proud" -- another indication that maybe he's saying that REM can turn the final page of this book without any regrets.

With the benefit of time, I think more respect will be given to REM's last few albums, particularly the final two.  They'll never be mistaken for the best of the bunch, and most fans won't try to tell you that they stack up.  But, there's no denying that REM did their best to remain interesting to their fans throughout their 31 years.  If, as I now believe, they knew that Collapse Into Now was going to be the end of the line, then it's a fitting love letter to their fans.  It will always take on a slightly sadder tone for me now that I hear it in a context of finality, but it also makes me feel like it is 1991 again -- when REM was just about to take that final step into the mainstream, but were doing it completely on their own terms.  And I still maintain that with the possible exception of Around the Sun, that REM has never made a truly awful album....that their lesser work is still better than many bands' best....even if it is a bit more of a stretch with some of the later efforts.

If you've bothered to read any of these last 3 posts, I'd love to hear your comments or thoughts.  These were written strictly for myself, and I'm not delusional enough to think that anyone really cares what I think of REM.  But it's been fun for me to step back and look at their career as a whole.  If you are reading this....then thanks for your patience and perseverance.  As I'm writing these last few lines, I'm listening to "Every Day is Yours To Win"....and that 17 year old kid that I used to be (and sometimes forget that I'm not anymore) is thinking that it would sound pretty good coming from the headphones that I used to wear as I fell asleep every night.  And maybe that's a fitting end to this little off to grab some headphones and fall asleep to the sound of Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe one more time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

R.E.M. - IRS years

Another one more for myself than anything....and due to my frustration at the Cards looking like they'll lose the first of 3 to the Cubs (while losing another game on the Braves) and a Yankee rainout...well, I don't want to talk about baseball tonight anyway.

My first thought was to write up a post each talking about each of REM's albums (I'm omitting the '.'s for simplicity's sake)....but that's a lot of typing, I'm already bordering on extreme overkill, and writing something meaningful about Around the Sun would mean I'd have to listen to it again, and I don't feel like doing that, because it is the one record REM made that makes me think they should have called it a day sooner (although I did think it was decent right when it first came out).

It's still overkill, but I decided to split this up into 3 posts (that may yet be trimmed down to 2):

  1. The early years / IRS discography
  2. The early WB years
  3. The Post-Bill Berry albums
I think if you poll most fans, 97% would say this is the period that really defines REM's greatness -- and probably the one that most of us "REM snobs" assume the masses overlook when they roll their eyes at the mention of REM.  When I saw the band on the tour supporting Up, I remember being pleasantly surprised to hear the band play "Pilgrimage" (one of my favorites), and hearing some idiot sitting a few rows ahead of me yelling "Play the old stuff!"  He was very pleased when the next song was from "Green".  That's why I tend to assume the masses have never listened to anything earlier than Document.

I'm skipping Chronic Town since it was only an EP and technically was just a re-issue on IRS.  So starting off with the debut, and probably REM's most highly regarded album....Murmur.

Murmur, great as it may be, is not my favorite REM album, but it's close.  The album kicks off with a reworked version of REM's first single, "Radio Free Europe".  While this version isn't as good as the original Hibtone version, it's still a solid opening track and perfectly fits in the context of the full album.  For the younger set out there...this was also a time when albums were meant to be listened to in their entirety. (Sorry, I'll try to tone down the cranky old man thing).  This album is nearly perfect, the one slight misstep being "Shaking Through".  It's not a bad song, but just not quite as engaging as the other tracks.  As I mentioned, "Pilgrimage" is a personal favorite and keeps the momentum from the opener rolling along perfectly.  "9-9" is another standout and one of the few true 'rockers' on the disc.  To someone hearing this for the first time today, it might sound a little dated, but when you consider that the big hits of the day were albums like Michael Jackson's Thriller and the Police's Synchronicity, you realize that this really was like spending 44 minutes in an alternate reality.

Rather than fall into a sophomore slump, REM returned with Reckoning.  Where Murmur sounded very crafted and lush, Reckoning was raw, more up tempo -- yet instantly identifiable as REM.  "Harborcoat", "Pretty Persuasion", "Second Guessing" and "Little America" give the album a more rocking feel, but the mid tempo classics "So. Central Rain" and "Time After Time" give the whole thing a feeling of depth.  The best moment of the album comes near the end, when the originally punky opening of "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" gives way to a rolling country tune.  Long time fans seem to take turns naming each of REM's first three albums as their favorite, but I would guess that Reckoning would slightly edge out the other two.

For their third record, REM once again managed the neat trick of sounding like the same band but completely different.  Fables of the Reconstruction is much darker and has a very weird, Southern feeling to it.  Songs such as "Old Man Kensey", "Wendell Gee" and "Life and How To Live It" tell stories about eccentric local characters, while "Feeling Gravity's Pull" amps up the weirdness right off the bat.  The album features some of the bands better hits as well -- the faux-funk of "Can't Get There From Here", "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" and the classic "Driver 8".  Overall, this one is not quite as satisfying as the previous two albums, but still a very strong album.

The reason why none of these albums is my favorite is because their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant is just so damn good.  And yes, the band intentionally left the apostrophe out of the word "Lifes".  This album sounds bigger, more straight ahead.  Stipe's vocals are as clear as ever, though the same cannot always be said about his lyrics.  The album opens with one of the best 1-2 punches in rock history -- "Begin the Begin" and "These Days".  "Fall On Me" and "Cuyahoga" are the first songs that make it obvious that Stipe cares about the environment.  There is not one skip-worthy song on this album, and closes perfectly with the trio of "Just A Touch", "Swan Swan H" and "Superman" (a cover of an obscure 60's 'hit' by the Clique).  REM's fifth album was the breakthrough, but Pageant is the one that really pulls it all together.

Document keeps the big sound of Pageant but adds an element of chaos to the mix.  The jangly 12 string guitar is all but gone at this point.  The opening track, "Finest Worksong" sounds like arena rock, and it wouldn't belong before REM was filling arena's.  "The One I Love" was the band's breakthrough hit...misunderstood by many as a love song, when in reality it is anything but.  "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" is the other big 'hit' and one of the band's more recognizable songs.  It's not all arena rock, though -- "King of Birds" and "Fireplace" provide a mellow counterpoint to the chaos.  "Welcome to the Occupation" -- far more political than anything the band had done to this point -- would have been at home on either of the previous two albums.

And with Document, REM was no longer that underground band that you kept hearing about and wondered what the fuss was about.  They were on the path to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world and were slowly paving the way for the alternative music revolution that was soon to start.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wake To a New Today Tomorrow

A quick disclaimer -- I'm long winded by nature, but I'm going to outdo myself on this one.  As a long time R.E.M. fan (obsessive?), this is meant more as a little cathartic exercise than an attempt to really write something worth reading.  It may well be a waste of time, though I'll always appreciate anyone who takes the time to read anything that I might write.  If you make it all the way through, I hope you enjoy it, but if you get a sentence or two further and give up....well, you've been warned.

You'd think with one of my favorite teams making an improbably push towards the Wild Card, I'd be posting daily thoughts on the Cardinals.  But as dramatic as the home stretch of the baseball season has been, there's only one topic on my mind as I start writing tonight....After 31 years as a band, R.E.M. has decided to -- as they put it -- " it a day...".

(Photo taken from --

Some will tell you that hearing (fill in R.E.M. song here) for the first time changed their life, I think most stories would sound similar to mine.  I honestly can't remember the first R.E.M. song that I really heard, but it was "The One I Love" and Document when I first really became aware of R.E.M.'s music -- this was my sophomore year of high school.  And at first, I wasn't a huge fan.  But a friend of mine was insistent that this band was awesome (he'd previously tried to convert me to the Cure, which oddly enough is a band that took another 3 or 4 years for me to fully appreciate).  He was so convinced that I would be hooked that he dubbed a cassette with Life's Rich Pageant on one side and Document on the other.  By this point, "The One I Love" had been in constant rotation on the radio -- and the few "long time" R.E.M. fans at my school were converting new fans all the if anything, they were what the "cool kids" liked, and that gave me reason to listen.  "It's the End of the World As We Know It" was another one the clicked right away.  I flipped the tape over and thought "Fall On Me" and "Superman" sounded vaguely familiar.  But outside of these songs, not much really drew me in and for the time being, my musical tastes tended more towards classic rock such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

But the "coolness factor" kept increasing for R.E.M. so more and more of my classmates were becoming fans.  Later that year, a few of the "cool kids" decided to play "The One I Love" at our school talent show.  Starting to come around, but still far from a fan.  Fast forward to the next of my best friends goes away to camp, comes back with stories of a guy that he had met that had "great taste in music".  So a few weeks later, the new friend comes to visit, and struck me as a pretty cool guy.  And the fact that he didn't seem to think I was a complete idiot didn't hurt, either.  He's got a cassette with him that would change my musical tastes forever.  Ironically, it was -- of all things -- a Warren Zevon album.  The album, Sentimental Hygiene, featured R.E.M. as Zevon's backing band, and all this new friend could say was that this was a great album and that it sounded like an R.E.M. album.  Wanting to fit in, I made a copy and started playing the album for hours on end.  The more I listened the more I liked it.

A few weeks later and my family heads out for one of our annual vacations...this one out west to Colorado.  As I said before, I was a pretty typical 15 year old in that I would listen to Warren Zevon basically because someone that I thought was cool told me it was good.  And like most 15 year old kids, I had also developed a nice little surly streak (my family would probably tell you that it's never really gone away).  Staying home wasn't an option, however, so packing a walkman and as many cassette tapes as possible was a must.  Traveling from central Illinois to Colorado by car involves more than a few hours in the car, and many of the miles are typified by flat terrain and very sketchy radio reception.  I'll tell you today that my parents have excellent taste in music.  They introduced me to bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jefferson Airplane/Starship....There are many songs, bands and albums that I still love today because I remember hearing them in the car during a family trip.  But, at 15, I'd have made no such concession, and with the exception of the Beatles, just about any tape they played on the car stereo was met with me putting on a pair of headphones.

You can only listen to one Warren Zevon album so many times as you traverse states like Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, etc., so eventually I had to pick something else.  Somewhere along the way, I decided to put in the R.E.M. cassette that had Document and Pageant.  The former was the bigger draw because of the hit songs and the sound closer to the Zevon album, but after a while, it was Pageant  that really settled into my brain.  I think I may have listened to this cassette non-stop for the rest of the trip.  Or at least that's the romanticized way I'm choosing to remember it.  And from that point forward, I started to count myself as an R.E.M. fan.

As Junior year gets underway, news breaks that Van Halen (or Van Hagar as they were referred to at the time) was coming to the Peoria Civic Center.  I hadn't completely forsaken classic/hard rock at this point, and Van Halen was still a big deal.  Different "cool friend of a friend" spends the night talking about R.E.M.'s new record, Green, and that we needed to go right out and buy a copy for ourselves.  Back then the $15 necessary to buy a CD seemed like a lot of money, and it took me a couple of weeks to save the cash.  But as soon as I did, my dad drove me over to a local record store, and I bought a copy (the first R.E.M. ablum that I actually bought as opposed to copying from a friend).  "Orange Crush" was a song I liked right away (and had heard on the radio) and "Stand" hadn't yet hit the airwaves.  Hooked, mesmerized....however you want to put it, that's where I was.  This album had the dual benefit of being something that I really loved AND something that was cool to listen to.

The school talent show rolls around again, and the same kids that had performed an R.E.M. song the year before play "Driver 8".  How did I not know this song yet?  That I don't know, but I do know that I immediately bought a copy of Eponymous (the IRS greatest hits album that came out at the same time as Green).  And so now I also loved "Radio Free Europe", "Talk About the Passion" and "Don't Go Back to Rockville".  Some friends -- more of those "cool kids" that I wanted to be in good with -- were driving up to Alpine Valley in Wisconsin to see the Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels tour.  My parents were pretty cool (again, something I probably wouldn't have admitted at the time) but piling into a car with friends that hadn't been driving very long and driving a couple hours north was not something they were agreeable to.  But to soften the blow, they did say that I could find another concert that wasn't quite so far away and they'd let me go.  Then a friend mentions that R.E.M. was about to play a show in Champaign, which was only about 90 minutes away.  The P's still weren't up for letting me ride with friends, but since we knew guys at U of I that were going to the show, we had an apartment where my Dad could sit while I went to the show with my friends (an aside -- I was cool for a short time because I'd been the one to get the group together to go see R.E.M. -- life was good).  Again, my parents are pretty cool....looking at this now as I'm just about to turn 39, I can't believe my Dad did this just so I could go to a concert.

If my life didn't change the first time I heard an R.E.M. song, it did the first time I saw them live.  To this day -- and I realize that it has been built up over the years in my mind -- I still hold the memory of this concert very close to my heart.  They played most of the songs that I wanted to hear (though sadly not "Driver 8") and played several more that have since become favorites (such as "Perfect Circle").  But without a doubt, this is the point where I went from being an R.E.M. fan to being an R.E.M. obsessive.  If there was an album I didn't have yet, I bought and/or copied it.  I fell asleep most nights with a pair of headphones on and an R.E.M. album playing.  I started listening to other bands that were in the same vein -- we called it college rock back then.  I found a lot of great music, much of which I still love today and that takes me back to that time whenever I hear it.  But there was never a band that compared with R.E.M.

It only got worse in college....I annoyed, then converted my roommate freshman year.  I begged another friend to drive me the 16 miles from campus to the closest record store to buy a copy of Out of Time the day it was released.  A friend and I would sit in the quad playing our guitars -- the only two truly recognizable songs we could play were "Driver 8" and the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine" -- which is what we'd play if anyone that we knew came along and asked us to play something.  Junior year brought Automatic for the People and me convincing my then girlfriend (and now wife) to go stand in line with me for the midnight sale that the new record store was holding.  She bought a copy, too, and still loves many of those songs (though we both really still hate "Everybody Hurts").  Another midnight sale for Monster (and my second R.E.M. concert), which I initially loved, but is now my least favorite album featuring Bill Berry.

By the time New Adventures in Hi Fi came out in 1996, I had just moved to the Chicago area and seen my tastes shift a bit towards "jam bands".....but, of course, I still stopped at Tower Records on my lunch break to get my copy and still spent the afternoon in my cube at work trying to look busy while listening to the album.  Not long after, Bill Berry quit the band, and I fully expected them to be done.  But Up soon followed, coming out just days before I got married.  Thanks to the wedding and the ensuing honeymoon, this was the first time since Green...and last....time that I would not buy an R.E.M. album on the day that it came out.  This album and the next 2 don't really merit much more mention.  I don't hate any of the 3, and while I think they all have some great tracks, I always lump them together as R.E.M.'s lost period -- as I'm sure many of my fellow fans do.  I do recall, however, that when the band stopped in the Chicago area during this tour, I convinced my wife that we needed to go because I was fairly certain this would be my last chance to see them.  Didn't think they had more than a year or two left.

So that leaves Accelerate (along with my final R.E.M. show) and Collapse Into Now.  These albums were not as good as the ones that I was obsessed with in the late 80's/early 90's, but they were a welcome change after previous 3 post-Berry releases.  And their Chicago stop in support of Accelerate is easily the 2nd best concert of the 4 that I've seen.  Collapse saw me as excited for a new R.E.M. album as I'd been since Hi Fi.  And today, I'm listening to it in a new light -- especially the song "All the Best" -- "I'll do this one more time".....

I recall reading several reviews that suggested that this might be R.E.M.'s swan song, but I refused to believe that could be true.  But of course, that is exactly what it turned out to be.  And, honestly, it isn't a bad way to go out.  Once the news of their break-up hit, I was following twitter looking for that sense of community that you have when you have a shared love for a band.  As you'd expect, mixed in were the typical comments slamming the band -- everything from "they haven't been good since (fill in IRS era record) or (Automatic)" to "I hated 'Losing My Religion'" to "So tragic to say goodbye to a band that hasn't been relevant in at least 10 years."  Actually, that last one really pisses me off -- first of all, R.E.M. meant a great deal to a lot of us.  I'm sure there are an infinite number of stories out there similar to mine (though I doubt many of them are as long winded).  And since when did relevant = greatness?  It seems relevant is the same as hit songs to many people -- and by that logic that means Demi Lovato, LMFAO, Maroon 5 and Lady GaGa are a bigger deal than R.E.M.  Ok, perhaps this particular moment in time, they are, but check back in 5 or 10 years -- I think R.E.M.'s work will hold up while many of the hitmakers of today will be just as anonymous as all of those bands that were big 2 or 3 years ago but are now long forgotten by anyone that isn't a die hard fan.  So basically, you can stick your relevance up your.....

Sorry -- soap box.  And so, 9/21/2011 is the day we bid R.E.M. a fond farewell.  It's a sad day in many ways, but the music will live on (and will undoubtedly annoy the crap out of my wife as I'm sure to be playing it non-stop for the next few days -- though I'm sure she'll be thankful that this puts an end to my Pearl Jam fixation that's been with me since the PJ20 shows at Alpine Valley a few weeks ago).  As I said in the little disclaimer at the top of the post, this one isn't really being written for anyone but me.  R.E.M. has been the soundtrack to my life for the last 24 years.  Even the albums that I first heard several years after their initial release trigger memories of a particular person, experience or place.  Maybe they stuck around a bit too long.  Maybe listening to R.E.M. isn't the badge of honor that it once was.  Doesn't matter, because right now, I just want to say thanks.  It feels like I should say more, but I don't know what that would be.  I'll never, ever, love another band the way that I love R.E.M.  And while I'm sad that I don't have much more than a new greatest hits album to look forward to...and that I never got to hear them play "Driver 8" live...I'm so thankful that I have 15+ albums worth of music that is so much more than lyrics and melody....It's a time machine...a window into my life at any given time.  And to that one guy on twitter -- that's why so many people are lamenting that band that you think is no longer relevant.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading and indulging me for a little while.  (in my head, "Find the River" is providing a fitting close to this post).  Oh, and if you didn't know, the title of this post is taken from a lyric for "It's a Free World, Baby".