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.

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