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.

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