R.E.M.

The Georgia Fruits

Introduction
Chronic Town EP
Murmur
Reckoning 
Fables of the Reconstruction
Life's Rich Pageant
Document
Dead Letter Office
Green
Out of Time
Automatic for the People
Monster
New Adventures in Hi Fi
Up
Reveal
Around the Sun

The Lineup Card 1982-2005

Michael Stipe (vocals)

Peter Buck (guitar, mandolin, keyboards)

Mike  (drums, keyboards, vocals)

Mike Mills (bass, vocals, keyboards)

Bill Berry (drums) until 1997

 

Probably the most important 'alternative' group in history, as opposed to and worlds away from saying 'the most important 'indie' (Fugazi), 'underground' (Velvet Underground), 'punk' (The Clash), or 'avante garde' (God knows) group', REM probably once represented far more than it does now, which is pretty much the exact same kind of aging ex-hipster lamebrains they once attempted to distance themselves from 20 years ago. For a time, REM were great - exactly the sort of band someone could really get behind if one was young, equally tired of hairy-sac dinosaur cock rock and fey Britofairy dance music, and wanted something so sincere it makes your skin crawl.  This band was so many of those things at precisely the time when so many weren't, especially in the rapidly ossifying hardcore punk ranks (previously the only place a band with REM's work habits could have broken through) where it was to stubbornly remain 1981 and three-chords of chaingun forever.

So, REM was an 'alternative', both to what was being packaged and processed by the major record labels and to the punk and new wave scenes, both of which had burned through their primary fuels and were now diminishing points of light running off reputations and haircuts.  There was little surprise to the fact that REM, as fresh and different as they were, hit it big and quickly begat imitators and fellow-travellers. As these amphibians are wont to do, Big Record Label and Mass Marketing execs caught onto all this earnest college kid stuff after a few years and the big money contracts began to get inked, all under the banner of 'alternative music'. Is Husker Du 'alternative'? Well, sure. The Replacements? By the time of their signing to Sire Records in 1988, maybe not, but we'll humor it in fond memory of Bob Stinson. Okay...what about 10,000 Maniacs? Pearl Jam? Metallica? 'Alternative' as a term was always a cop-out, a record industry catch-all for anything new between the years 1985 and 1996 that wasn't country, R&B, or pure pop.  What began as a serious movement to remake rock music in the true, thoughtful face of the 80's underground ended up by 1992 as yet another cover of Rolling Stone smacked with yet another poseur-serious blow-dried long hair Adonis flashing a scowl perfectly calculated to make his 14-year old girl fans quicken with moisture. Give any pop music movement 5 years, and it will always, like a runaway puppy to a steak barbecue, find its way back to what appeals to 14 year old girls. 1977 - Johnny Rotten. 1982 - Sting. Bono 1983. Bono 1988.

The weirdest thing of all is that REM first broke through simply by being a melodic, organic, hardworking, efficient little folk-rock band, which believe it or not was quite revolutionary in the plastic craptastic days of 1982.  They were four absolute dorks from the quiet little college environment of Athens, Georgia, and sounded like it...if they hadn't been rock stars, it was easy to see the members of REM managing a hardware store or writing a gardening column in the local daily newspaper. When you have a massive unibrow or look like Harry Anderson's more awkward little brother, the options are somewhat limited for you, aren't they?  The simple fact that they were unapologetically sincere dorks was the glue that held them together - one can almost see the scene where Peter Buck ran into Michael Stipe in Athens's only decent underground record store, and Michael, upon seeing the coveted copy of Radio Ethopia in Buck's hands, has stars gleam in his eye as he attempts to conceal the joy of finding a fellow traveler in that gleaming Limbo called Cool Before Your Time.

Musically, they were a post-punk  psychedelia-free Byrds, all chiming-guitars and impressionistic lyrics, creating a crafty, clean sound that was easily mistaken as something far less substantial or far more meaningful than it actually was.  Their watchword was simplicity, and could probably be seen as one of the most effectively minimal groups of the last few decades. If it couldn't be done by Mike, Peter, Bill, or Stipe, it probably didn't need to be done. As far as their work habits, they took their cues from the hardcore crowd - they toured in vans, playing everywhere that would book them, recorded often and as cheaply as possible, and avoided traditional forms of publicity in favor of fanzines and, well, more touring. Their IRS Records years used to be seen as a sort of blueprint for how it should be done when you're young and broke and don't want to turn on the television to see yourself look like a bunch of fagged-up Ken dolls lip-synching on MTV.

Things worked well - for awhile, but when you're locked up 12 hours a day in the back of a creaky, reeky van, things have a tendency to unravel.  By the time of the nigh-unlistenably sallow Fables of the Reconstruction in 1984, REM had used up their initial momentum and seen hundreds of long-forgotten little Mini-REM clone bands sprout up in their wake.  It seems to be no long after Fables that REM made the decision to seriously flirt with commerciality, though advancing towards Big Fame with a respectable timidity. 1986's Life's Rich Pageant had louder guitars. Document had out-and-out radio anthems, close enough to but noticeably better quality than what was actually being played on the radio in 1987 (Def Leppard, The Joshua Tree, and INXS, if I remember right). With Green in 1988, the major, irreversible step was taken - they signed with Warner Brothers and their soul was destined to burn in the Sensitive Vegetarians circle of hell for all of eternity, right next to Moby's lame ass and Morrissey's bloated, accursed corpse, swimming for all times in a sea of Fatburgers with Extra Bacon while WASP albums and syndicated Rush Limbaugh shows played at ear-splitting volumes.

From here, REM's story takes an interesting and tragic turn.  So far, REM had only made a few albums that stunk, and that was because they were clumsy and...aw-shucks...just didn't know you couldn't make an entire record without any choruses on it and expect people, even your 'alternative fans', to enjoy it.  Once they crossed over to the dark side, they were startlingly hit-or-miss.  On one hand, some of their legitimately huge radio hits ('Losing My Religion', 'Stand', 'Man On The Moon') sounded like they'd pulled off their coup - they were going to raise the quality of pop music by subverting it, insinuating their way onto the airwaves to remove the Hammertime/'Cherry Pie' brainwashing that had been so prevalent in the recent few years.  But some of their material betrayed the fact that the Dark Side had begun to warp and pervert REM even as it brought them riches far beyond their wildest dreams (a Volvo wagon less than 10 years old, apparently). For a band that had once found greatness in writing incomprehensibly, their songs became far too literal and lowest-common denominator (my personal choice for low point: 'Everybody Hurts', which sounds like it could've been written by a braindamaged Hallmark Cards trainee). At the mid-90's, REM, along with U2, had become the two most widely respected bands in rock, loved by kids, adults, hipsters, nerds, and jock dolts alike. Though you suspected they were still in there somewhere, the four dweebs were getting harder and harder to see.

In 1995, they were digested for good. First, the band remade itself as glammed-up, ironicized Alt-rockers for their tuneless album Monster (clearly an attempt to flex their guitar-rock manhood in front of the grunge bands and other formerly respectable 80's underground bands who'd similarly found an audience 7 years after their peak, like Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr.). Then, following a massive, bloated world tour that resembled nothing so much as Led Zeppelin 1977 (Bill Berry did not take a drum solo), during which Berry almost died of a brain aneurysm before finishing the tour. Berry, quite understandably, tendered his resignation the next year. Quite unlike Led Zeppelin, the remaining three didn't decide to call it a day, or at least retire the REM name. The band that had, at one time, shared all songwriting royalties equally and proclaimed they'd quit if any of the four couldn't carry on...carried on. As carrion.

Since Berry's departure, REM's gone from a good band in decline to a comedy of errors. While the albums continue to deteriorate in quality as the band desperately tries to find what flavor-of-the-month is their particular meal ticket, their appeal has evaporated to the point that many people can't even remember their Out of Time-era commercial peak, much less the fact that they once...for a short while...were probably a good candidate for the 'only band that matters'....or at least the 'only band that matters when you're 19 and in college and think you could write a 1500 word dissertation about your shit not stinking'.

Ericb ebalzer@hadassah.org
Any Short Comments?: Other than the fact that I like Fables of the Reconstruction your intro on REM was dead on accurate, especially regarding the musical niche they filled in the early 80's.


Chronic Town EP - IRS 1982

Recorded by the Ridiculous Eyebrow Models in 1982 before joining the (relatively impressive) I.R.S. indie record label, Chronic Town gives us a surprisingly engaging chance to hear REM before they got corrupted by fame and good press with the release of Murmur. Actually, to hardcore fans, Chronic Town is already corrupt...the only genuine, unsullied REM article is a 45-minute cassette of their first rehearsal recorded in the UGA music rehearsal building with a Wallgreen's boombox on the flipside of Eddie Money's Two Tickets to Paradise album that Mills used to do Jazzercise along to. That one is so rare and sincere Michael Stipe, in fact, dissolves into a puddle of tears and blush rather than open his mouth and address the microphone so thoughtlessly placed in front of his face. This? Psha. Corporate rock. You might as well light a doobie and listen to Foreigner while eating a Whopper and watching Fox News, cochese.

Nahhh, on their official debut EP, they're as young and precious as Jessica Alba's flank steaks but there really isn't too much to Chronic Town that Murmur doesn't do better. They sound nothing more than a band of college buddies who write cute little songs and rehearse far too much for their own good - it's amateurish, but the spark of oncoming greatness can easily be discerned.  Hear how they layer their background vocals on 'Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)'? That's thinking, Charlie, a thinking band trying to find little ways of improving on the standard-issue REM arpeggio folk-rock guitar/busy bass/Chevrolet drums style they'd mine for the next few years.  It's interesting to note that REM are the first band I've covered in awhile that have little or no black music influences. Of course, everything outside of chamber music, ur-metal, and bedfart symphonies have their basis in black music in one way or another, but REM are still very white. There's no blues figures or scales (not even a stray bent note) to be found within ten miles of this thing, which can either illustrate their commitment to staunch rejection of threadbare FM-radio forms, or their near-segregationist isolation from the black culture that no doubt surrounded them in Georgia.  Whether they intended it or not, REM's made an album that, as far as I can tell, was made by white people for white people. Mostly white girls. Wearing thick-rimmed glasses and reading Emily Dickinson.

It's good, though, despite my now-creeping suspicion that REM are, in fact, completely ignorant of most of the things that make post-40's pop music worth listening to. I suppose that also makes them original, kinda like Einsturzende Neubauten and setting your neighbor's lawn mower on fire so your yard will look better in comparison. Speaking of the greener pastures, 'Gardening At Night' is a bit too coy and teenybopperish to fit in comfortably between the sneaky and brilliantly paranoid 'Wolves, Lower' and the rocking 'Box Cars' (Stipe is so fucking shy he almost doesn't move his jaw while singing 'Gardening'...someone get this fool a shot of Wild Turkey, huh?), and 'Stumble' is generally worse than the other four, but it's good! Put on your linen hat and perform an interestingly arhythmic dance before going home and reading the new PETA newsletter!

Doesn't quite have the ring of 'rock out, fuck, and fall over in a heap', does it? To each his own. By the how: Chronic Town comes free as part of Dead Letter Office, so there's no point in complainin' or carrying on that you can't find it. The Chronic will cost you $13.99 at the local Record Gouger outlet, or a buck fifty from the dude who stands outside of the check cashing place down on Walnut Avenue by the Section 8 housing. Chronic will cost you ten bucks from the same guy. Tell him you want yours in a clean baggie this time.

Capn's Final Word: Sparky and a mite bit overenthusiastic, but yeah, it's the right choice for a White America.

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Murmur - IRS 1983

Let's play Choose Your Own Snarky Intro Line:

A) Shoulda called it Stumble because all the songs sound just like that one off Chronic Town. Isn't it time Peter Buck learned how to do more than strum pizzazzically?

B) Shoulda called it Jumble because the lyrics are just a bunch of random words strung together to fill space that could better have been put to use reporting on international news or putting a decent fucking sports section in.

C) Shoulda called it Led Zeppelin XII, because just when one bone-crunching Devil worshipping, groupie-splooging, Tolkien worshipping, riff-machine bunch of British conquistadors calls it a day, a new set of recruits takes over the reigns of the warhorse and continues the orgy of rape and pillage across the landscape. REM roools, and I think I strained myself.

D) Shoulda called it Mumble! AAAWHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAMAHAHA

AWHAMBABABAHOOSHHOOSH snurrrrf HAHAHABABANNNDDNANAWHATSOFUNNYBOUTPEACEBUMSANDUNDERPANTS?

See the answers at the bottom of this review for the conclusion of your own particular Alt-Adventure! Thanks for playing!

Good. Again. Forgive me for reaching my peak faster than Michael Stipe in a room full of mirrors, but Murmur starts off higher than a kite tied to a spaceship on acid, and then begins a slooooow descent to the end, where it finally peters out in the umpteenth iteration of REM-style mid-tempo jankle rock. That peak is one hell of a high, though. It's 'Radio Free Europe', and it's about the best song this band ever did. It sounds like Ramones Unplugged after being run through the De-Brooklynizer Device (first successfully tested on Jennifer Lopez, who's now about as legitimately 'street' as a pair of bunny slippers), with an entirely un-REM-y edge and immediacy. You don't need to digest 'Radio Free Europe' or 'let it sink in' or get in touch with your inner doily weaver or anything like that...this song would be a classic anthem no matter who played it. The chorus is a perfect cumshot for the release of the build-up resulting from the hopping, workmanlike verse leading to the crescendo of 'ray-dyo stayyyyyy-shun'. REM, honestly, never made music this natural again, and though they'd have better albums than Murmur, none of their individual tracks ever beat 'Radio'. Few bands have a moment of 'graduation' quite as obvious as this one's...they are no longer a bunch of kids in the hall. They're real musicians now, and they've got to live with the fact that they're competent.

Unfortunately, I think they retrench a tad too deep on the rest of this record. Murmur was given insane attention back in 1983, receiving Album of the Year honors from Rolling Stone Magazine and such (granted, that's like receiving the Kenneth Lay Memorial Businessman of the Year Award, but we'll forget that for now), but the main thing people tend to harp on is the fact that Michael Stipe allegedly garbles all of his lyrics so badly you can't hear a single word of what he's saying. What do you all want? Everyone to sound like Don Williams and that ass-honker from Loverboy? The fuck is that? I haven't been able to understand a single word Bob Dylan has uttered since 1975, and I'm supposed to be moved by Stipe's lazy delivery on Murmur?

Exactly how much do you need to know, anyway? 'Talk About the Passion' goes 'talk about the passion! Talk about the passion!', 'Catapult' goes 'uh-Catapult!' and 'Shaking Through' goes 'Shaayyyyeeeayyyykinggg b butt-tool!' Isn't that good enough for you? Verses are for suckers and English majors! Choruses are all we need in this life and REM 1983 is a good fucking lesson for those who feel otherwise. Want to feel idiotic? Listen to three or four songs off this album, get the generally accepted 'this is pretty darn great!' feeling most people tend to get, and then go listen to it again with the lyrics in your hand. Kinda like finding out the Wizard is a short fat guy with a nice wardrobe department and your girlfriend's been faking all those orgasms all those years, realizing that all that garbledy-good Stipe is blathering so convincingly is actually just meaningless, euphonious mouth issuances can result in a combination of feelings of betrayal and liberation. That's the key to enjoyment of this album - how much sense of 'mystery' and 'things unsaid' you gleam from all the arpeggios and pregnant pauses.  Melodically, it's just alright, and musically it's pleasant and compact, but not too much in the excitement area, and by the time you reach '9-9' it's beginning to all wash together.  So whaddya got left? The mystery, baby. When Stipe says some absolute gibberish, ('It's nine o'clock, don't try to turn it off, cowered in a hole, opie mouth. Question: Did we miss anything?') he must actually mean something quite profound, right? ('Right on, Cap!') Sure he does! Then so does Jon Anderson! ('The fuck you smokin', Cap?') I tell you...'Mountains come out of the sky, and stand therrrre' could easily be a line on this album. So, then, what is it?

And if you don't find the idea of an album based on implication rather than execution to make your mouth juicier than a Brazilian soft drink spokeswoman, then you're not gonna feel the magic. You were probably the one who told all your friends Santa Claus wasn't real and that green M&M's wouldn't help you hit home runs, too. As a lifelong curmudgeon, I personally fall on that side of the line, seeing Murmur as not much more than a nice start, a point on the road to better things. Who knows? Some people think David Lynch is a talentless hack and Monet as a waste of good housepaint, so who knows?

My copy has several bonus tracks, including live versions of '9-9', 'Catapult', and 'Gardening' and a version of Lou 'Bega' Reed's Vulva Underwear track 'There She Goes Again'.  Stipe sounds whiny like a beeyatch on 'There She Goes', and the live tracks are rather weakly sung. Good rhythm section, though.  Whomever is looking for the secret weapon of this band should look towards the drum chair first.

Oh, and the correct answer to the album title quiz above is is D. Chicago MMLXVI: Horny Octagenarians

Capn's Final Word: Some see glory in the soft focus edges. I see that they weren't good enough to follow all the way through on the promise of the big single.

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ddickson@rice.edu - B+

Kudos for bringing a very good album that isn't a friggin' masterpiece down to Earth.  Highlights include tracks 1, 4, 7, 8, 10, and 11.  The rest is a warm comforting mouthful of cotton, and it tastes about the same.


Reckoning - IRS 1984

Now, this is more like it. It may lack Murmur's high-society showboat hit (though 'Pretty Persuasion' comes close), but I find what's left here to be far more confident, well-thought-out, and memorable than the debut.  It's also a lot more firmly grounded in traditional folk rock - the chord changes are less twitchy, the bass a bit more grounded, and there's some nice barrelhouse pie-anny on a few of the tracks.  I also detect a bit more range and articulation in their emotional palate from the overused vagaries of the first record. For one thing, I know exactly how I feel about what's going on with the narrator of 'So. Central Rain'.  'Waiting for your call, I waited for your call. Rivers of suggestion, driving me away...' Who can't understand the paranoia and insecurity in a line like that? Some might lament the loss of some of the finish-it-yer-damn-self songwriting style, but I don't. I dig the glorious rootsy anthem 'Don't Go Back To Rockville', where the dead-ender small-town lamentation might sound to some like Bruce Springsteen South, but I think that's a good thing. There's also the heated 'Pretty Persuasion' (as heated as a vegan like Stipe can get, anyway...he's not exactly G.G. Allin, you know), and the way 'Camera' unwinds itself at such a relaxed pace before blossoming and finally giving up completely.  'Time After Time' sounds like something Richard Thompson might write (that's also a complement), and even the one filler track ('Second Guessing') sounds delightfully hopped up.  All of these songs have something to offer, and they're all quite different from one another.  That's definitely not something I could have said about Murmur, not when I think most of those songs were based on the same fucking chord sequence.

In fact, I'd call this my personal REM album of choice.  It is noticeably different from the debut, so one might mistakenly put you off the other if you're not careful.  It's possible that there's three types of people in the world, Murmur People, Reckoning People, and People Who Appreciate The Choice But Would Rather Just Have A Decent Fucking Meal For Once, Thank You Very Much. I'm a Reckoning person. I like the way it ties REM to their roots and influences, and makes them sound more sweeping, less insular. They'd been master of their own sandbox, but now they'd entered the real world.

Sure enough, they'd end up messing with the formula once they got it right, and would never be quite as believable as they were in 1983 and 1984. So, you know how it goes with the selling out and all that. Save yourself the pain - buy a Journey album.

Oh yeah, more bonus tracks. Feedback and cock rock yelling. A diluted alternate 'Persuasion'. A terrible original surf instrumental. A terrible dub/hip-hop monstrosity that shows why REM should never associate themselves with anything less white than Ivory Snow. A crying-in-the-mirror Cats-y cover of 'Moon River'. Zero cool.

Capn's Final Word: Writing songs for the rest of us might have disappointed the impressionists and idealists, but I say the balance between past and future, influence and originality, was perfected here

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Fables of the Reconstruction - IRS 1985

I think it was Peter Buck who said it most clearly - 'Fables sucked'. I'm not that cut-and-dried about it (and I've softened quite a bit over time, lemme tell you), but I dig where he's coming from. I always think it's interesting to relate how the Creators think about their Creations, like how Mick Jagger thinks Exile on Main St. is overrated, or Roger Waters wondering why anybody would ever want to listen to Atom Heart Mother more than once. I don't necessarily agree with folks' assessments 100% of the time (Lou Reed once said Coney Island Baby was the best thing he ever did. And I'm a one-armed Sudanese trapeze artist.), but it sure is heartwarming to hear that an album by a band you care about that sounds rushed out and messy actually was created in a fury of in-fighting and exhaustion. And, at least for the next few years of their existence, I do care about REM. I root for them. I think they're on the Good Path. I know if I'd been writing this in 1985 rather than 20 years on, I'd have been absolutely out of my skull waiting for the new REM album after how much they'd grown between the first two. It's called Fables of the Reconstruction? Wow! Fantabulous! Rootsy! Maybe it'll have even more dramatic sweep. Maybe they'll create something that we'll be proud to call country-rock.  Maybe they'll continue to create a sort of alternate-universe Americana where rednecks are not invited but the ghosts of the past are.

And, after hearing it, I'd probably have wondered what the hell had gone wrong with them. I'd wonder why all the choruses sound so non-committal and flat, kinda like they're embarrassed they're putting them in there at all. I'd wonder why the songs all start and stop like someone's hired a Rhesus monkey to run the mixing board. Most of all, I'd wonder why they all sounded so fucking bored all the time. But knowing what I know now, at least I understand the position and condition REM were in at the time, which at least excuses them, if not the album.  

See, by 1985, REM had essentially been living in a van for three-plus years, and if anyone's ever traveled in close quarters over long distances in a shit-heap '70-something GMC Bad Shocks Van with three or more people with a bunch of equipment and crap, you'll know that 20 questions stops being interesting after the 438th round, and that, while it may seem like a viable way to spend the day at the time, 'Let's All Slap Mills On the Back Of The Head' is not the kind of thing that fosters group unity. Independence, DIY, and fifth-class accommodations may save you money and keep you 'real', but it's also a colossal pain in the ass, and REM was feeling the strain of their restrictions (both internal and external).  Plus, by 1985, REM had by then become heads of a 'movement' of ravenous fans, suspiciously similar musicians, and a host of music writers desperate for a new Messiah, all of whom were counting on the band to Show them the Way (and Write Them Their Songs) with their new album.  No pressure, you know....just jet on down to Jamaica, shack up in a couple of mansions, and spend six months getting the perfect floor tom sound on Berry's drum kit, right?

So it's no wonder that Fables of the Reconstruction sounds schizoid - half a return to the sort of formlessness and soft-focus that marked Murmur, half a lazy motion towards radio pop and post-punk, and way too many guitar lines we are all now convinced we've heard before. Is there anyone out there that doesn't think 'Green Grow the Rushes' is a 'Pretty Persuasion' slowed down to snore speed and with all the blood drained out of it? What about the ugly-butt 'Feeling Gravity's Pull'? Didn't I hear something like that with Gang of Four's name on it? Except twice as fast and not sounding so much like the band is nodding out on cooked-up Percodans? That post-punk, slightly edgier lead guitar tone is the single advancement on Fables, and even that they don't have the guts to use more than one or two times (the best being 'Driver 8', better known as the theme song to Kids in the Hall. Not really. Saved by the Bell, absolutely.) Everything I haven't mentioned is a sallow echo of the Murmur style, bewilderingly lacking in dynamics or hooks, and relying steadfastly on the same old instruments playing the same old way over the same old chord sequences.  Is anyone else tired of the arpeggiated D-minor chord turned into a Dsus2 and Dsus4? Enough to kill a man, Jorge. Enough to kill with my bare hands.

 But beyond lazy songwriting, I'm shocked by the lack of engaging performances here. After the orgasmic dueling vocal lines on songs like 'Harborcoat', what am I to make of the thoughtless moans on 'Driver 8' or the orgy of violently missed notes that is 'Kohoutek'? The drums are buried, the bass is sludgy, and it's all as unappealingly murky as a Diane Sawyer full-face shot.

And what's with all the fucking songs about trains? Who rides trains anymore except for homeless guys and graffiti artists with slow reflexes?

So you can see how I might be getting bored as shit by the time this album finally peters out. Again, there's bonus tracks, but outside of the gleaming 'Crazy' (featuring a cool Big Star-y vocal sound), it's all jive-talking and live balking.  The thing is, the REM sound is so rewarding and difficult to screw up that, as background anyway, it still sounds okay.  One doesn't know quite what REM was trying to do with this hookless blunder (Is it Fables of the Reconstruction or Reconstruction of the Fables? My, my! What a conundrum!) , but let's be thankful it's not the kind of screw up that derailed them for good. Again with the trains...goddamn!

Capn's Final Word: Methinks Peter Buck was right. About Fables, I mean...not flipping out on a plane and punching a couple of stewardesses. That also sucked.

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Life's Rich Pageant - IRS 1986

A return to form, best known for clearing a lot of the miscellaneous crap out of the REM sound and putting in a few more distorted guitar overdubs here and there, and probably the album where REM finally decided to attempt to upgrade their commercial status for real.  It's one thing to be the biggest thing going in the inbred little snark-fest that is college rock, and it's quite another to put something out that real people might want to listen to, you know. The band had done the whole poverty-and-worshipful intellectuals thing, and now wanted their piece of the peach cobbler, dig? So count Pageant as the last point where REM were anything but disconnected rock stars, no matter how long their 'indie gods' status lasted amongst the rabble.  In 1986, the van was for sale, man.

Not that you can really hear this new philosophy on Pageant, however, not outside of a few tracks, but the signs are there. Stipe writes his first truly 100%-intelligible lyrics (on 'Begin the Begin' he even makes an attempt to write a fist-pumping anthem. No, really!) they play lots of joyous, blisteringly fast songs, all the gauze filters and vaseline is scraped off the production lens, Really, this is just More REM, except turned up and buffed down, and let's admit it...REM staying in their mid-80's comfort zone is a pretty great thing.  The band sounds alive, though thanks mostly to Buck's raunchy crunch guitar tones and Bill Berry's fantastically-obvious drumming rather than all the straining and craining Stipe keeps doing. And not really because of the songs, either. Few of them cross over the void from 'sure, this is great', to something that sticks in your craw for weeks like an undercooked butterfly shrimp. There are some, though, that kick it crosswise - I'll never get over the orgasmic pumping of 'These Days', which ushers in Stipe's white-boy pseudo-rap words-falling-all-over-themselves shtick that he'd perfect on 'It's the End of the World As We Know It' on Document, and 'I Believe' is speed-country for the ages, something that Roger McGuinn hears and spends the rest of the day kicking himself for not writing.  Finally, there's 'Superman', Mike Mills' big lead vocal debut and a sort of Beatles '66 dorkus maximus anthem that could've come from They Might Be Giants if They Might Be Giants didn't reside in a foul little fold in my large intestines filled with pieces of festering, undigested meat I ate way back in 1992. The cover of 'Superman', as its presented here (in much the same goofy way as 'Shiny Happy People' off Out of Time would be done), is a novelty song, a goof. But if performed with a slightly less sissy-giddy atmosphere, it'd be a simple classic. The. Hook. Is. Irresistible. Feel It. Sink. Beneath the. Flesh. Submit. REM went to all the trouble of digging this gem up, then sorta pissed away the opportunity to give it a barrelhouse 'Just a Touch' treatment.

The rest is all good stuff, stuff I'm happy exists and stuff that certainly deserves a place in the Keep file, but it sounds like the product of a proven formula with a slight little twist added.  'Fall On Me' only exists because of the gorgeous vocals, the gloriously bashing 'Just a Touch' almost destroying itself completely because of the same reason, The ironic travelogue 'Cuyhoga' is irritating in its emotional detachedness (after the Kinks, do we really need another demonstration of how petty tourism is?), and 'Hyena' sounds like a pure formula exercise - 'Fall On Me' turned into a rock song.

Less lovable is the jarringly political concept that pops up from time to time on this record. Take 'Swan Swan H', a stark, deliberately overcooked acoustic ballad (of the type that would later populate Automatic for the People) that sounds like a same-old grab-bag of evocative sweet nothings ('I struck that picture a hundred times'), until you realise he's talking to 'Johnny Reb' about the 'price of heroes' and, in Stipe's own clumsy way, confronting the South's continued obsession with the Civil War. 'Begin the Begin', 'These Days' and 'What If We Give It Away' may not actually be marching anthems for an 80's dork/hepster cultural revolution (and even if they were, Stipe would never volunteer that fact), but they sure sound like they were intended that way to me, and they sound wrong. Stipe's just no good at righteous anger, and he never has been. His band may crackle and pop with abundance, especially on 'These Days', but the singer sounds more like a librarian miffed at finding the encyclopedias out of alphabetical order than Abbie Hoffman rousing a mob to go and burn down the White House. 'We are young, we are concerned, we are hope despite the times...' sounded awful coming out of the mouth of the likes of Country Joe in 1968, and it sounds awful coming out of Stipe in 1986. Again, I'll keep the music, and in this case I'll keep the mushy-mouthness of old. 

Still, it's very, very good, and REM is still shifty enough to keep from making any statements that are too obviously cut-and-dried.  Someone else could easily interpret this album in a completely different way than I have, and might find the holy grail.  Musically, it's among the band's best work, and that some exciting, melodic, energetic stuff.

Capn's Final Word: Now that we can hear what he's saying, do we like it or not? Definitely one worth puzzling over, anyway.

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ddickson@rice.edu - A-

Consistent.  Upbeat.  Underground.  A good album.  So far we're in total agreement.
 


Document - IRS 1987.

The Big Beat overcomes...it mauls and devours us all.  Document was created for one purpose only - to get REM on the radio, once and for all. They jacked up the drums, howled out their fistsapumpin' choruses like long-lost Bon Jovis, and pulled out all the songwriting stops - a pseudo-rap song, an itchy art-punk cover, a dark heartbroken rock dagger, and upbeat Talking Heads-y funk, all on the first half of the album, and all performed like the band's life depended on it. As well engineered as it was, this masterplan for breakthrough had little chance of failure, and sure enough it didn't. 'The One I Love' became an FM radio anthem in late 1987 (even I remember it being on KY-102 all the time that fall, before being supplanted by 'I'll Be You' by the Replacements, incidentally), and we even had reports of REM on MTV - during the daytime, even. Our dorks were surely no longer dorks - they were actual rock stars, like Sting or Dee Snyder. They must have signed their names in blood to score all these olive branches, virgins, and flagons of wine, but it was sure hard to figure out exactly what they'd lost in the deal.  REM was 'alternative', 'sincere', and had 'integrity', but they were also melodic and far better than most everything else on the radio. Some old fans may have been slightly put off by the commercialism of it all (not near as much as they'd soon be, however), but for the most part it felt like the perfect balance had been struck, or (even better), we had actually come around and learned to love REM on their own terms, rather than REM diluting itself for our tastes. Wotta band, that REM, y'know?

In retrospect their clamor for mass-audience acceptance feels a lot more crass (are those syndrums on 'Lightning Hopkins'? God's knees!) and less sure-footed than it did in the late 80's.  For one thing, the second half of this album sucks...never have we had to endure songs as ugly as the Led Zeppelin-meets Depeche Mode-meets Rick James 'Hopkins' or as pointlessly self-impressed as 'King of Birds' ('one hundred million birds flyyyyy!!'. Barf.), not even on Fables, and 'Fables sucked'. 'Fireplace' barely even sounds like REM - rather, one of those nauseatingly earnest late-80's Yurrupeen bands like Big Country or some shit, just minus the accents and violins, but retaining that despicable saxophone. Jeezus. A more dreadful stretch of REM songs hadn't even been conceivable prior to the 'big sell out', but here we are with a handful of absolute yonkers filling up the ass-half of our new REM album.

But there's a reason for all these regurgitated entrails on Side B - it makes Side A look even that much more perfect. It's not, for sure ('Welcome to the Occupation' and 'Disturbance at the Heron House' are neither particularly great songs), but it makes enough of a case for itself that considering it perfect is forgivable. 'Finest Worksong' is what all those politico 'anthems' on Life's Rich Pageant were all aspiring to - a danceable revolution of heaving guitars and Big Motions.  Except this one works perfectly - I find nothing at all objectionable in lyrics like 'What we want and what we need have BEEN CONFUSED, BEEEN CONFUUUSED!!', just a kick in the back pockets, that's all. Yes, their hooks have become dumber and more obvious - you never have to look for them anymore, that's for sure. They come up and THHH-WACK you in the face. Hell, the whole of the inspirationally titled 'This is the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)' is just one big enormous hook punctuated by 80's half-intellectual namedrops (Lenny Bruce, Lester Bangs, and a whole bunch of other people that used to be obscure, hep references twenty years ago).  The song's obviously just a huge ripoff of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', except it also has a monstrous hook, and not even the one you're thinking about. It's Mike Mills' 'It's time I had some time alone' chant laying behind the chanted title - without it, this is 'We Didn't Start the Fire For College Students'. With it, it somehow becomes a song, an emotional blast, a feeling that REM is still a band full of real life human people. It's also important to note that this voice is kept buried, but not too far back. It feels like a goodbye, almost.
Thus, we're introduced to the cynical, machine-like REM of 'The One I Love' - a fantastic song, no doubt - but one seemingly made from a place so evil and wretched that its absolutely impossible to imagine it coming from the likes of the band that made Reckoning. Stipe sounds positively forked-tongued here, spitting his words out like bullets of acid and bile, while the band plays electrified Tom Petty music in an insufferably professional way. I both love this song and hate it - it cannot be denied as one of the best pure rock songs REM ever wrote, but the jadedness of it all....it's like watching your former sock-hop high school sweetheart getting busted for pandering down by the warehouse district.

The best of Document is the result of years of refining a formula that worked pretty damn well in the first place, but some of the subtractions (the ballads, the organic, self-made feel) and the additions (the bionic-man prosthetics) show more consciousness of what makes an arena audience hop than what might actually be in good taste. But they are great songs, memorable songs, and songs that really made a huge impact in their place and time. The worst? Well, it's absolute trash that bears resemblance to the first half of the album only for the worst possible reasons, namely the manipulative production and constant blaring loudness.  Balance the two out and you have, essentially, one of the most undeniably ass-whomping EP's of the 80's (along with Minuteflag and Frehley's Comet Plays Jimi At Monterrey, of course.) and a bunch of stuff best left to the inevitable REM Rarities boxed set.

Capn's Final Word: The beat is big, and it is heavy. Actually, I coulda used even more beat, 'cos this really falls apart on side 2.

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ddickson@rice.edu - B+

Yeah, the last four songs mostly blow, and the first seven rule.  But I have to be honest, reading your confessions about the friggin' late '80's, that I'm overjoyed I did NOT come of age in that decade.  It sounds like a terrible, dark, doom-laden time to live, when albums such as these are the best thing on the radio.  Urp.

(Capn's Response: Yer tellin' me. INXS used to be considered absolutely fair game on 'album rock' radio - right next to Def Leppard and that one George Harrison song.)
 


Dead Letter Office - IRS 1987

More or less a ripoff collection of sucky covers bulked up with the ass-muscle injection of the Chronic Town EP released by IRS when it became apparent that their Prime Mover was moving on to greener and lusher territories. For one thing, no one, not even a band as evidently influenced by the group as this REM, needs to ever include three Velvet Underground covers on the same record, especially ones that emphasize the fact that Michael Stipe, when you get right down to it, was (and is) a pretty froggy-voiced singer with some, shall we say, 'creative' ideas about pitch. Say what you will about Uncle Lou - the man never made 'Pale Blue Eyes' a boring, half-assed mewl, and Stipe shouldn't see that fact as an opportunity. They also cover Roger Miller (a similarly disrespectable 'King of the Road' apparently recorded during a rehearsal as a joke funny only to people who find all country music to be inherently ridiculous...it's 'man of means', not 'man of men', you mealy-mouthed fruit.) and Aerosmith (a surprisingly zippy 'Toys in the Attic', driven by Bill Berry).  The rest is, to be sure, a bunch of nigh-useless crap. 'Crazy' (not the Willie Nelson classic, gratefully) is one raunchy-bad song to start off with, 'Burning Down', 'Bandwagon' and 'Ages of You' were left unfinished for a reason, and 'White Tornado', like that bonus track off Murmur or whatever, is yet another surf instrumental that should never have happened. Only the trifling, sandpapered instrumental 'Walter's Theme' is something I wish had developed into something more substantial, and 'Burning Hell' is a cock-rock sendup that's actually funny.

Still, it deserves points for including Chronic Town in all this butt shrapnel, and for reminding us once again that REM is not only far from being perfect, but can actually be considered lucky for not screwing up like this more often.

Capn's Final Word: Not every band gets to put out their version of a crappy rarities-and-outtakes collection like Another View after only five albums like the Velvet Underground, but REM is, evidently.

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Green - Warner Bros. 1988

Question - is putting a title like 'Pop Song '89' on the first song on your first album for Corporate Behemoth Records subversive, especially when you consider it was exactly because of your 'Pop Song '87' you're even receiving all this attention, or is it just lame? Well, I think the answer lies with the fact that the song is this lazy, low-cal rewrite of the same sort of material you put on Document.  If Document was REM's Houses Of the Holy, a superficially eclectic, fundamentally over-confident flexing of performance and songwriting muscle for its own sake, this is their Physical Graffiti - a leaden, lazy set of songs that are, for all intents and purposes, quintessentially 'REM', but absolutely lacking in spark. This is an album that meets certain basic expectations, I suppose - Stipe sounds 'sensitive' in his now-familiarly professional way, the songs are certainly well-performed and recorded - but that magic feels absolutely gone. You can tell its a problematic album when the most memorable song is 'Stand', a cutesy, quirky anti-'One That I Love' novelty track that's almost too precious to bear.  There's a nice wah-wah solo, but notice how lame the music sounds when the hilariously meaningless paranoiac/robotic dance lyrics ('stand in the place where you live - now face South. Wonder if you left your iron on, if your house will burn down. Stand in the place where you eat, question why you're walking on your scrambled eggs') shut up for a second.  The whole album is like that - remove the vocals (previously the weakest link), and you've got quite a letdown. Ss instrumentals, these songs would be absolute diseased dog vomit...dull, plodding medium-tempos, non-commital drum work, highly repetitive guitar figures. Booo-ring.

Lemme expand on that whole guitar thing for a second.  Now, on the absolute most superficial level, Peter Buck's sound is still pretty much the same sort of thing he's been putzing around on since Chronic Town, all those minor-chord arpeggios of his are still out in force, and he's still about as bluesy as Mantovani playing a set of bagpipes. But if you investigate a little more closely, you'll see a striking difference - his melody lines have been shortened dramatically from the way they used to be (think 'Harborcoat'), down to no more than a bar or two, which are then repeated incessantly. He seems to have totally lost interest in the guitar, or at least making guitar lines that sound like guitar lines (listen to his schizoid start-stops on 'Orange Crush' and the bizarre backward-sounding strums of 'Untitled Song No. 11').  When he does attempt to play straight, we get uninspired sludge ('Get Up', 'Turn You Inside Out'). Consequently, you hear a lot more of Buck fiddling around on other instruments, notably mandolins ('The Wrong Child', 'You Are the Everything', 'Hairshirt'), something he'd continue to be obsessed by for the next few years. Now, mandolins are okay and all, and can be a nice selection off the song spice rack to round out an acoustic ditty, but all Buck's mandolin songs sound exactly the same. Like he learned the intro to 'The Battle for Evermore' one time and decided those were the only scales he ever needed to learn.

You could perhaps call Green a transitional album, moving away again from the big-beat hookfest of Document and towards the more eclectic pop sounds of Out of Time, and you probably would have a pretty valid point. Transitional albums almost always disappoint (see Fables).  However, for me, Green is the point marking a definite career downturn. REM never sounded quite so much like they believe their bullshit as they do here, or that what they're singing is quite this goddamn important.  The pretentiousness of 'You Are the Everything' is positively insufferable - oh, Stipe says he's afraid he 'can't even sing'! Ring the alarm bells! Shut the castle gates! Sell the kids! Yeah, six albums down and Stipe now thinks crocodile tears are a viable way of provoking emotion in a song.  Again, back when we had no idea what Stipe was getting at, we'd never hear something so phony as him playing off our impression of him as 'just a guy' suffering for his art. We'd hear lyrics about evergreen trees and steam-engine trains, which is part of what made them something 'more' than just a bunch of minor chords. Others might still buy the idea that REM is still 'of the people', but I find them to be, in their own way, twice as self-impressed and detached as your average party-hearty girl-humpin' blues rock band. Which, again, is why 'Stand' is the only truly lovable song on this entire record. 

Capn's Final Word: A dull record that leaves the impression that REM are no longer interested in what they're doing. There's no reason we should somehow feel any better about it.

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Out of Time - Warner Bros. 1991..

Woof. The one with 'Losing My Religion' on it, meaning therefore the one that everyone, their Aunt Millie, and their Aunt Millie's pet garden slug bought and later sold to CD Whorehouses nationwide, thus filling the racks with dollar versions of one of the worst REM albums of all time.  Yes, worse than Green, which at least had dignity in its tedium.  Out of Time presents REM as a sort of day-glo bunch of neo-hippie novelty popsters who occasionally deign to play something without that idiotic ecstasy grin on their faces, begrudgingly. The music on much of it represents an almost total departure from the REM sound as we knew it - the bandmembers become bit players in their own arrangements, either inserting little snip- n-clip soundbites of themselves into 'Radio Song' (featuring the gabby KRS-One in an absolutely vomitessent cameo), playing an REM parody band on 'Shiny Happy People' (a joke song which became the album's other big hit and, through a stroke of beautiful poetic justice, inexorably associated with the band despite the fact that they hate it), or just being total tuneless bummers on 'Low'.  Otherwise, the songs are even more unfortunately simplistic and unmelodic as Green, but - goddamn it - they sparkle! Veritable truckloads of money were spent to make those two chords on 'Me In the Honey' sound like that - like each and every string of Buck's guitar was individually chosen amongst a cast of millions for its perfection of tone and voice in producing the sound of TWO FUCKING CHORDS PLAYING OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Listen to how gorgeous the mix job is on 'Near Wild Heaven', just go right ahead and bask in the way the guitar, bass, piano, and 'bah-bah-bah's all coalesce into a silky pudding of cottony perfection...and then come back to this cold, hard, painful Earth of ours and realise that the song fucking blows ass and you'll never want to hear those nagging 'bah bah bah's ever again in your life. What, were ironic background vocals 'in' in 1991 or something? What about more tuneless, toothless Americana that must be heartfelt because it sounds like something Neil Young would squeeze out on his little travel guitar during a particularly unremarkable morning toilet ('Texarkana', once again with Mills on vocals), and its got a string section on it? Or how 'Country Feedback' has a steel guitar, so therefore it's not just three chords and no tune?

'Losing My Religion', as I said, was the hit, and you might be shocked that I can dig it. For once, the three chords on this album are the right three chords, and Buck's mandolin is strummed like a very high guitar rather than tweedled and deedled like sixteenth notes are on a two-for-one sale this week.  It's striking just how simple this song really is, not to mention how literal it is lyrically. The old-guys-in-Socrates-suits music video misled people into thinking it was actually about religion when it's simply (and quite obviously, if you actually listen to it) a lousy unrequited love story, but who cares? (Worst of all was the fact that Stipe was lip-synching during the entire thing, something he'd sworn not to do back when he still had a conscience) The melody, as simple as it is, is absolutely rock solid, and this song feels like the only one on Out of Time the band really felt sincere about.  As I stated earlier, this new allegiance to the totally lucid three-chord love song  would have its definite downsides (ahem...'Everybody Hurts'...ahem), but compared with all the misguided fucking about on the other tracks, 'Religion' sounds like the work of geniuses.

Capn's Final Word: Quite assuredly not knowing what the crap they're supposed to be, the public decides for them. From the options presented, I say they pretty much got it right.

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Clubbeaux     Your Rating: C+
Any Short Comments?: Hate to be technical, but that's not a mandolin Peter "Wanna See My British Air Frequent Flyer Miles Card?" Buck's strumming, it's what's called a piccolo guitar, much like a sopranino guitar, tuned an octave than a normal alto guitar, and ends up sounding very much like a mandolin.

 


Automatic for the People - Warner Bros. 1992

Hmm....still frighteningly pretentious, but they're back to taking their songwriting seriously again, and that's quite an important step.  Automatic for the People is sometimes mistakenly seen as REM's 'acoustic' record, because of a preponderance of mandolins, acoustics, and tasteful strings (courtesy of Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, who, let me remind you, was also responsible for 'Carouselambra', which is still blamed for infant deaths in certain portions of the horn of Africa), but in reality it's about as loud as, say, Life's Rich Pageant, and actually has some pretty loud guitars in sections. More accurately is to say that Automatic is not much of an 'REM rock' album, especially the kind of straight-ahead punk/folk rock hybrid that REM has used since 'Radio Free Europe'. Many of these tracks resemble nothing so much as sea shanties ('Try Not To Breathe') or Spacemen 3 nod-anthems ('Star Me Kitten') or Neil Young guitar orgies ('Ignoreland', which rips its chorus hook line from Neil's classic 'Fuckin' Up').  Amazingly, especially when looking at a track record of experimentation that includes such colossal fuckups as 'Low' and 'Country Feedback' from Out of Time, this stuff mostly works and, moreover, makes the more ordinary tracks ('Man In the Moon', 'Nightswimming', 'The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite') sound more eclectic. I mean, take 'Nighswimming' on its own and the gloppy strings, as well as Stipe's bottomless well of pathos ('no one can see me naked') becomes downright nauseating, but in context of the fantastic Andy Kauffman tribute 'Man on the Moon' and the lilting James Taylor cover 'Find The River', it's not nearly so bad. And crap, 'Try Not to Breathe/Sidewinder' is the best, most upbeat song combo ever about an old person dying in their sleep on purpose. Other than Black Sabbath's Dehumanizer suite, of course.

Still, while at one point I would've awarded this album an A on purpose, I now continue to be disappointed by REM's inability to make many of their songs more than simplistic chord sequences topped by some lame musical gimmick, like the organ and cello on the otherwise DOA 'Sweetness Follows', or the bit of ethereal nothingness building to an crescendo of zilch that is 'New Orleans Instrumental No. 1' (apparently no one stuck around for the inevitable concluding chapters, sort of like The Matrix).

And, of course, there is 'Everybody Hurts', which is simply as awful as it gets - two more generic chords played in generic arpeggio at a generic loping ballad crawl ...and Michael Stipe. Singing a song called 'Everybody Hurts'. About suicide. With absolutely no artistic distance, no point of view, just a straight-up sermon about how you should 'take comfort in your friends'. Can you imagine how bad that might be? Lord knows, it's worse than that.  Talk about being blunt -Stipe pretty much talks his way through the song laying these easy-solution platitudes on us like some suicide hotline phone operator distracted by a particularly furious game of Minesweeper. Good god, do I hate this song - I have never wanted a lazily mumbled evocatively meaningless metaphor more in my life. Can I buy a train reference, Pat?

Still, Automatic is pretty good for what it is, which is a high-budget redo of Out of Time minus the awful guest vocalists and stupid doinky pop crap, and as a symbol of their continuing creativity its nice to have. However, as a collection of songs it still cannot stand up to what REM routinely were able to do in the 1980's, and it firmly belongs in the second rank of their albums. And, yes, despite what I may have told Joe McNulty in my dorm room one night in late 1995, this is not the best album of the 1990's, and yes, I was the one that puked up all that Raspberry Bartles and Jaymes into your laundry basket that one time.

Capn's Final Word: It may be closer to the second side of Green with a bit more thought put into the arrangements than we'd like to admit, but it sure seems like a mini-peak to me.

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ddickson@rice.edu - A+

Well, here cometh the apocalypse.  From what I've gathered, the majority of hardcore fans of this band swung that way from the mid-'80's onward, when it was perceived that these guys were keepin' the old humble artist dream alive in folk-rock.  In other words, authenticity was more than half the appeal.  Pity I was never able to join that crowd.See, I listened to all their previous highlights first, was not blown away at all, and expected the worst from Automatic for the People a la Nevermind (aka a critically acclaimed masterpiece and decade highlight that should stow its overratings in the circle of hell from whence they cameth). 
It just had to be another disappointment.  Didn't it? Shock and awe, was I bamboozled.  Not only is Automatic for the People the best album in R.E.M.'s catalog, and their only one so far I can call an unqualified masterpiece (unless Reckoning kicks its lily ass all over the underground un-mainstream keepin'-it-real devil den), it's one of the best LPs in any genre of any decade I've ever witnessed, and that's no exaggeration.  It's not just the songs on here, or the arrangements,
it's the goddamn care with which they put into the thing, and how emotional it is, or seems, or is calculated to pretend to be, or whatever.  Blunt lyrics, yes.  Less impressive if you listen to Out of Time and Green beforehand, probably maybe I dunno.  But one of the more emotional records made in the '90's, and yes, that includes Stereonoggin's concept album about modern society.  An exceptional LP from a previously unexceptional band. 


Monster - Warner Bros. 1994

The second most used-bin clogging album of all-time, Monster came on the tail end of the grunge mania of 1993-1995 when all sorts of hitherto neglected 80's alt-rock bands (Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.) suddenly found themselves in fashion and on sale again.  If you were ugly, played a Fender through a Marshall, and sang like Leatherface's shopkeeper brother on a gallon of peppermint Schnapp's, most likely you were on a major label and getting mucho airplay on MTV's 120 Minutes during those halcyon days. Still, as one of the few 80's counterculture acts that had broken through, REM felt left out.  Though still (somehow) respected within the music community itself for their trailblazing ways, they were seen by most teenagers as music for preppies and Debate Team members - clean cut, Kid Safe and Mother Approved.  Reciting lyrics by REM would get you a B in English class. Reciting lyrics by the likes of Ministry might get you kicked out of school.  Besides, the Rimmers had gotten all that eclectic mandolins-and-Fender Rhodes shit out of their system with Alcoholic Meet the Feebles and had a taste for some pure RAWK themselves.  Just plug in, turn up, fucking tear Ed Begley Jr. a new dicksocket and no regrets, honey.

Alarm bells should be going off at this point. REM, the new Scratch Acid all of the sudden? Yeah, and I'm Anna Kournikova's personal lingerie tailor. Now, REM aren't completely incapable of rocking, don't get me wrong. 'These Days', 'Begin the Begin',  and 'Finest Worksong' are all great potboilers in their own right, but we're talking about an album full of heavily distorted, loud guitar rock here, back to basics and No Synthesizers Used On This Record. Considering that Peter Buck has used a maximum of, what, four chords on any album he's done since 1988, and we're supposed to think stripping down even further is a good thing? What kind of chowder does he think fills MY skull, huh?

Give 'em this - the crunch guitar tone on the opening single 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?' is pretty righteous, a ringing, creamy fuzz that is the definition of vacuum tubes singing their little filaments out. The gods of the dimed halfstack would be pleased, I have no doubt. What they wouldn't dig is the fact that, quite like one of those mid-80's Sabbath records everyone always mentions when they want to make fun of something, not only does Buck use the exact same guitar tone for the entire record, but that after that charged introduction, 'Kenneth' lopes like a three-legged anteater with bunyons, or that the 'riff' is essentially just three chords blared in random order for five minutes punctuated by a backwards guitar solo that resembles nothing so much as a dishwasher kicking into the 'rinse' cycle. 'Are You Experienced?' this is not. 'Crush With Eyeliner' continues with a similarly un-rocking tempo and unimaginitive combination of C, D, and G chords, except this time Buck has turned on a tremolo pedal. Why my stars! He's the new Jeff Beck! Step aside, J Masics! Eat shit, Edward Van!

Not all the songs on Monster are exactly like the first two (though 'Star 69' is...check the chord sequence on that bitch.), which are exactly the same as each other, but enough do that they may have gone ahead and recorded the same song 12 times, filled the requisite 50 minutes of CD time, and still sold a bazillion copies the first week.  Lyrically, Stipe falls into a bizarre pattern of slutty-sounding glam quotables that sound like they're being read out of the back of Blender magazine and weird, cloying whines that make him sound simultaneously more juvenile and more aged all at once.  It may be cool to hear some young cross-gendered British junkie intone 'I'm crush...with eyeliner', but to hear the former small town folk-rocker sing 'em is another story. I gotta be honest with you - I never really cottoned to the whole glam-rock makeover that REM underwent before this album (when Stipe finally admitted defeat to his advancing forehead and began a life of baldness and Mike Mills grew locks like Willie Ames on Eight is Enough). It seemed desperate, a bit too faux-jaded, a bit too Spencer Gifts mall-rat for me. In fact, the only person who didn't really buy into the whole thing was Bill Berry, who spends Monster drumming as if he's playing on Reckoning II, completely (and quite possibly intentionally) oblivious to all the glittery-ironic goings on around him. Then he had a brain aneurism and retired to his farm. Lucky bastard.

 They do a slightly better version of the hit on 'Bang and Blame', but the closer 'You' has to be one of the draggiest, most leaden hard rock song ever put to plastic - at four and a half minutes, it sounds no less than twice that length - a Neil Young/Crazy Horse crunch-gasm that never establishes anything - a mood, a riff, a beat...nothing. If this is what Neil hath wrought, I'd just as soon the guy had swallowed his tongue onstage back at the Whisky in 1967. Not really, but try to make it though and maybe you too wil understand my anger. Or don't, because I'm trying to make this review site something enjoyable to follow. None of this 'boy, this coffee tastes terrible, try it!' shenanigans here, nossir!

 As for the 'standouts', 'King of Comedy' sounds like the Butthole Surfers if Gibby Haynes were an effete Georgian without the violent psychoses or crack addiction and the band were replaced by Collective Soul. 'Strange Currencies' is 'Everybody Hurts' with blasts of disgusting feedback, and 'Let Me In' sounds like Screaming for Vengeance-era Judas Priest tuning up before kicking ass with 'Electric Eye'. And okay, I admit it - 'Circus Envy' does not use the same guitar tone as 'Where's the Melody, Michael?' it uses that patented angry-bumblebee fuzz zing-tone that always makes my jaw ache.

Monster is, unlike their previous misstep Out of Time (which was merely irritating), an offensively bad record. Like, they must've known how awful some of this material was, and yet they insisted on putting it out in an attempt to stay 'cool' and cutting edge.  Well, playing loud rock and roll like shit is not cutting edge (or else we'd all be worshipping at the altar of Grand Funk Railroad), and moreover, it's not REM. If anyone had any doubts as to how artistically and philosophically lost this band had become by the mid-90's, one spin should do ya.

Capn's Final Word: REM seem to equate 'loud' with 'dumb'. Or at least that's how they make it sound.

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New Adventures in Hi-Fi - Warner Brothers 1996

Like Automatic for the People was a vast improvement on the ostensibly similar Out of Time, New Adventures in Hi-Fi is essentially Monster done 10 times better, resulting in a mostly listenable album, however one that still ends up bludgeoning your nerves and eardrums to a grey, faceless pulp before its unconscionably long 65 minutes finally run out. The band sorta likens this album to their version of Neil Young's Time Fades Away - though it doesn't really sound like a live album, the songs here were mostly recorded live and during soundchecks on the endless and casualty-strewn Monster tour of summer and fall 1995. TFA was, of course, the fascinating country-rock album which chronicled Young's tequila-fueled emotional 1973 derailing as well as presenting some of his wooliest and most desperate songs, while New Adventures is just, you know...product and stuff. Considering what an emotionally devastating tour they were on at the time (their first since Green), New Adventures sounds oddly hardened and monochromatic, as if they were a band under siege and by closing ranks and putting their head down over more distorto grind rock, they could make all the bad things go away again. For the most part, Adventures is a solid, enjoyable, professionally-performed record (especially when listening up loud so you can tell some of the instruments apart from each other), but one that keeps the listener at arm's length.  When Stipe sings 'I don't know what I want anymore' on 'Bittersweet', it sounds like he's speaking for the whole band, and while they certainly sound like they have more idea of what they're doing than they did on the retarded, crass Monster, a lot of it sounds like they're exhausted, on a long tour, and just turning the song crank until another album pops out. 

Stylistically, this is Monster-plus - lots more carronking guitar tones, mediocre tempos, and dumbed-down chord sequences, except somehow it has lots more life to it than Monster did. Perhaps that's because Monster was entirely driven by Buck and his stupid sub-riffs, leaving the band and Stipe to somehow catch up behind his blaring wall-of-asshair, while this record seems more dependent on the rhythm section, namely Mills' bass. There's also a lot more texture, perhaps surprising due to the fact that it was recorded live.  The songs feature lots of keyboards, auxiliary percussion, and a nice synergy in the guitars formed by the one (and sometimes two) spare rhythm players REM take along with them to back up Buck.  Mostly, it's just more convincing of a rock record - a song like 'Departure' isn't much in the songwriting department (that chorus seems more obvious than the twist to The Village - they find out their mommies and daddies are the murderous monster-things. Oops...was I not supposed to let that out? Well, I guess that's less money in M. Night Shaman-lan's pocket), but it does have an honest-to-goodness riff to it. Monster didn't have a single one of those damn things.  Mostly, though, we've got a slightly less marbleheaded version of the Monster grungesludge grind attack - in other words, ho hum.

Lyrically, this has got to be the gayest of the REM albums, but don't take that as an insult despite my wonderful track record of sensitivity towards homosexual causes (hey! Fags are great! Gay culture is second only to black culture in terms of how much the mainstream has stolen and made its own. It's just fun to make jokes about them, mostly because their sexual practices turn the average Jim Bob Bonanzafan's stomach, not because I personally have anything against your sexual life revolving around some hairy dude's poop chute.), but, you know...it's obvious that Stipe has taken a step up on the paisley soapbox and wishes to pontificate.  'New Test Leper' is a rather depressing ballad describing Stipe's lack of faith despite liking a few of Jesus' outsider-friendlier soundbites, and 'The Wake Up Bomb' is all about how great Stipe looks in his 'low waist boot cut jeans' when he's 'perfecting his T-Rex moves and singing along with Queen'.  The glam-pop-exhaustion is otherwise dripping off just about every other song here. About 5 bazillion of the songs reference 'leaving' in one way or another, and God only knows what 'aluminum tastes like fear' is supposed to mean, but this is REM! That's okay! It's just the rest of the lyrics to 'E-bow the Letter' (along with the irritating Moog synthesizer and Patti Smith's grotesque crowing) that suck balls.

Actually, let me make mention right here of the synth sample on 'Leave'. The one that sounds like a car alarm, or maybe that sound the phone at your office makes if you leave it off the cradle for too long. No single noise reminds me more of the unfortunate Electronica craze of 1996 than this clarion call of vomitessent glow-stick, thrift-shop tee, tinted-glasses techno-slavery.  If you ever need a reminder of the fact that sometimes even the biggest, most-respected rock stars sometimes need a few volts to the tender bits to keep them in line...it's this.  I should also mention right here that REM would quickly become much more about the idiotic analogue sound effects than this...the loss of Bill Berry would somehow be interpreted as an invitation to spend all their time fiddling with their ProTools plug-ins rather than, you know...writing songs. Even decent ones. A few of which might actually be found on this album ('Departure' and 'Electrolite', mostly, the latter which sounds like a dead ringer for the Reckoning-era band).

New Adventures is a tired, grey album that's less about entertainment than it is about putting out a furry, cold atmosphere, one that makes you want to curl up in a ball and let the washes of guitar and pity-me lyrics wave over you.  If it weren't so damned emotionally muted and musically inert, it might have developed into something resembling a Cure album, but as it is, it's merely a latter-day REM album that doesn't make me heave up mouthfuls of blood. The last one of those, I might add.

 Capn's Final Word:  The grind goes on, but at least you can connect an emotion of two to this album. Still too much filler, though.

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ddickson@rice.edu - C+

Mommies and daddies.  Indeed.  You're a goddamn prick.  Do you know that?


Up - Warner Brothers 1998

Can you imagine how mangled Bill Berry's tongue must've been after the bite session it underwent during his interviews following the release of Up, the first post-Berry REM album? He said something along the lines of 'I leave the band, and they turn around and record the best album they ever did', which is just south of 'I am not a crook' and 'we're in the last throes of the insurgency' when it comes to bald-faced, whale-sized, hot, quivery LIES told by public figures in the last few decades. Really? The BEST thing they ever did? What frame of reference are you using exactly, Bill? The BEST attempt to sound like a malfunctioning garage door opener? The BEST way to drive your friends out of you apartment outside of jumping around with your body covered in Miracle Whip and dosing everybody with pepper spray? The BEST album to make you feel pretty goddamn sure you left the band at the absolute last best possible moment? I mean, you push play, and you’re hit with this odious grinding cacophony entitled ‘Airportman’ and the crap doesn’t stop again for quite some time…I mean, I can understand being kind to your former bandmates and all, but isn’t a simple ‘good job, guys’ enough?

The worst tendencies of former 'alt' or 'indie' bands is to attempt to compensate for flagging songwriting with high-dollar production and gimmicky sound effects.  It's quite obvious that, despite Bill Berry having had less impact on REM's songwriting than a mouse pissing in the Pacific Ocean, Stipe's inspiration machine is at an absolute nadir.  I remember there being minor commotion around the time of Up's release amongst fans and concerned observers that Stipe might have been ill, or even dying (AIDS being, of course, the unmentioned and unmentionable suggestion). He was gaunt, bald, wrinklier than Keith Richards' neck, and kept writing all these sssslow, dejected, go-nowhere songs like 75% of Up. Since even the most jaded and cynical REM fan wants to consider anything other than the possibility their idols' talents have shriveled up and blown away like this, it was a legitimate concern at the time.  Well, the sickness theory was soundly denied by the official-type folks, and Stipe's continuing to breathe and walk around evidently confirms this.

Not that I'm somebody who wishes a particular musician would've actually died early and inadvertently saved the world a series of awful records (and me having to write a bunch of hateful reviews...Ian Anderson!), but...you know....this is Up, dig? The point where REM decided they were less about songs than they were about their arranging skills, and somehow determined the time was right to rip some folks off. Like Brian Wilson? So do REM! Listen to how many of his ideas they steal on 'At My Most Beautiful'! Isn't that just so Nineties to make something as 'authentic' as that? What about rejecting all authenticity altogether and wallowing in a barren, derivative techno-sample limbo nightmare. Well, goddamn it, half the album is like that! You pick the half, it's barren and derivative! Depressing, too! How better to pay homage to the 'Prozac Nation' decade than to make an album that makes you wish you had a drug handy...any drug, just as long as it makes this dull whining noise stop? The only way this album could be any more Nineties would be if they packaged the thing with a well-worn flannel shirt, some heroin, and a loaded shotgun, that's all!

Talking about Nineties-isms, what about being so ironic as to copy yourself? Check out 'Nightswimming'...erm, I mean 'Daysleeper', and then do a double take when you have to look at the newspaper to see if its 1998 or 1993! Then look at your clothes and hairstyle and realize absolutely nothing new happened between those years! Not a damn thing! Isn't that Eye Rawnic? Can't you just die from how much I act like I'm mocking the unfashionable thing I actually love? Let's buy an Iron Maiden album and a Rebel Flag hat and spend all afternoon playing some old Atari games, all the while laughing at how stupid we look! I find the lack of real effort to do anything other than to rediscover 'cool' sounds as being one awful punch in the gut from REM.  It seems to me that this band is at its worse when its trying to act cool rather than act like themselves.  Lest we forget, REM is made up of unreconstructed dorks, and there's nothing more pathetic than a dork trying to act 'with it'.

No really. Up is bad news all around. There is no 'here' here, unless you count the endless number of miserable, blob-beat, half-tempo drama queen ballads that populate this thing as constituting a 'core'. That's one rotten foundation to build an album on, and as the second REM album in a row that appears to have been written entirely to bum the audience out, it's pretty indicative of the horrible time Stipe and Pals are having while losing the last shreds of their youthful exhuberance.  Musically, once you dig under all the bullshit synth patches, you're not left with much more than a pale rewrite of the cruddy two-chord specials we started hearing way back on Green. If anything, another layer of crap might actually help this album sound slightly better, especially if that layer of crap happens to contain some drums, goddamn it!

 Capn's Final Word:  Did Bill Berry hold a monopoly on the soul of the band, or what? Perhaps a bit more thought should be given to these melodies, folks...

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Reveal - Warner Brothers 2001.

Granted, Satan's Diabolical Blueprint of REM Studio Albums continues here, (an awful one followed by an acceptable sequel in a similar style, a vicious cycle dating back to Out of Time and Automatic), but returns are diminishing and the candles burning low, friends.  The post-Berry REM have Revealed themselves (sorry, but I think a bemused title pun is a requirement for reviews of this stupid record. I don't want my WRC license to operate revoked by Adrian or anything.) to be devoted to style over substance - the every-trick-in-the-book-as-long-as-its-all-drenched-in-buckets-of-reverb sound is in evidence on each and every track here, but if Michael Stipe weren't doing the singing, I'd have a Slim Jim's chance in Truckerland to figure out this was REM doing these songs. This album is similIn almost every instance where I realise I'm enjoying a track, I'm doing it because of the production, not because of any fantastic songwriting that's somehow going on. The singles here were 'All the Way to Reno', (a gorgeous track that makes me feel nothing except for appreciation for all the bucks spent on the recording of this album) and 'Imitation of Life', (which for all the world reminds me of early 80's Moody Blues. I personally have no problem with that, either.), both of which are somehow credited as a return to the 'classic' REM sound by certain people. Certain people who apparently have Chicken Corn Chowder for brains. Maybe they mean Out of Time as 'classic' REM, which is a distinct possibility because most people are too damn lazy to seek out albums they can't find at a moment's notice at the local Target. Though I just reviewed it a few weeks back, I have few (if any) memories of Out of Time other than 'Losing My Religion' and 'Slimy Sappy People' and the fact that KRS-One sounds like an absolute assface on that one song, so people may have a point for all I know. Sure. Out of Time II. That one got a C+ too, didn't it?

What I'm sure of is that no one's ever going to remember a pieceacrap song like 'Chorus and the Ring' after five seconds have passed, and that 'Beachball' is yet more proof that not only has the band's Brian Wilson fetish has grown entirely out of control, they really need to learn to write versus that don't use that I-IV-I-IV chord pattern all the fucking time. They used to have no problem putting whatever Roman numerals they wanted in a song, but sometime around 1988 they decided two were enough as long as they were followed by the 'cumshot' resolution chord on the chorus.  This, not their over-reliance on studio-created ear-candy is what's sunk the band in my book.  Automatic for the People proved that a bit of eclecticism might work in the context of the old-fangled REM style, but the band's now failed to capture the texture and impact of that record on two successive attempts, and now that a pasted-together song like 'She Wants to Be' is no longer such a shock to hear (The 1990 reaction would've been: 'REM playing keyboards! Boner!'), we can see it for what it is - completely lacking in a cohesive band identity. These guys could be anybody.

At least this album isn't as depressing and Frankenstenian as Up was, for damn sure.  Reveal is a listenable record, and because of its strong immersion in good ol' pop (rather than the hard rock of New Adventures), it's probably going to present a pretty wide appeal to your Jim and Jane Bananarepublicshopper listener. At least until the next overproduced album by a bunch of previously inventive guys comes along.

Capn's Final Word: So what if we haven't heard it sound quite like this...we've still heard it all before. Listenable, but not too respectable.

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Around the Sun - Warner Brothers 2004

A pale imitation of Reveal, Around the Sun is one of the most disheartening REM albums yet, again providing that inescapable feeling that the band has completely lost its distinctiveness and ability to produce interesting music.  While Reveal sounded good but felt derivative and flat, Around the Sun just flat-out sucks, no questions asked, like McDonald's regular hamburgers or the Kansas City Royals baseball team.  Sucks in a sad, obvious way, too, so there's not sweat for me in writing this final coffin-nail of a review for this now-bottomed out band.  Hell, you want a list? It combines the worst tendencies of all their recent albums except for Monster (there's no loud guitar here) in that it's as artificial, slow, and depressing as Up, as unoriginal and overglossy as Reveal, and goes on for fucking ever like New Adventures in Hi-Fi did. You like the slow, self-pitying stuff that makes it sound like Michael Stipe has such a hard time getting out of bed in the morning you wonder why he even bothers? Every last fucking song on here is just like that. Except instead of moaning in front of a huge, boomy bunch of electronic brrrrraaapppping noises like on Up, or in front of a huge, boomy orchestra and rhythm section like on Reveal, here he's got Peter Buck doing something boring on an acoustic guitar, someone playing a couple of chords on a synth, and....that's it! I know I railed a bit violently against this band's addiction to 'cool' sound effects on their last few albums, but Sun is enough for me to wish they'd flip the Moog back on again, because the melodies of these 'songs' are as shopworn as Jed Clampett's hat.  These chord sequences have now all been used for at least their third or fourth times on an REM album, and while they avoid the rather embarrassing 'Driver 8'/'Imitation of Life' type of overt self-quotation, the chord sequences they use are as intentionally vanilla and predictable as possible so we can't even make these kinds of comparisons anyway.  It's not copying when people have done it the exact same way 4 billion times, is it?

Okay, so rather than focus on the negative, I'll redouble my efforts and attempt to identify a few of the 'highlights' here, which on this record means 'something that sounds slightly different than the endless rewrites of the 'Boy in the Well'/'Make It All Okay'/'Final Straw'/'I Wanted to Be Wrong'/'The Worst Joke Ever'/'Around the Sun' ('Leaving New York' *gasp!* actually features an electric guitar on it. If that piece of news is not enough reason to phone your mother and devote your life to working for world peace and the abolishment of poverty, I don't know what is) song that gobbles up about 75% of this record. 'Wanderlust' sounds like a Broadway show-tune with its jazzy changes and soft-shoe shuffle tempo, and at least sounds sorta spirited in a dopey way, and 'High Speed Train' recalls Revolver-era Beatles with its backward whoosh effects and oddly-placed echoes, topped off with a flamenco guitar line as a sort of non-sequitir climax.  'Train' is pretty much the same sort of slow-motion studio wank that made Up such a bummer to sit through seven years ago, but added as a bit of spice to this album, it sounds deep.  'Aftermath' is a throwback to Reveal in that the tempo actually hops upward slightly, and though in reality it's really not too much of anything good, I again appreciate the change of pace.

As for the 'Around the Sun Suite', it for all the world sounds like the same simpy track repeated over and over again to me, like the same tired, repetitive, self-impressed dinosaur crap that REM was originally created to destroy.  Though I'll admit that if two, maybe three of these songs were spread out onto a better-paced album, they might end up being sorta enjoyable, but mashed all together like this they're just unbearable, like a young kid that's fallen in love with a phrase and likes yelling it over and over again such as the time my friend Scott Barber somehow got the Kansas City Chief radio announcer's catch phrase 'OH BABY, WHAT A PLAY!!' stuck in his head and I finally had to put a pillow over his face to make him stop. Putting a pillow over Around the Sun won't help, but slinging it out the window and into heavy traffic just might do the trick. Or just not buying the miserable thing in the first place, which seems to be most people's option. Littering sucks, you know.

Capn's Final Word: What a weak song this is.

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