Wednesday, May 4, 2011

REMin' with JT Part 1

REM, those godfathers of indie-college-jangle-mumble-pop-rock, are back with a new album, Collapse into Now, and in “preparation” for its release, JT and I first started discussing the pros and cons, the woes and joys, the ups and downs of these lads from Athens, GA…and then decided to listen to all of their previous albums…and then decided to make an Excel spreadsheet listing favorite songs, our thoughts on the album as a whole and finally giving it a grade.


The process took forever…well, a good six weeks or so, but it was truly a labor of love, as REM is a band that we have both loved longer in our lives than we haven’t, and despite a few falling outs over the years, have always come back to them. I wish I could reproduce here the (likely) hours we spent discussing this truly fascinating band, but I can’t. However, I can sum up a good bit of it with a few conclusions.

1) REM is a band so unto themselves that you really can’t compare them to anyone else, and so you can only compare them to themselves…which means they have higher standards to live up to, and criticisms may at times be harsh.

2) Almost always, even a bad REM song/album is better than 90%+ of whatever else came out that year.

3) REM is likely the greatest American band…ever.

Also, a few things to keep in mind:

1) As always, though I started off short, I got very long-winded, while JT kept his thoughts brief and to the point.

2) These were written as if in conversation, so if it doesn’t flow like a professional write up or makes references that seem “inside,” well, you know…

3) We’re naming our favorite song, least favorite and a newly “discovered gem” that stood out to us; but even when we name our least favorite song on an album, it doesn’t necessarily mean we dislike the song…though sometimes it does. (Let’s face it, 7 Chinese Brothers sucks.)

4) We often use abbreviations for the albums, which is probably obvious, because some of these album titles are a bit wordy, and because we’re lazy.

5) Because of #1, I’m breaking everything down into three posts/distinct sections of REM’s career, which ironically (and thankfully for my OCD) breaks down nicely into five albums each. Winning!

So, without further ado…Part 1, the IRS Years: 1983-1987

Murmur (1983)


Fave Song: Talk About the Passion

Least fave: 9 - 9

Discovered Gem: Perfect Circle

Probably the greatest Debut Album ever...EVER. Stipe is at his mumbling best and the band sounds like they never would again. If you have to own just one this would be it, but why own one when... (A+)


Fave Song: Shaking Through

Least fave: Radio Free Europe

Discovered Gem: Sitting Still

No other album sounds like Murmur, either by REM or any other band before or since. The approach in songwriting, structure, delivery and production are unique, timeless and other worldly. Sometimes it's joyous, sometimes it's chilling, but it's never threatening in its dark delivery. It's the type of album that makes you want more of the same, while also realizing that another attempt at such an effort would come off lacking. Perfection personified. It's that short and simple. (A+)

Reckoning (1984)


Fave Song: So. Central Rain

Least fave: 7 Chinese Brothers

Discovered Gem: Camera

…you could own 2....while William doesn't agree, this is a fantastic sophomore album and sees the band adding a little 'country' element to their jangle pop greatness...this album, more than the debut, points in the direction that REM would ultimately take to lead them to super stardom and world domination. (A-)


Fave Song: So Central Rain

Least fave: 7 Chinese Brothers

Discovered Gem: Time After Time

Sophomore slump? Not really, but sorta. Not that I wanted Murmur 2, but I think this is a case of good songs that don't really flow well together, which honestly REM has often been guilty of by throwing a bunch of different sounds on one album. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. However, of these 10 songs only one is really flat out bad, and that's 7 Chinese Brothers (though not as bad as its Voice of Harold counterpart). Most of the rest are from great to excellent, so maybe it's just me being difficult in “not liking” this album. Also, this here is where the 'classic REM sound' was born, esp on Harbor Coat. Honestly, this is one that I think could grow on me (and it only took two decades!) if I gave it a proper chance, and I think the reissue might do the trick. I can see these songs benefiting from a cleaner sound. It's funny how some stuff you want the grit and other times you want it pristine. But Reckoning definitely proved that REM had multiple tricks up their sleeve, it's just not the one I reach for in an old school mood. (A-)

Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)


Fave Song: Life and How to Live It

Least fave: Feeling Gravity's Pull

Discovered Gem: Good Advices

Still amazingly strong three albums in and even further from the shimmering indie rock that was Murmur. The songs don't seem quite as focused and a bit of the pop edge of "Reckoning" has been dulled. Perhaps this is due to the production, which for the first time isn't being handled by Mitch Easter & Don Dixon. (B+)


Fave Song: Good Advices

Least fave: Kohoutek

Discovered Gem: Auctioneer

For years this was my favorite REM album, and it's still in the top three. Fables is all about vibe and atmosphere, which are both moody and at times almost oppressive, but not to the point of stifling, 'cos there's (almost) always air and room to breathe in an REM album, which is one of their true charms, the light filtering through even when the night is blackest. Essentially, this is hope. I think this album is a step above Reckoning 'cos the songs are more cohesive in sound, style, lyrical content and production. This is the first (of several) REM albums where it feels like they're struggling to prove something, and mainly to themselves, which is the type of internal pressure that makes for great creative inspiration. Lesser bands would break under this sort of pressure, or give in to mainstream posturing or fall back to previous sounds or see what other folks are doing, but REM was looking to do their own thing, and while this album certainly bears their signature sound, it's a step forward from what they were doing with Reckoning. They were building momentum here for sure. (A)

Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)


Fave Song: Cuyahoga

Least fave: Underneath the Bunker

Discovered Gem: What If We Give It Away

The songs are more focused and hard punching. 'Begin the Begin' and 'These Days' that start the album off are true rockers and seem to indicate the band are heading in a rock direction and gone are some of the strummy guitar parts. This is their most focused release since Murmur. (A-)


Fave Song: Swan Swan H

Least fave: Cuyahoga

Discovered Gem: Begin the Begin

The thing with LRP is that while I know it's a fantastic album, like Reckoning, I never want to listen to it - yet, unlike Reckoning, when I do I always find it rewarding. This probably has to do with overkill, 'cos this one got spun A LOT in younger days. Another thing about this album, much like every REM album, is that it doesn't sound like anything else they had done. I guess part of both the kill and appeal of LRP is that it feels like a true stab at pop, but despite some ridiculously catchy songs and tons of hooks, etc, nothing is really radio ready. Like they were saying, "We can write a pop song, but we're gonna do it a new way." Score!! I guess this is a statement to the possibilities of what popular music could be, should be, but usually isn't, which is fine, but the more pop moments of Document certainly feel as if they sprung from the same spring as LRP. Also, as a side note, the track listing being off on the album cover drives me nuts. (A-)

Document (1987)


Fave Song: The One I Love

Least fave: Lightnin Hopkins

Discovered Gem: Welcome to the Occupation

The singles are incredibly strong and there are some really nice album tracks, but this is the first album where there are some truly bad songs. ‘Lightnin Hopkins’ is amongst their all-time worst ever. (B-)


Fave Song: Welcome to the Occupation

Least fave: Finest Worksong

Discovered Gem: Fireplace

I'm officially on the fence with this one. When I was younger this was the "one to avoid" 'cos it had the early hits on it. So stupid. The One I Love and End of the World are amazingly awesome songs, one for the complexity of its machine gun wordplay and the other for the exact opposite reason...and they're back to back (well, on the CD...). But then about three or four years ago I had it on a work trip and it just struck me how enjoyable it was to listen to. And I think what's appealing for me about this album is that, like Murmur and Fables, there's a continuous mood, which is brooding, that links every song together, and I find it brilliantly ironic that the most musically festive number, End of the World, is one of the more lyrically poignant (if somewhat ambiguously so). Where this album suffers is the songwriting overall. While some of my favorite REM songs are here (Welcome to the Occupation, Oddfellows Local 151), there are also some songs that are borderline silly (Exhuming McCarthy, Disturbance at the Heron House). But what's more, it's not that any of these are bad songs (a subpar REM song in 1987 was about a billion times better than a lot of other stuff out at the time), it's just that they're not overly memorable. Whereas with LRP I can read down the track list and start singing every song, with Document, especially by side 2, I can't, and have to wait for the song to start before I go "Oh yeah, I like this one!" Also, it's very solo heavy by REM standards - not that that's a bad thing, 'cos Bucky is such a great player, it's just something I thought I'd point out. (Though I do hate the sax solo on Fireplace.) Really, it's an overall good listen, but not a challenging one, and I think that because it's from the IRS years I tell myself I have to love it and it has to compete with the other four albums from that era for top place overall...well, I guess I like it better than Reckoning…or do I? But really, while it's certainly a great album, it's only great by what other folks were doing at the time. But by REM standards, it's simply a really good album. (B+)

No comments: