Thursday, May 5, 2011

REMin' with JT Part 2

Part 2, Major Label Success: 1988-1996

Green (1988)

Fave Song: Pop Song 89
Least fave: Untitled
Discovered Gem: Turn you Inside-Out

A definite return to form after the disappointing Document, REM proves that they are capable of releasing an album of radio friendly yet 'indie' songs. The singles on this album are amongst the finest "alternative" hits of the 80s and where Document failed this album has amazing album tracks as well. (A-)

Fave Song: Orange Crush
Least fave: Hairshirt
Discovered Gem: Untitled

Even though Reckoning and LRP are certainly disjointed, Green is the first (but not last) REM album to be a true mess. But what a charming mess! This is the very best of empty pop and heartfelt balladry. From Stand to the Wrong Child you hit every single emotion and it's a thrilling ride. I think what holds it together is that the dark vibe from Document has bled over and never quite leaves, even on the upbeat numbers, and some of their most sinister moments (Inside Out) are disguised as fun sing alongs. For me Green is like a snapshot of a lifetime, all the highs and lows of living, joy and disappointment and regret and fear and hope and the secret, quiet ponderings of the inner self. I remember a lot of folks seeing this as a sell out 'cos of the WB label, and I think REM were aware of that and attempting to not take the next logical step towards back to back pop, but pulling out all the stops to showcase everything they were capable of at the time; so to me it was a step ahead and the culmination of five years of brilliance. And then... (A)

Out of Time (1991)

Fave Song: Country Feedback
Least fave: Radio Song
Discovered Gem: Half a World Away

While this album is the one that launched REM to superstardom on the strength of its singles, it is a surprisingly weak effort all around. While there are some fantastic album tracks (Low, for example—which more than anything pointed in the direction the band would head with Automatic for the People) there are also some terrible songs (Belong and Radio Song). Boo for breakthroughs. (B-)

Fave Song: Country Feedback
Least fave: Belong
Discovered Gem: Near Wild Heaven

It's story time… I remember when this album was about to come out and I'd already heard Losing My Religion, and sitting in my second period Math 5 class thinking, "How could the rest of the album possibly be any better than that song?" and yet fully expecting it to be great. In some ways Losing My Religion is the highlight of the album, 'cos there's just so much going on there musically, lyrically and emotionally, but it does have some rivals. Anyway, back to my story... The local radio station played OoT in its entirety the day before it came out (unprecedented in PC at the time) and a bunch of us got together after school and tuned in. It was basically the greatest thing I'd ever heard up to that time and I fully embraced it because I was absolutely riding the wave. Looking back I can certainly see its faults, which we've discussed, and the production is extremely bubble gum overall, which makes some of the stronger songs (Texarkana, Near Wild Heaven, Half a World Away) sound a bit watered down, and yet enhances other songs, basically the more radio ready pop ones (Losing My Religion, Shiny Happy People). But there are a few that don't seem to be mired by the gloss, and Low, Me in Honey and of course Country Feedback are some of the most superb moments in REM's catalog. Why I can't give this an A rating, even for nostalgia, is because the bad songs are just really awful, and even though there are only three (Radio Song, Endgame, Belong), they're so "strategically" placed that they really bring me down from the highs of the previous tune. That's why I usually start at track 8 and ride it out until the end. (B+)

Automatic for the People (1992)

Fave Song: Nightswimming
Least fave: Ignoreland
Discovered Gem: Find the River

Unlike any REM album up until this point, Automatic is best when listened to from start to finish. The album contains no (obvious) singles (ala Stand, Losing My Religion, End of the World) but contains their most consistently good songs since Murmur. (A)

Fave Song: The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight
Least fave: Everybody Hurts
Discovered Gem: Nightswimming

I don't know why I've held such a grudge against this album, though lately it's just turned to indifference. I think it was because they were all over the radio and on the lips of every "you don't get it!!" idiot on the sidewalk. And while that was certainly the case with OoT, I was proud of their achievement then, caught up in the moment. But by AftP, I wanted them to go back to being the shining secret I shared with a few close friends and the complete opposite was happening. Basically, I was finally screaming "sell out!" And because part of me is still stuck back in 199-whatever, part of me still has a stigma against this album. Which is dumb even from the get go, 'cos Drive is hardly what you would call a single by mainstream standards, much less lead single material. Why would a radio station play this song? Because it's good? Well, for a brief, shining moment...yes!!! And I guess that's what is so awesome about this album, 'cos this is still pop music the way REM wanted to make it, the way only REM could, and it was the biggest thing in the world. Too bad I just sat back pissy and grumbling and didn't embrace it at the time. But better late than never, right? Right, JT? ...JT? Anyway, so while I'm now accepting this as a fully legit REM album, I will now scrutinize it as such. Basically, I think this is an album of brilliant singles (the biggest ones at least), some standout album tracks (Try Not to Breathe), some pleasant incidental moments (Nightswimming) and some clunkers (Ignoreland). It's sad though, 'cos I find my attention wandering after about three songs, and if I skip to various tracks I can say "Yeah, that's a good one," but it can't hold me from front to back. I think part of this is subconscious and I don't know what I can do about that. Sorry JT, you'll just have to champion this one with everyone else on your own. (B+)

Monster (1994)

Fave Song: What's the Frequency, Kenneth
Least fave: King of Comedy
Discovered Gem: Let Me In

Another change in direction from the laid back introspective side of Automatic for the People, we find R.E.M. rocking us out. This album upon its release was a complete and utter disappointment to me and I’ve had a long journey with this album since then. I have finally ended that journey with an understanding that this isn’t a bad album in general, but just isn’t a great R.E.M. record. (C+)

Fave Song: Crush with Eyeliner
Least fave: King of Comedy
Discovered Gem: I Don't Sleep, I Dream

Yes, in theory I hate this album, and any REM fan should. But if you approach it as not an REM album and instead as a rock album of the mid-90s, it's not half bad. So there, I’ve said that much. I believe this was the album where they wanted to pay tribute to their influences, and while there is some of that (and those are typically the stronger songs), they also seem to be influenced by those whom they influenced, and there are songs that sound forced, formulaic and just flat lazy. It's almost like planned inspiration at some point, "Oh, let's have a fat chords here..." But where it works, it works pretty well, and songs like Crush with Eyeliner, Bang and Blame or I Took Your Name show Jagger or T-Rex posturing but make it fun instead of attempting to have an attitude. Yet sometimes it's just really bad, like King of Comedy (sounds made up on the spot, like studio goofing), Tongue (horrible R&B ala U2 on Rattle & Hum), Strange Currencies (generic, 80s hair band balladry). Towards the end it starts getting more interesting and almost experimental, and I guess I never really made it this far or was so annoyed by the other stuff that I didn't pay attention, but Let Me In is a great, noisy anti-ballad and Circus Envy is almost like a Burning Hell part 2, only better...which shows that these guys always had an album like this in them, and this was their moment to go out and take advantage of their legit rock star status and play it to the hilt. And I guess that's what makes this album forgivable in hindsight, they were just having fun with where they were, playing characters in a play. So all the giant riffs and booming drums are about as good as can be expected for this type of music, and all Monster is really missing is some sweet guitar solos, of which there are few (which is truly surprising considering what they're doing here). Thankfully, they got it all out of their system and then they moved on to bigger and better things (creatively at least). So, when judging it overall, it's definitely in the bottom one or two of REM's albums, but if this were some other band without all the history and expectation of what they were supposed to provide, even though I still probably wouldn't have been a fan, I wouldn't have outright hated it either. I'm giving it a double rating. (C/B+)

New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)

Fave Song: New Test Leper
Least fave: Be Mine
Discovered Gem: Binky the Floormat

This was my ‘great discovery’ of this experiment. I got this album when it first came out and was very underwhelmed. Perhaps it was the lingering let down of Monster that led me to dismiss this album or the fact that it was (and is) their longest record. Having revisited it I have to admit that I was very wrong, as this album ranks up there amongst their best and is another ‘start to finish’ type album, and their first truly great ‘headphones’ album. Considering this was the last original lineup album, it is fitting that they end on such a high note. (A-)

Fave Song: Leave
Least fave: Binky the Doormat
Discovered Gem: Electrolite

I love this album. It's super ambitious, not at all the 'proper' or 'expected' follow up to Monster, and for me a return to form…which is not the signature REM sound, but instead making unique, interesting and believable music. What’s really great? Nobody got it, and it is certainly the most underrated album in their roster, even from fans. This album completely slipped by the radar and it took them losing Bill for the band to get back on the scope again. There are really no obvious singles on NAiHF and some pretty long songs by REM standards. The overall length of the album is a drawback (in my hectic work/kids life), but if you have the time, it's very worth it. Really, in some ways it picks up from where the end of Monster left off and also points to Up, so very experimental, but, most importantly, it's also the closest they ever came to the same feel as Murmur (prob without trying to) by creating a sound like no other. They were making a record THEY wanted to make and the results are the ultimate payoff. Monster was mindless fun, but Hi-Fi was back to business, and business is goo-oo-oo-ood. (A+)

No comments: