Monday, May 9, 2011

REMin' with JT Part 3

Part 3, Life as a Three-Legged Dog: 1997 - Present

Up (1998)


Fave Song: Daysleeper

Least fave: Airportman

Discovered Gem: Diminished

The band apparently spent a lot of time listening to Pet Sounds prior to the release of this album, as many songs sound like covers of that era of Beach Boys songs (Parakeet, At My Most Beautiful). While this album isn’t bad, it just sort of sputters along for the most part with a few peaks (Daysleeper) and a few valleys (Diminished). (C)


Fave Song: Diminished

Least fave: Lotus

Discovered Gem: You’re in the Air

I remember pretty well when this one came out. There was this article in Paste I think called Life as a Three-Legged Dog or something, basically all about REM figuring out how to be REM without Bill drumming. Then they were on Letterman where they’d first debuted 15 years earlier with So Central Rain (before it had a name). They played Lotus and I hated it. I was still pretty much at odds with Stipe and REM in general at this point and hadn’t paid much attention to anything since OoT, but Karla was a fan of Automatic and I’d heard it a bit because of her and thought it was pretty good, so after we heard Daysleeper (which has “the REM sound”) she picked it up. I remember it was definitely her copy and there’s candle wax on the back of the case ‘cos she always used to burn those in her Murfreesboro apartment. Anyway… I remember thinking it sounded pretty much like you’d expect it to – REM making music without a fulltime drummer and so incorporating a lot of electronics and loops, etc to not only provide a beat, but to fill in the gaps. There’s a lot of experimentation here and stuff that felt like it was written on the sly (Hope) with Stipe riffing to “this cool chord progression” someone had come up with playing a keyboard through distortion. Something, I dunno. I think a lot of it feels like a bunch of sketches or demos, like the songs are only half written and need more fleshing out. Sometimes that’s part of the charm (Fall to Climb) but other times it just sounds unfinished (Why Not Smile). I think I read once somewhere that Bill did a lot of the arranging, so that makes sense. But having said that, I think it’s an interesting study of a band redefining itself and trying to prove something, not because they’re attempting to stay relevant or hip or popular (and they certainly didn’t need the money), but finding a reason to remain a working, functional band at all. I think there’s a lot of insecure desperation here, like on certain moments of Green (with the whole “going major” deal), as if they’re trying to convince themselves as well as the fans that they should keep going, and in a lot of ways that works for me. And also for that reason, Up sounds like they worked hard at it and the results may be a bit overdone (while also sounding incomplete), yet endearingly so, though the effortless meandering of NAiHF is here but less spontaneous, tepid and almost awkward. I think the person who shines here most is Stipe. His lyrics are super introspective and he has several of his most memorable and lovely melodies to date (The Apologist, You’re in the Air, Diminished). And it’s these melodies that kept me coming back to Up every few months or so, even when I refused to listen to anything else from the 90s…though it was around this time that A Life Less Ordinary came out and Leave from NAiHF was on the soundtrack and I discovered the overlooked brilliance of that album. Anyway, for the first album after such a major loss, I think Up is a winner. They could have easily brought in Bill #2 on drums and gone for a classic REM sound, but instead decided to do things in their own way with what they had between the three of them. And while some of it falls short or is unmemorable, there are plenty of worthwhile moments amongst all the buzzing and bleeping and somewhat dated sounding loops. (B+)

Reveal (2001)


Fave Song: All The Way To Reno (You're Gonna Be A Star)

Least fave: Beachball

Discovered Gem: She Just Wants To Be

I look at this album as a perfection of the sound explored on Up. The melodies are stronger and the production adds a nice Air-y (the band) quality to quite a few of the songs. (B)


Fave Song: Beat a Drum

Least fave: Saturn Return

Discovered Gem: She Just Wants to Be

If Up is about awkward new beginnings and the toil of rediscovery, Reveal is about those efforts realized…and delivered in spades. This is Up brought to its fullest potential. The cold distance is gone and replaced by warm intimacy. It’s like a day out at the beach and in a lot of ways I feel “California” and even “the Beach Boys” in many of these songs, especially with the idea that the band is using the studio as an instrument (plus, there are a lot of warm/summer/beach references). Incorporating live drums on most of the material helps immensely, and there is a definite confidence that was severely lacking with Up. That album was almost like a side project, but this is a fulltime band again. From the first time I heard Imitation of Life on the radio I thought, “Ok, these guys are back…” and picked up the album. It was this album that made me drop my woes with Stipe and the band in general and begin to embrace again everything about them that I’d once loved. Somewhat recently (at the time) accepting Automatic and discovering the majesty of NAiHF certainly helped this cause, and even Up sounded inspiring as a launching pad for REM 3.0 if you will. And inspiring really is the word here, because one thing REM and Stipe as a lead man have always been good at is pumping up a listener, so the doubt of Up is gone, and the ambiguity of NAiHF is gone, and the rock star posturing of Monster is gone, so really what you have left is REM making the music that created albums like Automatic, Green and LRP. (A)

Around the Sun (2004)


Fave Song: Boy in the Well

Least fave: Leaving New York

Discovered Gem: Aftermath

This is their worst album and is the only one that I truly found a chore revisiting in order to complete this project. After three or four false starts I finally made it through. I think it is best to let Peter Buck summarize it for me, “"... just wasn't really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can't stand it anymore." (C-)


Fave Song: Electron Blue

Least fave: Leaving New York

Discovered Gem: Aftermath

I’ll say first that this isn’t a terrible album, but it’s so non-obtrusive it’s hardly even there, not even annoying enough to be offensive. At least Monster is in your face, but AtS exists to take up a number in a catalog. It’s like with Reveal they found what they were looking for and now they’re not sure what to do with it. This isn’t so much resting on their laurels as it is just indifferent to where they are as a band or what they’re putting out as “music.” They still have that “experimentation” element but it’s only in an attempt to make these songs sound more interesting. Fail. REM is best when they’re kicking out new territory, but they’re neither doing that nor further fleshing out where they’ve already dabbled (as with the case from Up to Reveal). Again, like Monster, it’s not terrible music per se, but it’s terrible REM music. These songs are what you would expect from a band like Matchbox 20, uninspired and harmless but “pleasant” enough, with all the right parts in place, and fitting as the background of some nighttime social drama on Fox. Leaving New York has got to be the worst song in REM’s repertoire because it’s so cliché in every way, and a good 2/3 of the album follows suit. Honestly, this is like someone trying to write an REM song and doing it badly. All of the passion and believability is gone. I mean I think of a song like Wake Up Bomb and how much they just kick the crap out it, and it makes these songs laughable. But having said that, there are some decent moments, songs that would be second, maybe third tier offerings on better releases, which means they’re good but not great. Among those are Electron Blue, Final Straw, Wanderlust and Aftermath… But a big problem here is Stipe. While he certainly salvaged a lot of the undercooked feeling in Up with some super impassioned vocals and his obscure, introspective lyrics, he’s just way too obvious and banal on a lot of these songs, even many of the ones I just mentioned (especially Final Straw). And even when they’re trying to bust out the jams, it just sounds forced and deliberate, especially from Stipe, whose screeching on Ascent of Man is just the absolute pits, and makes Lotus from Up seem like a small revelation. The main deal is that, unlike Reveal and even Up, these songs don’t linger with me, they don’t beg to be re-listened to. I often put on an album because I have a song in my head and I want to hear it. Why should I put forth the effort out of obligation to listen to something and hope that it will be good, when I’ve got 10+ other albums to choose from? If this had been the last thing REM ever did it wouldn’t have been surprising, but it would have been an absolutely disappointing low point at the end of a career where ambition was the key, even if it sometimes led them astray. Here ambition is traded for bland ambiguity, and no one is more aware of it than REM. (C-)

Accelerate (2008)


Fave Song: Horse to Water

Least fave: I'm Gonna DJ

Discovered Gem: Until the Day is Done

This album may not be their best but after the drudgery that was Around the Sun and the slow nature of both Up and Reveal it is certainly a breath of fresh air. Sounds like a band having fun being a band and in doing so is a greatly entertaining and enjoyable listen. (B)


Fave Song: Sing for the Submarine

Least fave: Hollow Man

Discovered Gem: I'm Gonna DJ

There was a lot of build up to this one as a comeback and I think it deserves that status. I immediately liked it when I first heard it. It was urgent without being desperate, engaging without being flashy or in your face. A few years later it’s not the REM of the past decade that I reach for (Reveal, you know I love you), but I always enjoy it when I do decide to put it on, and give it at least 2-3 spins. One thing that makes this easy to do is its brevity. While their past several releases have boasted 13 or 14 tracks and run close to or over an hour, Accelerate is 11 tracks and just over 30 minutes. I love it. I mean just get ‘er done, ya’ll…and then let’s do it again! But also, musically, the songs are just a thousand times better than everything on AtS, and since they’re aware of this, they perform as such. Mike’s return to prominent backing vocals is so great, and I didn’t realize how much I had missed them on the past few albums until I heard him “ah-ahing” on Supernatural Superserious. Also, Stipe’s lyrics are back up to snuff, poignant but not always straightforward, and certainly nowhere near the uninspired, saccharine sentimental drivel of AtS. They’re having a good time and so that means I’m going to enjoy listening to it. It’s the fun they had with songs like Stand or Shiny Happy People but took themselves too seriously to truly embrace back then, which at the time was fine. Now that they’re older and conventions are behind them, they can just go with the flow and make a good record. And while they’re not really breaking new ground - ‘cos I think this is like LRP’s younger, edgier brother, and there are songs that seem to be cousins of other stuff (e.g. Living Well is the Best Revenge to Bad Day…which is an early version of End of the World) - they’re approaching it with a no holds barred attitude, firing all guns without the gimmick, sleaze, faux glam posturing (that was intended) on Monster, and just letting themselves produce what comes naturally instead of laboring to make a “meaningful” album. Compared to “classic” efforts, Accelerate might not be as earth shattering as a Murmur or a Fables or a Green, but it’s proof that the guys can still produce some worthwhile material and I hold it on par to the better (but not best) moments of Document or OoT, and the last three songs are some of the best music REM has laid down in 20 years. So at the end of the day, this album is just a lot of fun and the enjoyment level is much higher without the pretention of heady lyrics or complex song structures. REM can do that, and have quite well, but AtS proved that it has to come naturally and that they needed a break from that…and so did we. (A-)

Collapse Into Now (2011)


Fave Song: Everyday Is Yours To Win

Least fave: Mine Smell Like Honey

Discovered Gem: Uberlin

The release of this album was the catalyst that started this whole crazy little project and I have to say that while hopefully REM still have many years ahead of them, this is a fine note to end on for now. The band seems comfortable and secure in who they are and I for one couldn’t be happier about it. (B)


Fave Song: All the Best

Least fave: Discoverer

Discovered Gem: That Someone is You

I’ll say right off that the comeback of Accelerate was in no way a fluke as, to me, CiN picks up on that energy and, most importantly, confidence and takes it to the next level. REM has put out an album that I think truly sounds like an REM album from front to back for the first time since Automatic. And while we can argue that REM has always been about creating new sounds, there is a sound that is distinctly “REM” that crops up from time to time in the up and down years from Monster to Accelerate, but has hardly been consistent with those efforts. There are lots of high energy numbers that jump out of the gate ready for anything just like on Accelerate, but the difference here is that while Accelerate was almost all steady rockers, CiN boasts loads of low key songs that often as not punctuate the high water marks as do their more visceral siblings. Having said that, All the Best, with its “take this” attitude, is an early and overall highlight, with the whole Quasimodo/bell ringing line that, when harnessed with the music, is one of the best images of Stipe’s career. Still, I don’t think they’re shattering many musical barriers and in a lot of ways this album is sorta blueprint REM; they’re taking the ingredients that they know go well together and making a nice, er, casserole. There are several songs that sound like a “part 2” of something else, like Uberlin to Drive or Blue to E-Bow the Letter (to Country Feedback). But the songs are so stinking good that really, who cares? I seriously get excited listening to this record, like I did when OoT first came out or the first time I heard Fables. And I think CiN smashes OoT with a hammer…repeatedly. It Happened Today, when that build up finally explodes, is just one of those spine tingling moments in music when I want to crank the stereo as loud as it will go. Meanwhile, Uberlin and Oh My Heart are fragile and beautiful, never overdoing it, just letting the song and melody carry on. And really, that’s a big part of the success of these past two albums, they just went in and did it ‘cos they knew they had a good batch of songs, so no need to take forever with studio magic trying to make a dead horse walk. And yeah, there are some “unessential” numbers, like (maybe) Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter, but they’re so much fun to jump and sing along to, that it doesn’t really matter, and introspective, uplifting songs like Every Day is Yours to Win counter the “mindless” bounce quite nicely. And I think a big ingredient here is hope, ‘cos as I’ve said already, REM was always good about shining a light even at the end of the longest, bleakest tunnel, and with CiN it’s a spotlight about a mile wide. I am officially looking forward to the next album. (A)


Anonymous said...

Hey guys. Enjoyed the whole retrospective.

In particular you were right on about Monster (weak in the middle) and that Reckoning and NAiHF are really good even if they are not well remembered.

Personally, AFtP is my favorite: every song sounds so different from the one before it. It also has a nice mix of songs with lyrics that make a lot of sense as well as Stipe's signature "I pick words for their sound first and for their meaning second" crypticism.

Over my life, I've been an unfaithful REM fan too (basically ignoring them after UP until Accelerate). Still, 'Losing My Religion' was one of the first songs I learned on guitar and REM is the band that made me want to make my own music. When I have kids, I hope they can love a band as much as I loved REM.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed all three of these entries. I've written quite a bit about R.E.M. myself--I sent JT a list of links if you are interested.

I think one sign of a great band is how varied the opinions of its serious fans can be of what its great songs and albums are and I think your entries prove that about R.E.M.