[28 September 2011]
Sound Affects Editor
Amidst the deluge of news coverage about the disbandment of R.E.M. last week, one fact has made itself widely-known: not everyone gives a damn. Though the mainstream and music press have largely treated the event with measured reflection and affectionate eulogizing, trawling through comment sections of dozens of R.E.M. breakup articles I have come across a surprisingly large collection of voices that either relish this development, go out of their way to indicate that they could care less, or enquire what the big deal ever was. In my own tribute marking the demise of the group, I examined the logical reasons why these attitudes exist. Still, it’s kind of strange seeing how polarizing R.E.M. and its output has become, especially given that 15 years ago these guys appeared to be universally beloved.
Ok, so maybe you’ve never fathomed why R.E.M. has been at times held in such reverence because rock critics for eons have insisted you start by listening to Murmur or Automatic for the People all the way through to (in their view) properly savor these totemic works, and the experience instead left you bored out of your mind. Or maybe your knowledge of the group is casual, and your exposure by osmosis to “Losing My Religion” or “Man on the Moon” has left you uninterested in exploring further. In the hopes of correcting the (in my view) largely mishandled advocacy of the alt-rock band’s catalog, I have assembled this handy 10-track introduction to R.E.M. No, this is not a list of the absolute best or most “important” R.E.M. songs ever; it’s not even meant to give you a full, nuanced picture of the group. What this is is a collection of 10 rather strong tracks—both the atypical and the defining—that are likely grab your ear instantly or act as accessible gateways to the ensemble’s more idiosyncratic qualities. If you’re still not sold on the group by the end, that’s absolutely fine—no one should tell you what you can and can’t like. But at the very least, hopefully afterward you might have a better idea of what the fuss has been about all these years.
The band’s debut release for I.R.S. Records, the Chronic Town EP is the record that most people pitch R.E.M.’s first LP Murmur as, a beguiling slice of opaque Southern Gothic balanced out by British Invasion harmonies and guitar parts ripped straight from the Byrds’ discography. “Wolves, Lower” presents R.E.M. before it became overly precious: there’s a stark, antsy quality to the song—emphasized by Bill Berry’s steady, clipped rhythms and Peter Buck’s winding arpeggio riff—that would be totally alien to those more accustomed to gentle Americana vibes and sedate balladeering from later years. The most compelling aspect of the track is its heavy air of post-punk moodiness—think Joy Division or Magazine—something that wouldn’t necessarily be expected of the band that helped launch alternative rock. The eeriness factor is ratcheted up in the bridge, where the stripped-down guitar/bass/drums lineup is swamped by unnerving ghostly sound effects.
I must confess: R.E.M.’s second full-length Reckoning is my favorite album by the group. And my favorite cut from said LP is “Pretty Persuasion”, a fantastic number never released as a single because the group felt it was too close to Murmur stylistically. They should’ve done it anyway. If you want to hear R.E.M. with all its classic element turned up to the max (Peter Buck jingle-jangling like it’s breathing to him, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills constantly weaving their semi-wordless harmonies together into a sprawling tapestry of melodic haze), “Pretty Persuasion” is that track, a one-song distillation and refinement of Murmur with the tempo sped up and all the dull parts cast off. Don’t even try figuring out what Stipe and Mills are singing—snippets of the few lines that are discernible (“Goddamn your confusion”) and Stipe’s agonized wailing in the bridge (a section concluded in dramatic fashion by Buck’s well-placed reintroduction and Berry’s thunderous fills) will give you all you need to know to ground yourself emotionally in this song.
The members of R.E.M. are quite varied songwriters, meaning they can pull off some cool sounds without necessarily sounding like R.E.M. For those not all that interested in Southern jangle pop, the opening track to Fables of the Reconstruction offers something off the beaten path in the form of a much more thorough exploration of dark, reverberating British post-punk. There’s no jangle to be found here, just Peter Buck’s dissonant stop-start guitar lines which alternate between haunting single note figures and clipped chording, and foreboding strings in the background. “Feeling Gravitys Pull” inhabits the sunless subterranean depths of ‘80s underground music, and though the chorus ascends upward harmonically, it could just as well instill you with the sickening dread of being dragged further into the pits.
This isn’t the first time where I’ve recommended Lifes Rich Pageant as the ideal R.E.M. starting point. The reason is simple: it’s a focused, self-affirmed album that packs a hell of a mighty wallop in its first half. If any one track is going to grab you by the scruff or your neck and wow you, I nominate “These Days”, an exhilarating listen that charges at you via Berry’s stomping four-on-the-floor drumbeat to deliver Stipe’s urgent sloganeering (“We are hope despite the times”). Strikingly vigorous and containing not one ounce of fatty excess, R.E.M. was never more immediate than on this.
Slotted right after “These Days” on the Lifes Rich Pageant tracklist is this indelible just-under-three minutes pop single. Slower and more pleasant than its predecessor but no less potent, the sublime “Fall on Me” is probably the purest, most economical distillation of R.E.M.’s sound, containing all the strengths and none of the weaknesses. If this nigh-perfect example of verse/chorus/bridge popcraft doesn’t leave you yearning for a repeat listen upon its conclusion, it’s rather likely you’ll never become an R.E.M. fan.
If you want a huge, strident anthem that will sound fantastic when cranked to full volume, “Finest Worksong” is the best such example R.E.M. has to offer from its songbook. Arguably the greatest first track from any of the band’s LPs, “Finest Worksong” is simply monumental, a tune that manages to be muscular without being brawny or leaden. Commanding attention from the outset due to Berry’s arena-ready drums, the song largely hangs on one chord (and Buck’s ringing single-note lick) in order to firmly stake its ground, upping the ante courtesy of a surging chord change that occurs when the band hits the chorus, which in turn augments Stipe’s chest-bursting call of “Finest hour”.
One commonly-held assumption about R.E.M. is that it’s, well, wimpy (I distinctly remember an installment of VH1’s I Love the ‘80s series where Stewart Copeland jokingly berates the band for seemingly being physically incapable of playing chords). But the group can indeed rock when it opts to, as the vaguely U2-ish “Orange Crush”, the lead single from its 1988 Warner Bros. debut Green, proves beyond all doubt. Launching with Peter Buck aggressively strumming muted guitar strings for a jarring, percussive effect (a motif that recurs here and there throughout the song), “Orange Crush” is driven by a taut anxiety—fitting as the song deals with an American soldier’s experiences in the Vietnam War. The tension is alleviated only by a soaring chorus so great, it doesn’t even need actual words.
Also from Green is this churning chordal rocker dabbed with melodic British Invasion touches. The verses may feel a little too circular, but you’ll appreciate their value once you realize they are set-up for the choruses, where the introductory chord progression returns to rousing effect. And yes, Stewart Copeland, Peter Buck is in fact playing barre chords in this song. They’re distorted and loud, too.
“Nightswimming” contains a pretty handy test: if you can get past the grating way Stipe sings the line “Deserves a quiet night” in the first few seconds of the studio version, you have just withstood potentially the most off-putting aspect of R.E.M.’s music. If you’ve decided to stick around for the song’s remainder, you’ll be rewarded by a beautifully moving piano ballad that showcases Stipe at his most emotionally naked. Tinged with bittersweet nostalgia, “Nightswimming” has the vocalist reminiscing wistfully about bygone days skinny-dipping with old friends in the Georgia moonlight. Stipe so capably crafts the sensations of that time and place that by the end you might feel you were once there, too.
In one last example of R.E.M. adopting another stylistic guise, here the paired-down trio of Stipe, Buck, and Mills lovingly replicates the symphonic pop of mid-‘60s Beach Boys. “At My Most Beautiful” is at its core an exquisitely arranged record, with its marching bassline, horns, sleighbells, and “Doo-doo doo” harmonies impeccably placed. The one recognizably-R.E.M. element is Stipe’s voice; nevertheless, the singer plays down his trademark keening for an understated and soothing delivery. That approach is perfectly suited for the song’s lyrics, which illustrate how the everyday mundane can take on a romantic quality in the eyes of someone deeply in love (“I read bad poetry / Into your machine / I save your messages / Just to hear your voice”). R.E.M. could veer into outright corny territory at times whenever it took a stab at conveying happiness, but here the group manages the execution with just the right touch.