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Monday, July 18, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: R.E.M.
It's easy to underestimate the impact R.E.M. ultimately has had on the evolution of rock music. Originally an underground cult band, little known beyond college radio, they built their audience the old fashioned way; a little at a time, album by album. By the end of the 1980's they were experiencing their first taste of mainstream success; by the early 1990's they had become the biggest rock group on the planet. Their star has receded since their halcyon years, but they remain respected elder statesmen; still active 25 years after their initial formation, they are also one of the longest-lived bands of the post-punk era.
Beyond their hard-won chart successes they also deserve recognition for their music itself. A mixture of roots rock, Byrds-derived psychedelia, a little Velvet Underground, murky country/folk, garage rock, and Americana, they became staples of college rock during the 1980's college rock heyday, get credit for being the flagship jangle pop band (a title that diminishes them, actually), were among the first bands to be dubbed "alternative rock" at the turn of the 90's, and ultimately one of the most successful adult alternative pop/rock bands.
For those fans who discovered the group at the beginning, via the Chronic Town EP or Murmer album, R.E.M. has always remained a particularly special band; their underground appeal in the 1980's gave them the patina of unsung heroes, which made being among their limited fans something special. Their eventual commercial success was validation of these fans' belief that they were onto something very special.
Their career can be divided into roughly three stages; their 1981-1988 indie period, spent primarily with I.R.S. records, their 1989-1996 hitmaking years for Warner Brothers, and their erratic, experimental august years as a trio, following drummer Bill Berry's departure in 1997. While the core elements have always remained the same, Michael Stipe's often unintelligible singing, Peter Buck's ornate guitar textures, and Mike Mills' melodic basslines, each era represents a different sound and approach by the band, making their overall body of work a particularly interesting one.
R.E.M. was formed in the college town of Athens, GA in 1980, a fertile breeding ground for bands; one of the most famous Athens bands at that time was the B-52's. R.E.M. has often been called a "Southern" band, although only bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry were actually from the South. Both were born in 1958 and attended high school together in Macon, GA; they were members of a variety of informal bands in their teens. Michael Stipe, two years their junior, had lived around the country as the child of military parents before majoring in art at the University of Georgia in Athens. Peter Buck, born in California in 1956, worked as a record store clerk in the area; it was via the record shop he encountered Stipe.
Stipe had been into the punk music of the day, particularly Patti Smith, Television, and Wire; Buck was a fanatical record collector, specializing in 60's rock but also a fan of punk and free jazz. When he and Stipe met, he was still just learning guitar. The two discovered an overlap in their musical tastes and became friends; a mutual friend introduced them to Mills and Berry. The four decided to form a band, originally called Twisted Kites, and played their first gig, at a friend's party on April 19, 1980. Their setlist relied heavily on garage band and punk covers; often including obscurites only a vinyl junkie like Buck would be likely to recognize.
The band eventually settled on the name R.E.M. by mid-1980, apparantly choosing the name at random after flipping through a dictionary. They also found a manager around this time, Jefferson Holt, who had caught one of their first out-of-state gigs in neighboring North Carolina. Suitably represented, the band began getting gigs in widespread locations throughout the South; most of 1980-1981 was spent playing hundreds of small-venue gigs, often for sparse crowds. It was during this period of intense touring that the band's initial sound began to gel. Peter Buck's guitar developed a uniquely recognizable jangle, which bore rich psychedelic textures that recalled the Byrds among other influences; he also learned an angular and propulsive style of riffing. Stipe, the art major, began writing lyrics that were fragmented and impressionistic; these he'd sing in a low mumble, sometimes almost inaudible next to the instrumentation. In between his turns at the mike, he'd leap about the stage eccentrically; lending a focal point beyond the still-formative music. Mills breathed new life into the bass; his basslines became richly melodic, sometimes his bass served as lead instrument. Berry also had a distinctive style at the drum kit; he made great use of cymbals and other percussion, which together with the others could combine into a fairly complex wall-of-sound despite there only being three musicians playing at a given time.
A sympathetic and enthusiastic producer was found in Mitch Easter, who led his own early jangle-pop band, Let's Active. A debut single, "Radio Free Europe" was recorded at his tiny Drive-In studios in Winston-Salem, NC in 1981. Released on Hibtone Records, only 1,000 copies were pressed; still, word of mouth spread quickly. The song was a rough gem; punchy and punky, with a bass driven tempo and crunchy guitar, plus a completely impossible-to-discern lyric from Stipe, it was a stand-out; both punky and retro simultaneously, it blazed a trail that few knew existed at the time. Largely on the strength of this rare single and the band's relentless touring, R.E.M. had some influential champions around the country by the end of the year, the Village Voice being one of the very first; the band topped a poll of best independant singles of 1981.
This led to considerable interest in the band, and in Spring 1982, the band was signed to I.R.S. records, one of the most prominent indie labels of the day. Their first release was a 5-song EP, Chronic Town, in spring 1982. The EP shows the band in a still very formative stage; while their sound is already distinct, the execution is still green. Nontheless, it was a stunner when it appeared. Leading off with the jaunty "1,000,000", an angular rocker that displayed Buck's first two styles, propulsion and jangle, and Stipe's yowling vocals it is arresting from the first song to the last. "Wolves, Lower" has some of Stipe's most audible early lyrics, and the snatches that catch the ear are unsettlingly paranoid; the song itself is built around a rich harmonic hook. "Gardening At Night" is a big folk ballad with lovely harmonies and rich work from Buck and Mills. "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)" is perhaps the key track on the disc, pointing to the textures the band would take on their first album. The lyrics aren't so much inaudible as unbelievable; colorful impressionistic phrases that taken alone mean nothing, but as parts of a whole paint a somewhat claustrophobic picture. Here, the band resembles the New York school of intellectual punk more than the Byrds; the combination of these influences would be made more explicit on their next release.
Murmer, the band's 1983 album debut, was a miracle for those who were lucky enough to know about it at the time. In an era when crass synth-pop dominated the airwaves and MTV had rendered all non-photogenic bands obsolete, here was an album of unfashionable guitar-based folk-rock, with a punk aesthetic yet a respect for tradition. Even Rolling Stone, truly out of it at the time, recognized the album as best of 1983. Murmur is a classic example of a band gaining confidence in themselves and their sound, and restlessly pushing the envelope in many new directions. Nearly every cut has something to recommend it; "Radio Free Europe" reappears in a cleaner, fuller version. "Pilgrimage", which aptly demonstrates Mills' growing role as backing vocalist, is based around an odd time signature and piano/bass riff. "Talk About The Passion" is lush and pretty; Buck's guitar erupting in rainfalls of psychedelic pearls while Stipe waxes elegiac. "Perfect Circle" shows the band experimenting in the studio, combining a grand piano with a deliberately out-of-tune upright, giving the song a stange otherworldliness, while Stipe contributes one of his loveliest wistful vocals. Mitch Easter's production is dead on; clean enough to bring out the textures in the music, but keeping Stipe back in the mix, relegating his voice to fourth instrument status; this kept his odd lyrical concerns cryptic while emphasizing the texture of his voice. "Shaking Through" is a more uptempo rocker with excellent harmonies. There aren't enough superlatives to describe this album; the songs bear a timeless quality reminiscent of the Band's early work. They sound older than they really are, yet they escape any hint of retro or nostalgia. The record ultimately peaked at #36 on the charts.
Murmer's effect on indie rock was profound, influencing a myriad of bands. However, R.E.M.'s next effort, Reckoning, surpassed it in both ambition and execution. Among original fans, Reckoning is usually considered the band's best album (later fans generally prefer Automatic For The People). Reckoning reveals fewer punk moves and more in a garage-rock vein, perhaps due to the extensive touring the band did throughout the year. Once again produced by Mitch Easter, Reckoning stands as the band's lone jangle-pop album, opening with the guitar textures of "Harborcoat" and working its way through 10 flawless songs. "7 Chinese Brothers" is full of guitar chime, as its lyric is adopted from a children's fable. "Time After Time (Annelise)" is a stately piece of updated raga-rock, built upon an Eastern motif that builds into a towering guitar crescendo. "Letter Never Sent" is enigmatic garage rock with punch. "Camera" is one of the band's best early moments, a slow rumination given a clock-like cross-stick snare beat by Berry whil Buck works in minor-key arpeggios and Stipe delivers a solemn, lonely, almost obsessive lyric of world-weary sadness. "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" is classic country-rock with unusually clear and direct lyrics and a giant hook for a chorus. The single, "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" is one of their most intensely emotional numbers; also in a country vein, but culminating in a firey close. For those who missed Murmer, this album was another good jumping-on point; no R.E.M. album coheres as well as this one. The album peaked at #27, a step in their long march to the top.
It was about this point where the word "phenomenon" came to be tossed about in reference to the band. Their body of work up to this point was extremely original; nobody was quite working the same side of the street. Their instrumental approach was unique; Stipe's idea of a frontman as a guy who lurks back near the drumkit was revelatory, the band's cryptic album art and even more cryptic videos, which resembled film student art movies, lent them an aura of mystery, and their bona-fide indie roots gave them credibility. Many bands began to follow their lead, sonically and imagewise; both the jangle pop and roots rock arenas were forever changed by their appearance. R.E.M. took this responsibility seriously, and went out of their way to champion other bands in interviews and at concerts, as well as getting many of their favorites to open for them. In this sense, the band's influence extended beyond their records; 1985 was a year full of similar sounding bands, many of which had gotten a boost from R.E.M.
Interestingly, the band abruptly changed directions with their next album (which, depending on how you held the jacket, was either called Fables of the Reconstruction or Reconstruction of the Fables). Mitch Easter didn't produce (apparently by friendly agreement), and Joe Boyd was enlisted. Producer of 60's folk-rockers Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, he seemed a natural fit for the band, and his influence is felt troughout the album. Fables of the Reconstruction is a strange record; it is the most steeped in Americana tradition of all their releases, it is also the darkest and most sinister album they ever released. The band was growing tired of their neverending touring, and the tensions are felt in the taut textures on the album. The band's southern obsessions became deeper, more gothic, with dark, frightening imagry hiding beneath the angular surface. Stipe's eccentric behavior was particularly strange at the time, as he shaved his head bald, began wearing multiple layers of clothing, and made odd, cryptic pronouncements at shows. The album is the most overtly psychedelic of the band's career, and it's a tense, edgy psychedelia made manifest in the very first song, "Feeling Gravity's Pull" which builds on wildly discordant guitar noises, breaking only for the buzzed lull of the bridges. "Driver 8" is another country-rock garage band song, a singalong train song on the surface, but as the lyrics reveal themselves the song becomes ominous and foreboding. "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" is a psychedelic nightmare that almost strays into Pere Ubu territory. "Good Advices", a song about travel, is subverted by its own sadness. "Life and How To Live It" is an energetic rabble rouser with some of Stipe's sharpest lyrics, "Green Grow The Rushes" is the token Byrds nod, "Can't Get There From Here" is a ridiculous slab of blue-eyed soul. In total, Fables of the Reconstruction doesn't quite have the consistency of Reckoning. However, it is nearly as good, albeit in a more claustrophobic way. It represented a real change in sound and direction right when people were wondering if they were destined to repeat Reckoning until the break-up. While not quite as successful as its predecessor, reaching an almost-identical #28 on the charts, it earned them critical respect for the chances it took. In retrospect, it also closed out their initial run of flawless releases; diehard early fans often point to the next release as a disappointment.
Life's Rich Pageant, from 1986, saw more changes. Perhaps taking the "roots rock" tag to heart, Don Gehman was enlisted to produce, having worked with mainstream roots rocker John Mellencamp. Gehman's biggest thumbprint was in a general cleaning up of the band's sound; where Stipe had always been buried in the mix, he was now moved out front and center. Buck's guitar was highlighted for its riffs more than its texture; Mills got to sing lead on an obscure garage band cover, "Superman". These changes, coupled with a somewhat weaker-than-usual collection of material was a come-down for many, who were looking for more exploration like Fables, or more jangle like Reckoning. Instead, the band plays a harder rock than they had to date, with "Begin The Begin" and "These Days" relying on guitar crunch, with Stipe literally wailing the lyrics. "Hyena" was a good jangle pop tune, but it was a leftover from the Reckoning days, having been part of their setlist for years. The Southern myths explored on Fables appear on the unspectacular "Swan Song H" while "Flowers of Guatemala" and "Cuyahoga" represented a growing latent politicism in Stipe. It's a patchy record; nothing is really bad on it, but the only real standouts are the anthemic "Fall On Me" and the "Superman" closer. The album's biggest failure is Gehman's stripping away of the band's enigmatic tendencies. "Fall On Me" gained considerable airplay, their most so far, and the album made it as far as #21, their best showing to date. A spotty collection of B-sides and rarities followed, entitled Dead Letter Office.
Their next album, and final for I.R.S., was Document, released in 1987. By this point, R.E.M.'s audience had reached critical mass; while the band made no overt commercial moves on Document, it finally represented their big mainstream breakthrough. In fact, Document was something of a retreat from the bold mainstream approach of Life's Rich Pageant; Scott Litt became the band's new producer, a chair he'd occupy for a long time. While keeping the sound clear, he recognized the importance texture had in the band's approach. Thus, much of the band's mystery was restored, without sacrificing sound quality. The songs themselves are a vast improvement over the previous album. It opens with "Finest Worksong" which immediately returns R.E.M. to the enigma of Reckoning while providing a muscular noise-pop arrangement that resembles Fables. "Exhuming McCarthy" is the band's most explicitly political song to date, yet it also remains vague enough to avoid didacticism. "It's The End Of The World As I Know It" was a big radio hit, a joyous garage rocker with nonsense lyrics and big chorus, "King Of Birds" is quite possibly their greatest psychedelic art-rock songs of the 1980's, with Berry's martial drumming, Buck's grand arpeggios, and Stipe's poetic lyrics. The tortured "The One I Love" became the band's very first hit single, peaking at #9 and propelling the album to #10, finally gaining them recognition in the U.K. as well.
Times could not have been better for their I.R.S. contract to run out. After landing at the top without compromising their still decidely non-commercial vision, they were the subjects of a bidding war. Warner Brothers landed them for a substantial sum, closing out their indie era and making them the greatest indie success story until Nirvana hit.
Green, from 1988, was their first Warners release. It also represents a crossroads for the band. While they remain true to their roots, and true to their idiosyncratic sound and experimentation, they also suffered what might be considered their first dose of overexposure; some of the longer term fans began to bail here, just as brand new fans clamored aboard. The album itself is strangely schizophrenic. The first side runs a gamut of moods, from the tuneful "Pop Song 89" to the wistful and romantic "You Are The Everything", to the elegant piano-based "World Leader Pretend". Buck's dabbling in mandolin makes its first big impressions on this album, particularly on the bizarrely touching "The Wrong Child". Side two begins with a slice of quasi-art-pop "Orange Crush" before descending into a series of murky hard rock tunes. "Stand" was the album's big hit, peaking at #6, "Orange Crush" was a #1 radio hit. "Stand" was controversial; a pop-rocker built on elementary chords, with a lyric like a children's rhyme, it seemed silly for those who took the band's earlier, darker obsessions seriously. However, it is certainly a catchy piece of ear candy, a born radio hit, and Green, while uneven and at times dull, stands as a pretty good transitional effort.
Now headliners, the band began playing stadiums in America, and spent most of 1988 on the road; 1989 was the first year since the band was formed that saw no new product released. The tour left the band exhausted, and they took most of 1989 off; working on a variety of side projects. They didn't begin recording again until 1990, when work commenced on Out Of Time.
Out Of Time, released 1991, was a long-anticipated release, after the nearly 3-year haitus, and it entered the charts at #1. As most of their previous albums had been recorded between tours, they all generally boasted a spare sound, relying on standard instruments, easily replicable live. Much care went into Out Of Time's production, with overdubs and lush production, with french horns, strings, and mandolins, and careful detail to the mixing. The album received generally good notice, and their fanbase continued to grow, but once again, older fans saw the album as something of a disappointment. The songwriting remains uneven; there are moments of grandeur, and moments of lightweight sillyness. Singled out for attack by many long-time fans was "Shiny Happy People", a shiny happy pop tune featuring Kate Pierson of the B-52's. The song is in a similar vein to "Stand", catchy and tuneful, but ultimately meaningless. Elsewhere, "Losing My Religion" has been called both a masterpiece and an embarrassment; it all depends on how you approach the music. Out Of Time, in reality, is yet another transitional album; now able to use state of the art expensive production techniques, the band's songs seem tentative and unfinished. One of the best moments, "Endgame" consists of Stipe humming over a lush strings-and-french horn backing. In retrospect, despite the care that went into it, Out Of Time remains one of the band's lesser efforts. The album was their biggest seller ever, however, selling 4 million copies.
Automatic For The People came out in 1992, and it is a return to form, their most accomplished album of the 1990's and a real progression for the band, one that succeeds on all fronts. The band sounds as though it had been doing a lot of reflecting, not just on music, but on life, aging, and death. "Man On The Moon", a tribute to prankster comedian Andy Kaufman, is one of their sweetest, most elegiac, and lyrically poignant songs ever; Mills' backing vocals and bassline are classic. "Star Me Kitten" is a strange throwback to the early 60's, with a ghostly wall-of-sound production built upon sustained backing vocals; Stipe lends it his most tender and romantic vocal. "Everybody Hurts" is plaintive and raw, "Nightswimming" is melancholic, "Find The River" borders on the spiritual. The album itself, like Fables of the Reconstruction, is greater than the sum of its parts, conveying an epic quality. Strings (arranged by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin), keyboards, and overdubs are integrated into the band's sound better than on previous efforts, keeping the entire package sounding organic and authentic. Even the hard-to-please oldtimers generally liked it. A #2 album on the charts, it also sold about 4 million copies.
The band's next release was Monster, in 1994. It is here that things began going seriously wrong for the band. Monster was a long-promised hard rock album from the band; it was to feature guitar driven rock with a minimum of overdubs. On paper, it looked like a good idea; as old fans of Television and Patti Smith, surely the biggest post-punk band of them all could deliver on the promise. The very first chords of "What's The Frequency Kenneth?" seemed to confirm this; an uncompromising hard rocker, with phase shifted and backwards guitars, it had an appealing psychedelic propulsion to it, a great harmonic chorus, and a lyric and overall sound that was still distinctly R.E.M. Unfortunately, the album hits the dirt after that; while the songs do rock hard, and Buck's guitar is the star of the show, the songs themselves are murky, forgettable, and weird in an unappealing way. "Crush With Eyeliner" is the key track; a bizarre gender-bending glam rock number it points to the other songs' odd fixations and fetishes. On tour, the band glammed it up onstage, dressing like rock stars, while failing to convey the visual impact such music demanded. The album hit #1 on sheer momentum, but displayed somewhat less staying power than previous releases.
The supporting tour, in 1995, was the band's first since Green, and it was star-crossed from the beginning. Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurism two months in; he recovered after surgery, and the tour resumed. Mills suffered an intestinal tumor that had to be surgically removed. Stipe suffered a hernia. The tour was completed, and was a financial success, but it had long-lasting effects on the band members.
In 1996, just prior to their new album release, the band fired long-time manager Jefferson Holt following a sexual harassment charge leveled against him; Bertis Downs, who had served as the band's lawyer took his place.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi appeared in 1996, just as the band signed a new contract with Warner Brothers for a staggering $80 million. It also marks the beginning of a decline in the band's fortunes; it would appear that in this case Warners bought high and will be forced to sell low. The album itself is fairly good; the last solid offerening from the band to date. As the title suggests, it is an album of experimentation. Leaving behind Monster for the one-shot it was always supposed to be, the band immersed itself in studio trickery; overdubs are everywhere, as are a melange of studio and live tapes, tape manipulation, odd instrumentation, and the like. Not everything works; "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" gets too tricky for its own good, with its dissonant piano and hip-hop beat. But much of the good stuff recalls Automatic For The People, and some even sound like the I.R.S. years, in spirit, if not quite sound. "Electrolite" is an example of the former, "Bittersweet Me" an example of the latter. However, at 62 minutes, the band's material wears thin; the album would have benefited from more ruthless editing. It peaked at #2, but yielded no hit singles, and drifted off the chart fairly quickly.
Bill Berry's health had remained a concern since the 1995 tour, and in October 1997 the band announced that he was retiring, on friendly terms, to spend time on his farm. This instantly created break-up rumors, but the band promptly entered the studio as a three-piece, a drum machine filling in for Berry.
Faced with Berry's loss, the band had two choices; they could hire a drummer and go on as they had, or they could use his departure as an opportunity to explore a new sound altogether. Up, released in 1998, show R.E.M. choosing the latter course. The drum machine meant that electronic textures were the obvious avenue to follow, and R.E.M. did, with mixed results. Gone entirely is the jangle-pop of their I.R.S. days, gone also are the rich guitar textures of their early Warners albums. Instead, keyboards dominate a lot of the music, while the guitars are buried; it is R.E.M.'s electronic album. "Airportman" is a spooky leadoff, and "Suspicion" a pretty good paranoid piece. "Lostus" is the standout; eerie but accessible, it recalls the band' strengths. 'At My Most Beautiful" is an organ and piano-based number with processed Beach Boy-esque harmonies. Stipe and Mills still sound like themselves, so despite the alien soundscape, it still sounds like R.E.M. However, too many of the songs are moody, down-tempo dirges; there's not enough excitement to bring the new textures into relief, and the album is weighted down by its own gloominess. Peaking at #3, it had an even shorter shelf-life than its predecessor.
There was a long wait for the next one, Reveal, released in 2001. Reveal is a logical record; realizing the pseudo-electronica of Up wasn't leading anywhere, they go back to the melodic basics of Automatic For The People, adding the lushness of Out Of Time, while retaining some of the outer limits experimentation of Up. While this reslted in an improvement of product, it also highlighted the fact that the band was no longer a trendsetter; like many long-lived bands it had retreated into recontextualizing sounds it had explored before. Consequently, Reveal is an album liked by latter-day fans, largely dismissed by old ones, and is hit-or-miss with its songs. "Imitation Of Life" and "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)" are epic pop tunes; "Beachball" is a successful Beach Boys tribute. The band deserves props for continuing to try new effects, "Summer Turns to High" sounds credibly experimental. Where the mechanical beats were integral to Up, here, they're buried, bringing back the band's organic sound without going completely retro. At this point, those who have stuck with the band all along have got to be rooting for them, and Reveal is worth it in the end. But it is a mediocre album from a great group.
Around The Sun came out after another significant break, in 2004. It continues the transitional phase that became an emergency after Berry's departure, but really had been going on since Monster. It's a polished effort, carefully crafted, and like all R.E.M. albums is not without its merits. Still, the band seems adrift. The hole left by Berry remained unfilled; Stipe's vocals are double tracked in many places, pushing Mills' voice deep into the background. Buck's guitar returns to the forefront, but displays little of its reckless abandon or intricate latticework of yore, instead it's workmanlike and perfunctory. The production is dense and obsessive; and the songs remain overly gloomy. Lyrically, the myths are gone; in there place are relationship songs, vague political songs, joke songs. It peaked at #13, the band's lowest charting since Life's Rich Pageant.
Despite R.E.M.'s apparent decline over the past decade-plus, it's hard to count them out forever. There's no question about the talents of Stipe, Mills, and Buck. They've always shown a willingness to try new things, evolve, avoid pigeonholes. Back in the late 80's the band was asked how long they'd stay together; "until 2000" was their answer. In that light, Reveal and Around The Sun are bonuses in a career that would be worthy of remembrance had they never recorded another note after leaving I.R.S. Like many successful bands, time works against them; longer breaks between albums, more time spent with family than on the road helps break the intensity bands develop during formative years spent in close quarters. They can't be faulted for this; life comes first. The legacy of recorded work they've amassed so far is worthy of the rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame, and will assuredly be discovered by generations to come. The imprint they've left on the evolution of rock music is substantial, and their championing of competing and yourger bands is honorable.
Should the inevitable occur and the band breaks up, perhaps at long last we'll see some live releases from the glory years at I.R.S.; bootleg recordings do brisk business even now. Whether you were around for Murmer, or climbed aboard with Green, R.E.M.'s best work remains engaging and inspirational and still rewards closer listening.
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Listen to R.E.M.: Seven Chinese Brothers [live in Chicago] (1984)