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Did They Burn Out Or Fade Away?

Saturday, 25 May 2013

It's funny, isn't it?  The Beatles broke up when they couldn't take it anymore.  But R.E.M.? I think they retired.  Ponder the difference, for a second, if there is one.  One group couldn't stand each other and the other one just ran out of gas?  That's basically how I read it.  Could be wrong.  Been wrong before.

Anyway, this might not make much sense until you read Billy's post which will follow.  I just got to Saturday night and sitting around late and felt like writing this down and so I'm kind of going out of turn.  But, hell, it's a blog, so what's the difference?  What are we going to do--fire each other?  

I think since the (untimely?) demise of R.E.M. a couple of years ago, Billy and I have been mourning in our own ways, trying to come to terms with it.  They just didn't have anything anymore and everyone seemed to know it.  Maybe we even knew it before they did.  Almost at the moment R.E.M. signed a big contract with Sony, they were finished.  I don't know that the two events were connected or that they weren't.  All I know is that troubles and an apparent lack of inspiration seemed to follow.

Well, here's what we agreed on at a concert the other night: we would each explain 10 great R.E.M. songs, not in competition with each other, but just as parallel homages.  I haven't listened to R.E.M. in some time, so my list is organic and without order.  Whatever comes into my head as a fav song I am going to go with, without much rethinking or editing.  Again, no order, just 10 great songs.  If you've got others, I'm sure we'd love to hear what they are.

"Bad Day"--this was the last great song, in my opinion, one that was older but unreleased until a compilation. Great lyrics, great riff, and it is my chance to say that bands don't always seem to know their own best material.  How you leave this off of a CD is beyond me.  Like "New Test Leper," it seems like one of those occasions when Michael Stipe is willing to step out from behind the mask and bare his soul, unadorned.  

"Shaking Through"--R.E.M.'s first album is one of the sonic marvels of the modern age--the energy of a young band meets the found sounds in Mitch Easter's studio.  It would not be until three or four records later that the band would find such a sympathetic producer again.  This song establishes the kind of R.E.M. jangling guitar sound that would serve them well for three more albums during the peak of their creativity.  I love to sing along with this one.  I have no idea what it means.

"Begin The Begin" is one of the great this-is-who-we-are anthems that any band has ever opened a record with.  Political, rocking, and nonsensical all at once, this is the band raising their game in recognition of seeking a larger audience, but without compromise.  There is no other band in history that could get away with "Let's begin again/ Like Martin Luther Zen" and have all of us nodding our heads like it is wisdom, which it might be.  Life's Rich Pageant redefined our country like few other popular CDs have since Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? and this manifesto sets the tone both for R.E.M.'s emergence as a band with something to say and for Document, which finished the mission.

"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville"--Back when all of the band's songs referenced locales and people in Georgia, this one had the best feeling as a homegrown, should-be single.  Some bands don't write a song this tuneful with such a hummable chorus during their entire careers.  This was merely the catchiest of a terrific batch of songs on Reckoning.  I wish they had a better producer for these songs.

"Driver 8"--I've played this one too often on my own guitar not to mention it.  The ultimate example of R.E.M.'s neo-gothic Southern vision.  After this one finishes rocking, if you needed a chaser or an after-dinner drink, you could wind down thematically with "Swan Swan H."

"Disturbance At The Heron House"-perhaps the best use of Michael Stipe's cyclical, repetitive lyrical style where the same phrases move in and out of a song in different places and ways.  The song seemed to be some kind of political allegory, but even without that, the title and events capture a societal upheaval against the backdrop of a stark,powerful guitar riff and an economical Peter Buck guitar solo.  R.E.M. at its most muscular, one of the traits it lost after drummer Bill Berry's brain aneurysm.

"I Believe" ("in coyotes and time as an abstract"), another unusual belief statement from Life's Rich Pageant that defines a band full of confidence, vim and vigor finally willing to 
put the lyrics up front in all of their mysterious, quasi-intellectual glory.  "I Believe" also captures another of the band's patterns, that of acknowledging the folk music of the South (with its into of old-timely banjo), not unlike the beautiful "Wendell Gee" or even the introduction of folk mandolin on "Losing My Religion."  Plus, the song just rocks at a tempo few other of the band's songs reach.

"Green Grow The Rushes"--With its titular reference to Robert Browning, "Green Grow The Rushes" captures that back roads Georgia agrarian sensibility probably better than any of their other songs, but what really drives the song for me is the beginning-to-end, inventive guitar accompaniment of Peter Buck.  Underrated because he seems to have learned his instrument by playing in this band, he nevertheless uses alternate tunings to create the iconic guitar sounds of the Athens music scene in the 80's.  Partial chords and two or three string phrasings helped to define a music getting away from blaring power chords, and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam would learn from him.

"The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight"--the perfect pop song, with its strong vocals, its reference to a previous song, its punchy guitar chords.  In that way, it reminds me of The Pretenders' "Back On The Chain Gang," deferential to but somehow better than the somewhat-silly trappings of the original song.

"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?"--Even though I tired of Monster and its approach pretty quickly, I've always held affection for this opener.  I like the power of the song.  I think it uses the amped-up guitar sounds most effectively, and I love the snippets of lyrics like "you said that irony was the shackles of youth" that the song spits out.

Two things:1) I learn from this exercise how many, many many more songs I could have included and 2) even though I didn't mention a single song from New Adventures In Hi-Fi or Out Of Time, I admire how both of those CDs offer quality songs from beginning to end and work best as a collection without singling out individual songs.

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