October 10, 2004

By popular demand – it's the all–new R.E.M. retrospective!

Aha! In reponse to the comment posted on the Around the Sun review, I managed to dredge up the following (updated 28/08/05):

R.E.M. - THE RETROSPECTIVE

What struck me recently upon witnessing the band's concert at Hyde Park was the sheer volume of people in attendance who clearly owned only a couple of their albums and/or the Greatest Hits compilation. Along with anyone who dismisses R.E.M. as "depressing" or "unoriginal", this has always struck me as something of a pointless exercise, as you simply can't measure the power and influence of their output on the basis of a few bubblegum radio hits. They are, at heart, an art band who just happen to possess a knack for a killer tune; that they later metamorphosed into mega-selling stadium rock giants seems irrelevant, as many of their singalong anthems are relatively lightweight or even throwaway in comparison to their more reserved or studious output.

After their recent tour I've decided that I probably won't go and see them live again – there's only so many times I can watch them blast through the likes of 'Orange Crush' while secretly wishing they'd completely ignore the audience and pull out a set of songs like 'Low' and 'Falls to Climb'. They're also knocking on a bit and not quite the force they were even a couple of years ago at Glastonbury (which, along with their post-9/11 set in Cologne, was simply one of the finest performances they'll ever turn in), and I'd hate to see them turn into The Rolling Stones just banging out the hits for a bunch of drunk bastards unable to remember what albums they came from. Hopefully when they grow tired of rocking out they'll "do a Springsteen" and start touring acoustically, an exercise which ought to adequately showcase the quality of their back catalogue and restore their status as one of American music's all-time greats.

Regardless, here's an expanded version of the album-by-album rundown which first appeared on the Offbeat forum a couple of years back…

Murmur (1983): Easily the most consistent of their early LPs in terms of its overall project and tone – it fits together effortlessly well and is best listened to as a whole instead of picking out individual tracks. As such I can see why many people rate it as their finest work – it's an elliptical and mysterious mood piece which, like all the best art, slowly draws you into its own world and keeps you bobbling about there for its haunting duration. The quality of the songwriting is remarkable for a band still in its infancy – check out 'Perfect Circle' and 'Pilgrimage' for a more considered alternative to straight-ahead balls-out rockers like 'Radio Free Europe' and 'Sitting Still' (mind you, if you can make out what Stipe's singing even in these then you're a better man than me).

Reckoning (1984): A deliberate reaction against the calculated mysticism of their debut, this can be quite patchy in places but it still contains some of the greatest songs they've ever recorded in the form of 'South Central Rain', 'Don't Go Back to Rockville' and 'Pretty Persuasion' (to this day, the former may just be their very best – certainly the band themselves rate it very highly). Disjointed, but a bit of a lark, all things considered.

Fables of the Reconstruction (1985): Opinion is divided among more hardcore R.E.M. fans as to whether this is the band's darkest, most incoherent hour or their most interesting work, though time has elevated it to the status of one of their most important albums: if you ever want to hear where the likes of Interpol got half their ideas from, meld this to a Joy Division record and you have your answer. Not for the first time, its traumatic recording almost broke up the band and this is reflected in many of its moody, understated compositions. Still, you'd be hard-pushed to find a more upbeat double-header than 'Can't Get There From Here' and 'Life and How to Live It', even amidst the likes of cutting opener 'Feeling Gravitys Pull' and the rattling doom-dance of 'Auctioneer (Another Engine)'. Oh, and 'Driver 8' really gets the monkey shaking.

Life's Rich Pageant (1986): While they undoubtedly benefitted from roping in producer Don Gehman to beef up the sound and coax Stipe into projecting his voice instead of retreating into it, this album can actually be quite wearing at times - the constant jingle-jangle becomes rather monotonous when basically sustained all the way through (especially on forgettable tracks like 'Hyena'). That said - and this is a big "that said" – when it's good, it's magnificent: 'Begin the Begin' and 'These Days' kick things off in grand style, whereas 'Cuyahoga' and 'Fall On Me' (high up in the top five R.E.M. songs of all-time, no question) are real gems.

Dead Letter Office (1987): As a B-sides compilation I don't suppose this technically counts as a proper album, though the inclusion of their brilliant debut EP Chronic Town is a major incentive for purchase. Equally, early tracks like 'White Tornado' make for interesting curios, and their covers of choice tunes by The Velvet Underground and Pylon are major plus-points. The less said about the likes of pissed-up drivel like 'Burning Hell' the better, mind.

Document (1987): Overall this album can be quite frustrating, perhaps due to the fact that the obvious standout tracks became big hits and so immediately stand out from the rest of the album ('Finest Worksong', 'The One I Love', 'It's the End of the World As We Know It'). Even so, it's a brash and ballsy record which marks the turning-point in their career and heralded their move from art-rock cult favourites to bona-fide stadium-fillers.

Green (1988): Not as almighty as some would have you believe (many critics proclaimed it the best rock album of the decade upon its release), but Green is still a formidable piece of work. Experimenting for the first time with instruments outside of the accepted line-up for a four-piece rock band, 'World Leader Pretend', 'You Are the Everything' and 'Hairshirt' are all magnificent pre-cursors to the world-conquering albums which would follow, whereas 'Pop Song 89' and 'Stand' make for likeable throwaway tosh and 'Turn You Inside Out' raises the stabbing stadium guitar blueprint of Document a notch higher. Note also the fascination with the number 4 on the cover artwork - Michael Stipe accidently hit the letter 'r' on his computer keyboard when typing out the track numbers and the idea just stuck. Given that '5' appears on the cover of Document, many R.E.M. conspiracists took this to mean that the group would split in three albums' time. Unintentionally, they almost did…

Out of Time (1991): Bright, breezy and bursting with life, there just isn't a duff track on here (for the record, 'Shiny Happy People' is perhaps the best non-ironic pure-pop song to ever somehow count itself as an ironic guilty pleasure). Yet amid the elation there exists the same intelligence, melancholy and attention to detail which has characterised even their most artful releases: 'Low' is as good a slow-burner as they'll ever write, 'Losing My Religion' as skyscraping now as it ever was, 'Half a World Away' aching as sin, 'Me In Honey' highly undervalued, and 'Belong' the source of the finest harmonies you'll ever hear.

Automatic For the People (1993): As with Document, the omnipresence of the major hit singles can give this record a somewhat disjointed feel overall, and in recent years I've found myself more drawn to its more introspective tracks, particularly 'Drive', 'Monty Got a Raw Deal', 'Find the River' (again, top five R.E.M. songs, hands-down) and even the unlikely 'New Orleans Instrumental No. 1'. However, no amount of over-exposure can diminish the sheer power of its crowd favourites, and you simply haven't lived until you've seen 'Everybody Hurts' performed live at a festival – their cathartic and emotionally-charged version at Glastonbury 2003 was utterly phenomenal. If anyone ever tells you this is a depressing song, either walk away shaking your head in despair or simply hit them, as they quite simply are a moron with the attention span of a goldfish, and thus beyond help.

Monster (1995): Despite once being named one of the most forgettable records by a major act of all time in Q magazine, this is in fact a pretty decent album which I've always had a great amount of affection for. True, at times its glam-rock posturing gets a little tiresome ('King of Comedy', anyone?) but there's some genuinely great stuff here amongst the bombast: 'I Don't Sleep, I Dream', 'Strange Currencies', 'Bang & Blame', 'Tongue', 'Let Me In' (written for, to and about Kurt Cobain) and the horrendously discordant 'You' are all winners. Of course it's no Automatic, but then that was the point: as a dolled-up, sexed-up exercise in reinvention (the entire record throbs with an alternately sinister and sorrowful sense of lust or longing), this is pretty hard to beat. Definitely time for people to reappraise this one.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1997): Production-wise, this doesn't sit that well with me, as the rather hollow arena sound is quite distracting and there are certain songs which would've sounded infinitely better recorded in the studio as opposed to done live. Equally, tracks like 'The Wake Up Bomb' and 'Binky the Doormat' could have been pruned for the sake of brevity with no dentrimental effect to the record as a whole. Nitpicking aside though, its highlights are awesome: 'E-Bow the Letter', 'Leave', 'Electrolite' and 'How the West Was Won' are all instant classics which showcase a band at the top of their game. Incidental trivia: the band struck a deal with touring buddies Radiohead for Thom Yorke to come over to America and sing an R.E.M. track of his choice, with Stipe doing the same for the Oxford boys. Typically esoteric in his thinking, Yorke plumped for 'Be Mine', as can be witnessed on the excellent documentary This Way Up.

Up (1999): This is without question the band's most complete album: every single track on here works within context, and if you take one song out the whole thing falls apart. Robbed of the solid backbone of their previous incarnation as a quartet, this is also the moment when the band were forced to reconfigure their sound in the wake of Bill Berry's departure. As such, their humanity shines brighter than ever before: Up is the shuffling, awkward sound of a band naked before the world: fragile, vulnerable and having to prove themselves for the first time in years. It's absolutely fucking magnificent from start to finish.

Reveal (2001): Another step towards the fractured electronic-based sound hinted at by Up, this is let down only by a couple of slightly weaker tracks midway through ('Summer Turns to High', 'Chorus and the Ring') and the fact that it's one song too long – why they felt the need to include 'Beachball' when 'I'll Take the Rain' would've finished things off so perfectly, I'll never know. 'I've Been High', 'She Just Wants to Be' and 'The Lifting' are all wonderful, but the highlight is 'Saturn Return' – their most opaque, ambitious and artistic track to date. Pointless trivia: 'Imitation of Life' only ended up on there at the record company's insistence; the song it replaced, 'Fascinate', is superb.

Around the Sun (2004): A curious step backwards for the band in that it marries the more straightforward approach of Automatic to the experimental edge of Reveal, to not entirely successful effect. Patience elevates it above an uninspiring first few listens but its enduring weakness is the wishy-washy production, which lends the album an airy feel which never quite gives certain tracks the kick they require. Michael Stipe is the key player here, and it's a shame that his eloquence is never quite matched by Buck and Mills' compositions, which often meander where Automatic excelled. Perhaps the first of their albums to truly disappoint, it is nevertheless a major grower with some real standouts: 'Boy In the Well', 'Electron Blue', 'The Outsiders', 'Leaving New York' and 'High Speed Train' will justifiably enter the pantheon of R.E.M. greats given time.

As is clearly evident here, I have way too much spare time on my hands. If you do too, buy up the R.E.M. DVDs This Film Is On and Parallel. They will change the way you look at music videos forever.

Unfortunately the article I wrote for The Boar a while back on the band's Warner Brothers output has now disappeared from their website. For the record though, I recently made my friend James a 2CD 'Best Of' compilation and after much idle pontification the tracklisting was as follows…

DISC 1

1) "Airportman"
2) "Monty Got a Raw Deal"
3) "We Walk"
4) "Electrolite"
5) "The One I Love"
6) "Me in Honey"
7) "Live and How to Live It"
8) "Fall On Me"
9) "Radio Free Europe"
10) "Losing My Religion"
11) "Cuyahoga"
12) "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" – MTV Unplugged 1991
13) "Driver 8"
14) "Electron Blue"
15) "Leave"
16) "Half a World Away"
17) "Strange Currencies"
18) "Walk Unafraid"
19) "E-Bow the Letter"

DISC 2

1) "Daysleeper"
2) "Sitting Still"
3) "World Leader Pretend"
4) "Crazy"
5) "I've Been High"
6) "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us"
7) "Hairshirt"
8) "The Outsiders" (feat. Q-Tip)
9) "Low"
10) "So. Central Rain" (MTV Unplugged 2001)
11) "Drive"
12) "I Don't Sleep, I Dream"
13) "I'll Take the Rain"
14) "You Are the Everything"
15) "Find the River"
16) "Let Me In"
17) "Country Feedback"
18) "Saturn Return"
19) "You"

– - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - –

[Addendum]: does the soundtrack LP for Man On the Moon count? If so, there are a couple of likeable instrumental tracks on there in addition to 'The Great Beyond' – plus you also get the band performing 'This Friendly World' with Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton, which is a hoot…

A few other worthwhile extracurricular tracks for completists out there:

  • 'Happiness' by Michael Stipe & Rain Phoenix (from the Todd Solondz film of the same name)

  • 'Only In America' (from the soundtrack of Canadian Bacon)

  • 'Revolution' (from the soundtrack of Batman and Robin)

  • 'All the Right Friends' (from the soundtrack of Vanilla Sky)

  • 'Furry Happy Monsters', as performed on Sesame Street (only
    R.E.M. could get away with this)

  • 'I'm Gonna DJ', a new track performed on their recent world tour which contains the rather sterling lyric "Death is so final / I'm collecting vinyl / I'm gonna DJ at the end of the world…"

R.E.M. backing band member Ken Stringfellow has also had an illustrious career worth investigating, first with The Posies (one of the most underrated American bands of the 1990s) and then as a solo artist. The Posies' 1993 album Frosting On the Beater is a full-on classic which ought to made compulsory for anyone with ears.

I still hold out hope that one day some really hot babe's going to wander over when I'm DJ-ing and utter the phrase "Bugger this nonsense, let's talk about R.E.M.!". In the meantime, a life is, I feel, sorely needed in this corner…


- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. I don't know how I missed this when you posted it almost a month ago now. Obviously it show thru the new list and I didn't search for it. It's really useful to me as I didn't know much about REM and there was too much stuff to guess where to start. Thanks. I'll try to post a review (that is, a personal response) when I have got some under my belt.

    07 Nov 2004, 22:19

  2. The first Ken Stringfellow album, Touched is a cracking little record. Out of Time is not only my favourite R.E.M. album but my favourite album ever. Perhaps the only album I can listen to all the way through anytime, anywhere, any mood. I grew up with this record and for me it is the most important collection of songs ever recorded.

    As for NAIHF, I think this is actually one of their best albums. Not necessarily a favourite but definately the most 'rock'. I love playing this from start to finish on lon car journeys on ot days.

    As for the Thom York / Michael Stipe thing I think Michael sung Karma Police but I'm not entirely sure about this as I haven't actually heard it.

    07 Jun 2005, 16:30


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