November 14, 2011

R.E.M.: Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage

R.E.M.'s "first-ever definite greatest hits album" is in stores tomorrow (trailer). Two discs. 40 songs. The title comes from a 1988 description of the band by guitarist Peter Buck.

"First-ever" is a bit of a misnomer. While it is the first set to cover their entire 31-year career, it is, in fact, their eighth compilation album (and fourth "best of"). They also have two 2-CD live albums, both recorded since 2007. And the band has been releasing expanded remastered versions of their classic mid-80s albums.

So, coming on the heels of their break-up announcement, and six weeks before Christmas, this release feels like a cash grab. (I'll perk up and grab my wallet when Buck, the group's archivist/packrat, starts compiling rare and live box sets. He has said the band filmed and recorded shows on every one of their tours.)

Buck (guitar), Michael Stipe (vocals), Mike Mills (bass), and Bill Berry (drums) formed R.E.M. in Athens, Georgia. Their early albums for the independent I.R.S. label were some of the most intoxicating and revelatory - and FUN - rock and roll ever.

I was absolutely smitten with them, and with Buck especially, who played the part of cool older brother/record store clerk, turning everyone on to new bands, recommending albums, holding forth on all matters concerning rock and roll. (My college radio show was called "Life And How To Live It", a song of their 1985 album, Fables Of The Reconstruction.) R.E.M. came to Vermont for the first time on Halloween night in 1986. My review* for the good old Burlington Free Press began:
Critics pounded their typewriters like pulpits when R.E.M. released their debut album in 1983. 'Murmur,' a dense menagerie of sounds, moods, and mind-pictures, and its single 'Radio Free Europe,' built a cult following on college campuses that has grown and threatens to make them, baring any commercial breakthrough, America's best 'unknown' band.
* I'm amused that although I loved the band back then, my review is not a rave: "Uneven in its pacing, the two-hour, 28-song set built too many highs that weren't sustained. ... [T]he band put the crowd on a roller-coaster ride of emotions that didn't settle until the second half of the show." That was Friday, October 31. Laura flew up for the show/weekend. I went down to New York the next Friday (November 7) and we saw them that night at the Felt Forum.

It turns out a commercial breakthrough was not that far away. "The One I Love" and "Stand" cracked the US Top 10 charts, but it wasn't until "Losing My Religion" was released in 1991 that the band became a household name.

Some video (some of which I have posted before):
October 10, 1982 - Raleigh, North Carolina (46 minutes)

June 9, 1984 - Passaic, New Jersey
Driver 8 & Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)
Harborcoat / Seven Chinese Brothers

May 27, 1985 - Meredith College, Raleigh, North Carolina
Life And How To Live It

October 2, 1985 - Grugahalle, Essen, Germany (95 minutes)
For LHTG, it looks like R.E.M. has taken the All-Star Game approach, picking at least one song from each of their 15 studio albums (even Around The Sun, aka the 1899 Cleveland Spiders). The three unreleased songs at the end of Disc 2 were recorded earlier this year.

Nerd Alert: This is where I pick my own 40-song set. If you are unfamiliar with the band's music, you should probably stop reading now and go do whatever else you had planned for today. I obeyed the ASG rule, and allowed myself the option of ignoring hit singles. Of which, surprisingly, there are few. In the end, only 14 of my choices overlapped with the band (nine on D1 and five on D2). Not that the other 26 songs are poor choices (though some are); I simply liked mine more.
A few comments: the combination of Stipe's and Kate Pierson's vocals on "Shiny Happy People" is brilliant; re quiet songs: some of their best work on Automatic, shitty shit on AtS; I wanted to avoid "Imitation Of Life" because it's paint-by-numbers R.E.M., but "Disappear" and "Beat A Drum" did not quite measure up; and I'm including only the second half of "It Happened Today". Collapse received good reviews for reasons unknown to me, 'cuz, Christ, it's a completely crappy career coda.

I'd like to reassess all of R.E.M.'s albums this winter. In recent years, I have learned that I am lukewarm (at best) about an album I thought I loved, a much-maligned record is becoming one I quite like, and the record I'd take to the desert island has changed.


laura k said...

That chart originally had my picks, too... until I realized that I dislike almost everything after Document, with the exception of Automatic for the People and Monster, until Accelerate. What I love of theirs, I really love. But what I don't love... I hate.

In honour of this post, I'm going to re-listen to all those REM CDs that I don't remember because I disliked them so much on first listen. Maybe my thoughts have changed, too.

allan said...

I'd love to post your thoughts if you want to share them - whenever that may be.

(I have been downloading a ton of their live shows from 1982-84!)

Tony said...

A really good writeup. I also think this kind of seems like a cash grab, as I don't think anybody is really clamoring for the addition of the post-Berry stuff. And I Feel Fine and In Time together do the job just fine, IMO.

I'm also with you on hoping Buck puts out some of the vaults stuff. That Toronto (?) show attached to the Deluxe Edition of Murmur is a real stormer - funny how much energy this supposed mumbling chimy-guitar band put into their shows, huh?

I don't have any real quibbles with your alternate-universe compilation; if leaving out some of the more well-known songs (although not seeing Fall On Me hurt my heart a little), the secondary choices you made basically match up with mine. I will say, though, that I disagree with both you and the official version's New Adventures representatives; these may be boring choices, but E-Bow The Letter and Bittersweet Me are mine. Stipe and Smith's vocals are as brilliant as Stipe and Pierson's on the former, and the latter is probably the best hard-rock song they've done as a major label band, certainly better than anything on Monster.

One IRS song I'd include that neither of you did - Swan Swan H. What a beautiful, delicate piece of work.

I love this band. As usual, you did them justice.

allan said...

Thanks! Also glad you got your Dylan blog going again!

Bittersweet Me could easile have been there instead of Be Mine. Hi-Fi is a very solid record, their most solid since LRP, I'd say.

Too much other great stuff on LRP to go with Swan2 or Fall. It's slight, but I also really like Flowers of Guatemala.

laura k said...

I also really like Flowers of Guatemala.

That's my pick for that album.

Thanks for being interested in my REM thoughts. I'll put it on my winter break wish list, we'll see how far I get.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post - REM was such a great band. I graduated college in 1983, which is the year Murmur came out. I wasn't introduced to it for 2 more years, but have to admit that it still ranks as my #1 CD. You know, the one that you'd have to have if you were on a deserted island.

I stopped following REM when they got too pop, but still have a number of the later discs. Thanks for the trip down memory lane - I'm going to dig out the discs and put them into current rotation and give them a listen again.

Douglas said...

Here are some of my favorites (not necessarily greatest hits worthy):

The untitled song (track 11) - from the 'Green' album 1988.

Love Is All Around - The Troggs cover from the 'Radio Song' b-side 1991.

Find The River - I love that choice, Alan! My favorite song from 'Automatic' 1992.

Strange Currencies - from 'Monster' 1994.

No Matter What - a close to note-for-note cover of the Badfinger classic. From the 2002 Christmas single.

I heard an advance copy and the three new songs didn't do much for me...but to each his own! I'll keep enjoying their music for a long time.

laura k said...

I graduated college in 1983, which is the year Murmur came out. I wasn't introduced to it for 2 more years

I graduated in 1982 and was introduced to REM in 1985 - by Allan. That was Murmur, and at the time it was the best new music I had heard in years. My favourite album of theirs has always been Reckoning.

allan said...

One great thing about this post is the comments from people who don't usually comment.

I always thought Amanita was a beautiful girl's name, even if it refers to some very toxic mushrooms.

Laura's list included LRP's Cuyahoga, which is great. Bank the quarry river swim.

Other winners:
Wolves, Lower
9-9 (usually live versions)
Letter Never Sent
Maps and Legends
Turn You Inside Out
Circus Envy
Wake-Up Bomb


I am expecting Tim to comment. he started listening to the albums in order. I know he loved Chronic Town a LOT. He said recently he's waiting before starting in on Fables.

allan said...

The night Laura and I met - July 20, 1985 - we were talking about music at the old Ritz (11th St. ?). Fables had been out for a month or two and I mentioned them in relation to college radio and what music I liked and was interested in. (I believe L disagrees with me on this conversation, but) I mentioned REM and she said, "Don't they have a single out?" (Meaning the song Can't Get There From Here). Apparently, I made some type of unconscious sour face at the very idea of referring to a great non-commercial band like REM as "having a single out". Luckily, that involuntary twitch was not held against me (very long, if at all), as things continued to go well during the evening.

Two nights later, I brought pizza and Molsons to the apartment L was house-sitting at and she gushed about Joni, I gushed about Peter Buck, we both gushed about Keith - and here we are.

laura k said...

I made some type of unconscious sour face at the very idea of referring to a great non-commercial band like REM as "having a single out".

The only access to music I had where I was apartment-sitting was MTV! :)

Two nights later, I brought pizza and Molsons to the apartment L was house-sitting at and she gushed about Joni, I gushed about Peter Buck, we both gushed about Keith

Oh my, I'm teary-eyed just thinking about it. One of the best nights of my life.

Zenslinger said...

Some rather moving memories are flying around! Always wonderful to hear.

Tough choices to make on the songs. I don't know their albums at all after Hi-fi. But I agree with including Try Not to Breathe. Me in Honey is a favorite of mine (Kate again). And I like your acknowledgment of Wake Up Bomb as a contender -- love that tune.

allan said...

Oh my, I'm teary-eyed just thinking about it. One of the best nights of my life.

Yeah. It was a damn good pizza.

I don't know their albums at all after Hi-fi.

Post Hi-Fi (aka post-Berry): Up and Reveal are the shit-upon albums that have grown on me. When I'm in the right mood, the lazy summer feel of Reveal is great.

Collapse could have been great if Stipe had written even average lyrics. But he did not even come close.... (I made notes on how he was recycling ideas/images/uncommon words from his older songs. It was depressing.)

Phil said...

Thanks for Voice of Harold! The greatest "just-sing--the-liner-notes-from-the-back-of-an-old-LP-lying-around-the-studio-over-the-completed-track-7-Chinese-Bros.-while-drunk-off-your-ass-to-win-a-bet" song in the history of rock'n'roll!

A must! They mean it!

laura k said...

Yeah. It was a damn good pizza.

Such a romantic.

allan said...

Just a yoke! It was Top 5 day, for sure.

allan said...

If you are curious about the infamous 1981 cassette tape REM sent to various media people, click here to download it. This has not circulated before, I believe. This blog has lots of tasty stuff, by the way.

Cassette Set
April 15-16, 23, 1981 (recording/mixing)
April/May 1981 (assemblage/packaging)
01 Sitting Still (fast "Polka" version, snippet)
02 Sitting Still
03 Radio Free Europe
04 White Tornado
05 White Tornado (take 2, aborted)
06 Radio Free Europe (Radio Dub)