One of a Kind: An R.E.M. Retrospective

Originally posted 2011-10-18 23:48:48. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Ben Neal:

(Written 9/30/2011)

When R.E.M. announced that they would be calling it a day as a band last Wednesday, it produced a plethora of reactions from hard-core fans of the band, from casual, now-disaffected fans, and really anyone with a pulse who lived in the 80s or 90s. For many it was a visceral reaction to a band they have cared about forever was disbanding, but for many the reaction has been less about the band itself, but for what they represented to so many people: an undying institution that defined so much of the last three decades and brought music to a brave new world.

R.E.M. was an odd success story. Most legendary rock bands have a sex symbol lead singer, a generous amount of tabloid fodder, accessible power ballads, and embrace the height of their success; R.E.M. had very little of any of that. During their early 1990s vast popular successes of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, they weren’t interested in touring, their music was always obscure and abstract, and discounting the time Peter Buck mixed sleeping pills and wine aboard a trans-Atlantic flight, R.E.M. never really made headlines for the typical rock-band reasons.

Starting in the early 1980s, the band became a mainstay of college radio and hipsters around the world with singles like “Radio Free Europe” and “Gardening at Night” which ultimately culminated in the band’s first two albums Murmur and Reckoning. The albums initially garnered better reviews than commercial success, but the band quickly developed a cult following in college towns and on the East Coast. The music, already quite abstract, was made the moreso by lead singer Michael Stipe’s trademark mumbling (in the pre-internet era, fans of the band were fond of debating with one another what the lyrics to early songs actually were). A mere two years after Murmur, the band released the surreal, gothic Fables of the Reconstruction, which thematically was an exploration of the mythology of the American South and mostly featured songs on local eccentric figures of Athens, GA.

By this time, Stipe had thankfully been convinced to sing more clearly, but the band was by this point unable to break out of their college radio niche. With Life’s Rich Pageant the band really found its footing, with clearer lyrics, a decidedly and increasingly political agenda, and a sound like we hadn’t really heard before. A continuation of the post-punk movement that combines strong elements of the New York-based New Wave with a healthy dose of Americiana, they were The Byrds crossed with The Velvet Underground crossed with Springsteen.

A couple more indie records (and finally, some mainstream radio play with the often misinterpreted songs “Fall on Me” and “The One I Love”), and noticeably less mumbling from Stipe provided the band a launching point and after 1987’s Document, R.E.M. left their indie roots for a lucrative contract with Warner Bros.

By the time their WB debut, Green, was released in 1989; it marked their sixth album in a mere seven years and being an album that was heavily hyped, and initially was underwhelming to some listeners, but still packs quite the punch. “Orange Crush,” in particular, with Bill Berry’s recognizable drums at the on-set was an innovative song and still holds up well today. This record, also known for the impressive “World Leader Pretend” and R.E.M.’s first foray in touching GLBT issues with “The Wrong Child” in some ways represents, along with their final album Collapse Into Now, the best “sampling” of the variety of music R.E.M. produced. However, their next album really sent them into a stratosphere by themselves: Out of Time a fairly non-commercial folk-country album that produced two of their biggest hits, the disowned by the band “Shiny Happy People and the surreal “Losing My Religion,” but the real heart of the record were songs like “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana.” To date, this record represents their largest commercial success, and is, the two hits aside, one of their most non-commercial records.

Their next album Automatic for the People is generally considered their best album and continued their popular and critical successes. While some would have expected the band to follow up Out of Time with a faster, more upbeat album; R.E.M. went the other direction with a slow, somber album that largely dealt with issues of death, mortality, and tackled the AIDS crisis head-on. The album produced “Everyone Hurts,” an anthem for the chronically depressed, and glorified long forgotten and tragic entertainers like Andy Kaufman (“Man on the Moon”) and Montgomery Clift (“Monty Got a Raw Deal”). To date, no album makes me feel more at home on a rainy day.

In 1994, they released their follow-up, Monster and the critical and commercial success that had come so easy to them their entire career was suddenly hard to come by. Maybe it’s because they had reached such high peaks that they were doomed to be “repeating themselves” or being “not as good as they once were” in many people’s eyes. Monster was a significant success, but left many people disappointed and cold, and in some ways that was the band’s fault. The album was a glammed up mock-rock record (many people didn’t get the joke) with singles like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Crush with Eyeliner” that lampooned celebrity, sex, and love. During the Monster tour, drummer Bill Berry suffered an aneurysm on-stage in Europe and later left the band in 1996 for a simple life on a farm near Athens. For many casual fans, it gave them permission to move on from the band; for critics it gave them an easy narrative to dismiss the band and say they should have followed Berry’s lead. Indeed, had they called it a day in 1996, their legacy would be something of mythological proportions (like The Clash), but they did the right thing and kept on making high quality music.

Berry’s final album is the woefully under-rated New Adventures in Hi-Fi, an album composed of songs recorded on the ill-fated Monster tour. The album also proved to be quite controversial and alienated some of their middle America following with songs like “New Test Leper” where Michael Stipe declared that he couldn’t say that “I love Jesus” and begged those who judged his lifestyle to “call me a leper.” Still, it’s a fascinating album that produced a great number of back catalog tracks like the aforementioned “Leper,” “The Wake-Up Bomb,” and “Bittersweet Me.”

After Berry left, the band, innovators always, increasingly gravitated towards technology. With 1998’s Up, the band relied on a synthesizer that made the album sound more like Radiohead than R.E.M., but still produced extraordinary songs such as “At My Most Beautiful” and “Hope.” The somber Up, gave way to the sunny Beach Boys-esque Reveal, which features “Imitation of Life” (stealing the title from the long-forgotten Douglas Sirk 1950s film), perhaps the band’s best single and the optimistic tracks “I’ll Take the Rain” and “I’ve Been High.” Their contemporary [U2’s] Bono declared the album to be some of their best work and to this date I’ve yet to find a better album to listen to on a sunny July day by the pool.

Next came their much maligned 2004 effort Around the Sun—an album that certainly has its flaws, but from the haunting lead single “Leaving New York” to the Carvaggio-inspired “Boy in the Well,” I’ve always found the album to be a perceptive, yet somber assessment of the immediate post 9/11 period. Where Around the Sun tried to find hope in dark times, their 2008 effort Accelerate was an angry indictment of the Bush administration with biting songs like Mr. Richards and Houston, but also beautiful tracks like “Hollow Man” and “Supernatural Superserious”, which 15 years earlier would have surely ruled the top of the charts. Accelerate was a true return to form for the band, with an aggressive sound not heard from the band for nearly 20 years and generated solid reviews.

This spring their final album, Collapse Into Now was a mix of the slow, somber songs that populated Around the Sun and the hard-rockers of Accelerate and generated the band’s best reviews since Berry left the band in ’96. Highlights included the beautiful New Orleans-ode “Oh My Heart” and “Discoverer.” As I re-listened to Collapse a few days ago, it’s truly a very poignant and very R.E.M. record. The closing track “Blue”, a stream-of-consciousness track with a cameo by Patti Smith, makes a perfect end to a great career. Stipe sings (or speaks) “This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive….20th Century collapse into now.”

R.E.M. had contemporaries to be sure—U2 chief among them – but few other bands were as successful for as long, nor did many bands have the impact that four—and later, just three guys who call Athens, GA home – did on our musical world. But R.E.M. was just different from any other rock band. The guys were, well, weird; Stipe increasingly embraced his role as a prominent “queer artist,” and they did things on their own terms. Unlike other rock bands of similar stature, R.E.M. never really strived to be the biggest band in the world; they became so successful oftentimes in spite of themselves. They wanted to be successful, sure, but where U2 or the Stones might take pride in playing the biggest venues—R.E.M. didn’t. Similarly, many bands (oftentimes sincerely) think of themselves as bands with a global conscience, but so many of these bands’ (many of which I love) songs with a global consciousness are songs like “Peace on Earth” or other vague songs with obvious themes. R.E.M. always went a step farther. There were no songs with a generalized “war is bad” message, but rather a litany of songs about Latin American politics, acid rain, pollution, AIDS, corporate downsizing, and so on; and they did so in non-obvious and abstract ways that treated their audience like adults who could read between the lines. Whereas many bands’ bread-and-butter songs were about love and relationships, not many R.E.M. songs were—rather they made songs about a town on the Arkansas-Texas border, on forgotten tragic entertainers, and eccentric senior citizens.

More than anything, what made R.E.M. tick and what made their fans love them is doing things on their own terms. They, inexplicably, refused to tour the two biggest albums—not because of contract disputes, but because they simply didn’t feel like touring. Immediately after signing the biggest contract in music history, they went out and made an inaccessible album like Up. R.E.M. were trailblazers, and showed the music world, and aspiring musicians throughout the world, that an indie sensation and making music for a major label were not incompatible. Before R.E.M., bands had to choose between the two, but R.E.M.’s breakthrough cleared the way for acts like Nirvana, The Decemberists, and Arcade Fire to reach mainstream success while still making the music they wanted to make—all while inventing the genre of alternative rock as we know it.

Their break-up announcement (the decision was made earlier in the summer, yet their label was not informed until just hours before the announcement) was likewise classic R.E.M. A quiet statement on their webpage that stated it rather matter-of-factly: there would be no farewell tour, or a tearful talk show interview; they were just done as a band. For fans, it came as both a shock and resigned expectation. Their lyrics recently had made it clear they were afraid that they would “overstay my welcome” (“All the Best”) and of always being “on repeat…and incomplete” (“Hollow Man”). Ultimately, the band members lived thousands of miles apart and the band had become a side project for the members who all had their own pet projects. This coupled with label politics (the end of their WB contract and new management at the label they had called home for over 20 years), made it seem like a natural end for the band.

R.E.M. was a truly one of a kind band. Every album was singular: from the 80s jangly rock of Life’s Rich Pageant to the folk-alt-country of Out of Time to the glam mock-rock of Monster to the Radiohead-esque Up; each R.E.M. album was an event and a singular work of art. As a recent tribute said no band was as good for as long as R.E.M., and few made the impact they did, both musically and commercially. Few bands come along that have had their impact and done so many things on their own terms. Yes, their production slowed down (10 albums in their first 13 years, compared to 5 in their last 15) and admittedly the product suffered some in later years, but they remained innovators and perpetually fascinating musicians till the end.  As Stipe sings in the beautiful “Oh My Heart” off their final album: “It’s sweet and it’s sad, and it’s true.” That’s R.E.M. in a nutshell.

The Top Ten Albums of 2008

Originally posted 2009-07-28 14:08:51. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

For the 2008 “Yes, No, or Maybe So” one-sentence reviews, CLICK HERE!

By Chris Moore:

At long last, here it is…

My top ten list of the best albums of 2008.

Top Ten Albums of 2008

1.  Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings – The Counting Crows
2.  That Lucky Old Sun – Brian Wilson
3.  Viva La Vida – Coldplay
4.  Accelerate – R.E.M.
5.  Modern Guilt – Beck
6.  Snacktime – Barenaked Ladies
7.  A Hundred Million Suns – Snow Patrol
8.  Consolers of the Lonely – The Raconteurs
9.  The Red Album – Weezer
10. Loyalty to Loyalty – Cold War Kids

Honorable Mention:

Liverpool 8 – Ringo Starr
Momofuku – Elvis Costello

Yes, No, or Maybe So: One-Sentence Reviews of 2008 Albums

Originally posted 2009-07-31 10:50:48. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

(Arranged in alphabetical order by band)

With so many albums being released every week, what are they all like?  Which are worth your time?  These one-sentence reviews are the answers to those questions!

Snacktime (Barenaked Ladies) – MAYBE SO

Review:  Fun and even educational for kids, yet substantive and musically interesting for adults – don’t let this be the one Barenaked Ladies album missing from your shelf!

Top Two Tracks:  “7 8 9” – “Pollywog in a Bog”

Modern Guilt (Beck) – MAYBE SO

Review:  Beck’s unique voice is the anchor of this rock album that successfully integrates both loops and modern effects with the simplest acoustic, electric guitar, and keyboard sounds front and center in the mix.

Top Two Tracks:  “Gamma Ray” – “Modern Guilt”

Way To Normal (Ben Folds) – MAYBE NOT

Review:  While this is a great breakup album with some typically provocative Ben Folds lyrics and strong instrumental work, there are simply too many disposable tracks and a general feeling throughout much of the album that we’ve been here before.

Top Two Tracks:  “Bitch Went Nuts” – “Brainwascht”

That Lucky Old Sun (Brian Wilson) – YES

Review:  This is Wilson’s modern masterpiece for the summer months, offering more punch than a fresh cup of coffee (“Morning Beat”), piano ballads for the ages (“Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl” and “Midnight’s Another Day”), and spoken word transition tracks (lyrics by SMiLE collaborator Van Dyke Parks) that won’t disappoint, all in a thoughtfully ordered and nicely blended track listing.

Top Two Tracks:  “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl” – “Live Let Live”

11 (Bryan Adams) – MAYBE NOT

Review:  This is pretty much what you would expect, which doesn’t mean it can’t be great fun – clichéd, cheesy lines notwithstanding.

Top Two Tracks:  “I Ain’t Losin’ the Fight” – “Oxygen”

Loyalty to Loyalty (Cold War Kids) – MAYBE SO

Review:  The Cold War Kids’ breakthrough album (#21 on the Billboard 200) further establishes their strong, unique sound – Willett’s vocals and Russell’s guitar work being their strongest assets, set against the driving force of Maust’s bass and Aveiro’s drums – aside from perhaps a couple disposable tracks, the album is a stand out.

Top Two Tracks:  “Against Privacy” – “Mexican Dogs”

Prospekt’s March EP (Coldplay) – NO

Review:  Okay, Coldplay, it’s time to step up to the plate a la Wilco: release these tracks (only 3 or 4 are really worth the listen, anyway) on the next reissue of Viva La Vida AND offer them as a free download to anyone who has already bought the album; none of this shameful EP garbage for one of the most wildly successful bands in the world!

Top Two Tracks:  “Life in Technicolor II” – “Glass of Water”

Viva La Vida (Coldplay) – YES

Review:  Coldplay has finally hit an album-worthy home run, complete with beautiful instrumental bookends, richly explored thematic elements, big pop-radio worthy singles, and multi-movement tracks; this is the album that will help them begin living up to the hype that has surrounded the band for years.

Top Two Tracks:  “42” – “Violet Hill”

Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (Counting Crows) – YES

Review:  The concept album of the year, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings’ songs are aptly split between those that address the primal side of human nature, making decisions by instinct and engaging in debauchery, and the more reflective side of the psyche, reconsidering past decisions, experiences, and even dream images in the early light of Sunday morning.

Top Two Tracks:  “Insignificant” – “You Can’t Count On Me”

Momofuku (Elvis Costello) – MAYBE SO

Review:  Named for the inventor of instant ramen noodles, Momofuku may have been recorded at a breakneck pace, but there are some quality songs here: interesting arrangements, heartfelt performances, and of course, clever and poetic lyrics.

Top Two Tracks:  “American Gangster Time” – “Flutter and Wow”

Electric Argument (The Fireman) – NO

Review:  The guise of the Fireman may allow Paul McCartney the opportunity to relax, experiment, and otherwise stretch out, but a fully realized album that lives up to his vastly impressive recent work this is not.

Top Two Tracks:  “Sing the Changes” – “Dance ‘Til We’re High”

Sleep Through the Static (Jack Johnson) – NO

Review:  Filled with peaceful songs recorded in very clear sound quality… that will most likely put you to sleep – not even close to what you would expect from the follow-up to In Between Dreams.

Top Two Tracks:  “What You Thought You Need” – “Go On”

The Glass Passenger (Jack’s Mannequin) – MAYBE NOT

Review:  With their most recent release, Jack’s Mannequin has cracked the top ten of the Billboard 200 and found a bright, clean, and upbeat sound while addressing a number of serious topics; if some of the songs didn’t sound so similar and if McMahon’s vocals didn’t strain and reverberate oddly at times, this would be a great album.

Top Two Tracks:  “Crashin’” – “Bloodshot”

Seeing Things (Jakob Dylan) – MAYBE SO

Review:  Jakob Dylan finds some soothing and rootsy acoustic sounds on his debut solo album… now, let’s just hope he uses it to return with more force and feeling to a full band next time!

Top Two Tracks:  “Valley of the Low Sun” – “War is Kind”

Greenlight (Jeff Copperthite) – MAYBE SO

Review:  The first solo album from one half of the late nineties rock band Quilt, Greenlight is all you could hope for from a debut release – a range of songs that demonstrate Copperthite’s considerable instrumental abilities, including a couple standouts that will make listeners look forward to the next solo release.

Top Two Tracks:  “Home” – “Aware”

Perfectly Clear (Jewel) – MAYBE NOT

Review:  The latest phase for this folk singer turned dance/big band star turned country artist, Perfectly Clear is a well executed country album – nothing less, but not much more.

Top Two Tracks:  “Love is a Garden” – “Till It Feels Like Cheating”

Insides Out (Jordan Zevon) – MAYBE NOT

Review:  Bitingly witty at times, helplessly romantic at others, and always in-your-face realistic, Jordan Zevon’s debut release boasts finely crafted – if predictable – vocals and strong – although standard – instrumentation; he’s on his way to a great album, but hasn’t quite made it this time.

Top Two Tracks:  “The Joke’s On Me” – “Payday”

Mudcrutch (Mudcrutch) – MAYBE SO

Review:  An instantly likeable album with a classic sound that is somehow still unique and infectious, the power of Mudcrutch’s debut release – much like the faded face on its cover – tends to dissipate over time; as with many releases this year, it’s not bad for a start and is perhaps the best debut album (and one of the best new bands) of 2008.

Top Two Tracks:  “Orphan of the Storm” – “Lover of the Bayou”

Home Before Dark (Neil Diamond) – NO

Review:  An album of enjoyable three minute songs… that drag on redundantly for six minutes.

Top Two Tracks:  “Pretty Amazing Grace” – “The Power of Two”

The Slip (Nine Inch Nails) – MAYBE SO

Review:  The landscape of The Slip is that of violence and corruption, but even more acutely of the impact upon and influence of the individual in a society that is taking turns for the worse – add in Trent Reznor’s supplying this album for free online, taking intricate care to provide track (not just album) artwork and typed-in lyrics, and you’ve got a strong release.

Top Two Tracks:  “1,000,000” – “Discipline”

Break Up the Concrete (The Pretenders) – MAYBE NOT

Review:  While there’s nothing particularly remarkable here, Break Up the Concrete is a surprisingly strong release from Chrissie Hynde and company, nicely blending acoustic and electric rock with a rockabilly sensibility peeking through intermittently.

Top Two Tracks:  “Love’s A Mystery” – “The Last Ride”

Accelerate (R.E.M.) – YES

Review:  From the first notes of distorted electric guitar to the final “yeah” voiced by frontman Michael Stipe, Accelerate is a non-stop rock’n roll joy ride punctuated by numerous standout tracks, instrumental moments, and some of the strongest lyrics from Stipe in years; this R.E.M. album more than lives up to what its title implies about the pacing.

Top Two Tracks:  “Living Well is the Best Revenge” – “Supernatural Superserious”

Consolers of the Lonely (The Raconteurs) – MAYBE SO

Review:  For anyone who claims there are no new bands making great rock music, here come the tremendous Raconteurs to tell stories with urgent vocals, infectious guitar licks, plenty of distortion while maintaining a healthy respect for the acoustic guitar, horns, and so much more as traces of classic rock and modern rock are inseparably mixed.

Top Two Tracks:  “Top Yourself” – “Many Shades of Black”

The Bird and the Bee Sides (Relient K) – MAYBE SO

Review:  In and of itself, The Nashville Tennis EP is a generally middle of the road affair with a handful of standout tracks and several disposable songs; however, when combined with The Bird and the Bee Sides, it boasts new material as well as enough rare tracks to fill the gaps in any Relient K fan’s collection – never mind that 13 songs add up to a generous “EP,” clocking in for a total of 26 songs on this single disc release.

Top Two Tracks (“The Bird”):  “At Least We Made It This Far” – “I Just Want You To Know”

Top Two Tracks (“The Bee Sides”):  “Up and Up (Acoustic)” – “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been (Acoustic)”

Liverpool 8 (Ringo Starr) – MAYBE SO

Review:  Even though Starr split with longtime collaborator Mark Hudson during the making of Liverpool 8, this album is a worthy addition to his recent catalog, and although it may not be the strongest of the Roundhead records, it’s a must-hear for Ringo and rock fans alike.

Top Two Tracks:  “Liverpool 8” – “If It’s Love That You Want”

Detours (Sheryl Crow) – MAYBE NOT

Review:  This album is a bit of a mess, as some songs (“God Bless This Mess,” “Love is All There Is”) are heartfelt standouts and others (“Love is Free,” “Peace Be Upon Us”) seem phoned-in and generally distract from the great material this album has to offer.

Top Two Tracks:  “Shine Over Babylon” – “Detours”

A Hundred Million Suns (Snow Patrol) – MAYBE SO

Review:  Don’t let the inferior first single “Take Back the City” fool you: A Hundred Million Suns is the long-awaited next step in Snow Patrol’s evolution, offering up much to enjoy hearing and feeling and even more to interpret – and, thankfully, AHMS is a vast improvement over Eyes Open, and a worthy follow-up to Final Straw.

Top Two Tracks:  “Crack the Shutters” – “The Planets Bend Between Us”

The Red Album (Weezer) – MAYBE SO

Review:  The Red Album is something of an enigma – several tracks (“The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” “Everybody Get Dangerous”) are among the quirkiest, most original and inventive work ever to grace a Weezer release, yet the album gets sidetracked in material that is easy on the ear, but overly simplistic (think “Heart Songs” and “Dreamin’”) – but it’s an interesting one; it is difficult to determine whether the first ever contributions from the other band members provides an exciting boost or simply more confusion to the album.  (And why no “Miss Sweeney” on the main album release?)

Top Two Tracks:  “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” – “Thought I Knew”

“Living Well is the Best Revenge” (R.E.M. Cover)

Originally posted 2008-06-27 11:36:13. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Hello and welcome to an all-new weekend edition of the Laptop Sessions acoustic cover song video blog! We’ve been doing a lot of work on the site recently, in terms of adding new features and new material to the Laptop Sessions site as well as promoting it so that we will bring in new fans to this great venture. For instance, by this weekend, we will be adding category descriptions for each of the artists we have covered — these will provide interesting background information on their songwriting, information on both original and cover songs that the artists have produced, and share some information about what material has been used for the Laptop Sessions thus far.

And now, without further ado, on to the Laptop Session of the day! I am pleased to bring you the album starter from this year’s R.E.M. release, Accelerate, “Living Well is the Best Revenge.” When the album first came out, I was interested in it, but I had my doubts. I do own both volumes of R.E.M.’s greatest hits, but I really only love about half of the tracks — I would have personally preferred a one disc greatest hits, but that’s just me. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t sure how I would feel about an entire album, especially when their last few albums have received mediocre music reviews. Still, I was interested, so I took a shot…

And I’m so glad that I did! The album is one of my favorites from this year. The music is upbeat and rocking, the vocals are strong and the lyrics interesting, and there is really only one song on the album that I’m not crazy about. The packaging of the deluxe edition (which, yes, I bought — I’m a sucker for attractive CD packaging…) is impressive. There is a booklet tied together loosely with string and a subtitle on the front cover that reads “This will fall apart.” And I don’t doubt that it would if I pulled on the pages too hard…

This song, “Living Well is the Best Revenge” is a great album starter. The verse is really only one chord, so I hope I’ve done it justice. Without the fullness of the other instruments, it just doesn’t sound the same, but you need to watch one other YouTube video after mine — the official R.E.M. music video for the song. They recorded it while driving in a car — the drummer, who is driving, is literally using the steering wheel for the percussion in the song. It’s a great idea that I wish my band MoU had thought of before, as we have been known to rehearse for gigs in the back of our bassist’s van!

That’s all from me for now; make sure to check back tomorrow for an all-new, amazing video blog entry from Jeff…

See you next session!