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How To Buy # 2 – R.E.M. (Part One – The 80’s)

The second in our occasional series focuses of Athens, Georgia’s finest.

You forget things as you get older. Scientists may well blame it on age and the deterioration of the brain, but I don’t agree. Simply put, you have so much accumulated crap stored in there that there must be a time when the brain does its own spring clean, and gets rid of some information that it feels it doesn’t need any more. That’s my theory any way, and also my defence in forgetting how great R.E.M. were.

I use the past tense with a certain sense of regret, because they were, for years, utterly untouchable. You can have your favourite records or periods, but what is undeniable is that they have one of the deepest and most consistently brilliant back catalogues in music. Last album ‘Accelerate’ isn’t bad at all; it just isn’t anywhere near as skyscrapingly good as their earlier stuff. Not that there is anything wrong with that; there aren’t many bands who could hold a candle to their canon.

So here is ELM’s guide for any newbies or casual fans and a reminder to any long-standing lovers to re-acquaint themselves with a checked shirt and a Rickenbacker.

Murmur

Some things are just perfect. Utterly, incontrovertibly perfect. And this is one of them. From the title to the artwork to the running order, it just couldn’t be bettered. And it still sounds so odd.  There are touchstones along the way, notably The Byrds and New Wave, but it still conjures up dreamy bohemia better than anyone else ever did. Not a bad track to be found here, but ‘Radio Free Europe’, ‘Shaking Through’ and ‘Perfect Circle’ all deserve special mention. And even then they aren’t as astonishing as ‘Sitting Still’, the simplest and most beautiful jangle you will ever hear. Outstanding. *****

Reckoning

How do you follow up a classic? With one that is, arguably, even better. There simply aren’t the words to describe how beautiful opener ‘Harborcoat’ is. I still don’t have the slimmest clue what the bloody hell is going on in this song, I still don’t know for certain what Stipe is singing about and it still feels like I’ve been punched hard in the solar plexus when I hear it. Then you have ‘Time After Time’, the eerie ‘So.Central Rain’ and the splendidly strange ‘7 Chinese Brothers’. Wonderful. *****

Fables of the Reconstruction

Sometimes, no matter what you do, it can never be enough. So it proved for the band on their difficult third album. Certainly murkier and less optimistic than its predecessors, Fables biggest problem in the minds of its critics is that, well, it just isn’t as good as the other two. But its still rather excellent. Opener ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ sets the tone with its bleak strings and lovely, Verlainesque guitar work. Then a strong set follows which while monochrome is underpinned by a sense of melancholic loveliness. ‘Wendell Gee’ is a precursor to ‘Automatic for the People’ lightly powered by aching banjo work. ‘Maps and Legends’ makes cartography sound menacing and the slightly unhinged ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ provides bold, brassy Stax. ****

Life’s Rich Pageant

And then we rocked. While not quite Iron Maiden, new producer Don Gehmann wanted to make a rock record, and a very brilliant strange rock record he did. ‘Begin the Begin’ and ‘These Days’ set the tone; upbeat, almost in your face – well, as in your face as the band ever got – before the stunning ‘Fall On Me’ and the evocative ‘Flowers of Guatemala’ provide sombre relief. All this and the folksy ‘Swan Swan H’ and the superlative 60’s pop cover ‘Superman’. Essential (and one of the Wookie’s favourite ever albums, if you are interested.) *****

Document

Tighter than two coats of paint and as strident as a Socialist Worker reader, this album ushered in the era of R.E.M. as a band who could get on MTV and even provided a hit in the dark-but-AOR classic ‘The One I Love’. It was an intelligent snapshot of the era, left-field but mainstream and packed with tunes a milkman could hum. ‘It’s The End of the World As We Know It’ provided nutty brilliance, while the beguiling ‘King of Birds’ showed that the band had lost none of their majestic grandeur. The deranged ‘Lightning Hopkins’ to the none-more-80’s ‘Finest Worksong’ showed a band stylistically diverse and enjoying it. ****

Dead Letter Office

A b-sides compilation which became essential with the inclusion of the debut EP ‘Chronic Town’. A lot of fun to be had here, most notably the live and paralytic cover of ‘King of the Road’. ***

Green

Mandolins abound and the sound is of a band poised between one sound and another. The guitar rocks on certain numbers – notably the lazily but brilliantly titled ‘Pop Song 89’ and the superb pop of ‘Stand’ – but with the homespun ‘You Are The Everything’ and the harrowing ‘The Wrong Child’ it revealed a band looking to go past the boundaries of traditional rock and roll. R.E.M had always been folksy, now they wanted to pack away the drumsticks and guitars for brushes and mandolins. ****

Part 2 tomorrow!

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5 Responses

  1. Basically – buy anything from the IRS years and be careful after that!!

    ‘Green’ is okay…looking back it wasn’t as good as ‘Document’ but had far more money behind it, and so we could discuss it with people who had never bought an REM album prior to ‘Green’.

  2. I’ve just been listening to murmur now.

    i also had a quick jangle on my Rickenbacker during a tea break.

    marvellous.

  3. The amount of wanking euphemisms we have on here is incredible.

    I really forgot how good Fables is.

  4. B D’oC – Out of Time and Automatic for the people are stong albums and i don;t think that there’s anything for anyone to deliberatly avoid about them.

    Monster is alright, but i don’t even know where my copy of it is, and I’m not fussed.
    After that i kinda forgot to buy much of the stuff, and i’ve still not, despite constantly meaning to, bought accelerate.

  5. ‘Out of Time’ is mostly poor (good fun but not classic REM) apart from the truly wonderful ‘Country Feedback’…..AFTP is excellent, and every home should have a copy!

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