Monday, September 11, 2006

Take a picture here, take a souvenir

The history of my musical tastes is one of obsession. Looking back, some of those obsessions I am proud of and others I am not. I'll not delve into my embarrassing Garth Brooks obsession in elementary school. (Though I'm sure it planted the seeds that grew into my current appreciation of good country/roots/bluegrass.) In my angsty middle school years, it was the Smashing Pumpkins. Then came the most unhealthy of the obsessions - the DMB stage that led to the box of 125 or so bootlegged concerts gathering dust in my closet. Then Radiohead, then Wilco, then Ryan Adams and so on. Somewhere in between the Pumpkins and DMB was a three-month period where I couldn't get enough of one of our generation's greatest bands - R.E.M.

The three remaining members of R.E.M. will reunite with their original drummer, Bill Berry, for induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. They will also begin work on their 14th full length, which is hopefully nothing like their last abortion of a full length, 2004's Around The Sun.

Over the course of 23 years, R.E.M.'s music has veered through all kinds of terrain, while never (with the possible exception of 1994's Monster) giving into the current trends of the times. The band's years on the IRS label (chronicled on a 2-CD set And I Feel Fine, conveniently enough) perfectly mixed Husker Du-ish post-punk, Byrds-esque jangly folk and Beach Boys harmonies into something that is was uniquely R.E.M. - defining 80's college rock alongside bands like The Talking Heads and The Pixies. To this day, the sound of a 12-string Rickenbacker immediately conjures images of guitarist Peter Buck. Micheal Stipe, always a stunning lyricist, grew from a resigned, mumbling, yet somehow appealing singer into the epitome of the earnest-yet-in-control rock n' roll front man. From Stipe's lyrics - rooted deep in the American South - to the band's unique Americana-influenced sound, R.E.M. remains one of the purest examples we have of an American band with an American sound.

Signing to major label Warner Brothers in 1988 was seen as the end of the band's reign to many, but the 1990's saw the band achieve wild mainstream success and single-handedly launch the mandolin (otherwise known as the best instrument no one plays anymore) into Top 40 Radio with "Losing My Religion." In the middle of superstardom , the band released 1992's Automatic For The People, widely (and rightfully) considered an American classic. Though never given its rightful praise, 1996's New Adventures In Hi Fi is the band's second moody 90's classic and will forever be brought up anytime anyone mentions "overlooked albums" in my presence.

R.E.M. is the rare band that was able (for most of their career) to toe the line that so many other bands can't - the line between critical and popular success. They defined an entire decade of music before going on to sell millions of records without sacrificing their artistic direction or significance.

That is, until 1998's Up showed signs of wear and an occasional lack of direction, 2001's Reveal proved mostly lifeless and 2004's Around The Sun an absolute and utter turd. As an example of hard it is to be an R.E.M. fan at this juncture, here is Michael Stipe inexplicably covering Beach Boys classic "God Only Knows" with Mandy Moore.

Michael Stipe (w/ Mandy Moore)- "God Only Knows" (Beach Boys cover)

Believe me - there's nothing I'd like more than an R.E.M. Renaissance. R.E.M. was the first rock concert I ever attended and the band holds a special place in my heart. But at this point I'd settle for any excuse for them to tour and play some of the criminally overlooked gems in their back catalogue. I'll post some of my favorite R.E.M. tracks sometime in the next few days.

R.E.M.- "Radio Free Europe" (Letterman- 1983)

R.E.M.- Turn You Inside Out (live)

R.E.M.- Find The River (MTV unplugged)

R.E.M on The Simpsons


At 9:52 AM, Blogger TCB Walsh said...

Nice piece - I couldn't agree with you more - the new IRS compilation is fantastic but it is also a sad reminder of how far the mighty hath fallen. Funny but I did a piece on the same subject witih the same headline on my site Rock Turtleneck. See it here:


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