Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It Really Was the Best of Those Years

R.E.M. were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 12 of this year. And as if to provide a resume to sway the HOF voters, R.E.M. released And I Feel Fine...The Best of the I.R.S. Years (1982-1987) September 12 of last year. What I discovered on And I Feel Fine is a very different R.E.M. then the one I knew growing up.

I remember watching that Saturday morning videos show on NBC (no, my family did not have cable or satellite, thus no MTV) and being shocked and attracted to the images and sounds of their video for "Losing My Religion" (even though I didn't understand what it was about at that age). The picture of R.E.M. I have (which is a pretty accurate picture, I think) is of a rock band that writes really catchy anthems that used vaguely alternative colorings in their pop songs (see: "Shiny Happy People", "Man on the Moon," "Everybody Hurts" and the already mentioned "Losing My Religion").

But the band I found on And I Feel Fine is quite different than that R.E.M. The band that you will find on And I Feel Fine is the band that inspired Jawbreaker to cover "Pretty Persuasion" and the band that inspired Pavement to cover "7 Chinese Bros." and the band that inspired countless collegiate recordphiles to start radio shows and start bands and start scenes! Is there a more exciting time in the American indie underground than the early 80s?

This is the sound of a time when only true outsiders listened to alternative music. This is the sound of a time when punks really were beat up in small, southern towns for the way they dresssed (so they had to create little safe havens like Athens, GA). Yes, R.E.M. has gone on to great fame with those anthemic radio-ready tunes (and you will find some of those songs on And I Feel Fine, too: "The End of the World..." and "The One I Love"), but And I Feel Fine is the story of the band before mainstream radio came sniffing for them.

The whole batch of 42 songs is great (yes, all 42), but if you are unsure about diving into the whole thing, some of the even brighter gems are "Radio Free Europe (Original Hib-Tone Single)", "Pretty Persuasion", "7 Chinese Bros." and "So. Central Train". My personal favorites include the lo-fi "Gardening at Night" (from the 2nd disc) and Michael Stipe's parable-like intro to the live "Life and How to Live It".

Michael Stipe recently said in Rolling Stone that R.E.M.'s goal is to write one of the best albums of all-time. I think that they can do it. They just need to sit down and listen to And I Feel Fine a few times before they head back into the studio.

And maybe invite Bill Berry back into the studio, too.

-Dan S.


Tim Horsman said...

Boy do I hate Death Cab for Cutie, uhh, I mean R.E.M.

Get it - that old Tom Petty/John Mellencamp joke.

Seriously though, I have always sorta liked R.E.M. in that I never wished them any specific harm. I had a brief but torrential love affair with the song "Everybody Hurts" and the entire album of Automatic for the People. I always had the feeling that there was a much better, less commercial band in there somewhere and that Stipe had lost his gay - I mean way with all the money that was being thrown at him. I've got to check out some of these songs.

I have a solution to anyone else who is faced with a monetary dilemma of several respected sources recommending music: Use a BitTorrent client to steal the album, listen and make an informed decision, if you like it - then buy it...The temptation to keep the stolen album is usually greater than my desire to support the musicians.

Daniel Szombathy said...

Tim, that was the most hilarious comment ever on Alien Corpse. Congrats!

It's so much fun to dive into a bands less commercial past, like when I bought U2's Boy after owning Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree for several years, or like getting into Joy Division after being bored with New Order's "Blue Monday".

What other bands qualify in the "man they used to be so much better" category?

Daniel Szombathy said...

"Have the Rolling Stones killed."

-Mr. Burns to Smithers after seeing the Ramones

Tim Horsman said...

Great quote..."Rolling Stones..."

Jason Heron said...

Perhaps the conversation about R.E.M. is over, given the great idea for the new has-beens list, but I thought I'd add a bit to it anyway.
When I was a freshman in high school, I started listening to Automatic for the People, and I too fell in love with "Everybody Hurts," and it even drew me back to the first time I heard the song, the summer after 7th grade, down in Phoenix, in my best friend's living room. And after that rediscovery in high school, it was only a matter of time before I began to obsess, and found myself rummaging everywhere for all the R.E.M. I could find. As it stands now, I'm only missing one album - Fables of the Reconstruction or Reconstruction of the Fables. I say all that, not to up my cred, but to say this: get the IRS compilation if you want to, but a better, more careful, and ultimately more rewarding method would be to start with their first full-length, Murmur, and just go through chronologically. Inevitably, the IRS compilation is going to muck things up a bit, and besides, if you've never listened to Murmur all the way through, then you don't have the faintest about what you're missing in R.E.M.'s catalogue.
Dan, you were right to highlight the songs you did, and I think you're also right to distinguish between the early 80's R.E.M. and the early 90's R.E.M. (And who can say what is happening now? I hear they travel in separate buses on tour, and that song from Around the Sun, "The Worst Joke Ever," is completely awful). But, depending on how serious you are about those cryptic lyrics and that jangly sound, album by album has to be the way, because I think R.E.M. is capable of creating great albums, and they have already, and I hope they can do it again.
Anyhow, I think maybe this comment is overextending itself and also betraying the crush I had on Stipe in high school, and the hiccup of indie pride I have in "knowing" about early R.E.M. but never ever ever talking about it.

Daniel Szombathy said...

Thanks for your comment, Jason. I think I knew that you were a R.E.M. fan. Good insight on the album vs. Best Of. The question is, "Is the band good enough to warrant a discovering chronologically, album by album?" In the case of R.E.M. (at least up to Automatic for the People), the answer is yes.

Tim Horsman said...

Jason, I've known you were hip to R.E.M. ever since Dan and I stopped through South Dakota and I listened to both of you discuss at length the various glories of their various stages of development. I stopped listening after "Automatic for the People is not as good as...."

Of course at this point, Dan and I had stopped listening to anything that the other was saying after six days of 18 hours sitting in the Thunderchicken.

You're right, though (and Dan too) that going back through a catalog is more rewarding than a best of. I had a hard-on for the Ramones a year or so ago, but bought a compilation (one of fifty), and lost the just didn't capture.

PS, Any straight man that can betray a crush on a gay man is a bigger man than me.

Jason Heron said...

Okay, okay. So I've gushed over R.E.M. before on that awkward night in SD, when you two were living in the middle of a tiff, and we watched History of the World, Pt. 1, and it wasn't funny at all. As you two slept in my basement, and I stayed up late into the night (b/c of my 3rd shift schedule), I probably listened only to R.E.M., and journaled about them and the two quarreling graduates sleeping on the floor, and how one of them turned into a snooty bitch when I started talking about Automatic for the People.
In those days, I wore it on my sleeve, I think, and so maybe I'm not the guy to tell you to go buy Murmur. But then again, maybe I am. Go buy it.

But there's something else I have to say...
R.E.M., post-Automatic for the People is not unworthy of a listen. Monster is severely underrated, and I fear this is because of a vicious cycle of record store whores like us seeing five copies of it in the used bins, in every town across the country, thus inspiring us to ignore it, or even worse, dismiss it. Despite Buck's obsessive use of the same guitar effect (whatever it is, call Jacob Bills), the album is strong lyrically and melodically, and it certainly isn't the anthemic posturing of the early 90's. Rather, it's suitably unsure of itself, just like the mid-90's ("What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" aside).
And furthermore, the following album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, seems nearly forgotten, not even bought, and so not even sold into the used bins next to Monster. A good road album (recorded mostly on the road as well), it stands as another post-Automatic... testimony to R.E.M.'s potential to recover from the travesty that is their 21st century career.