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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Can't Hear It On The Radio



It's almost impossible to sum up how important R.E.M. once was, as opposed to the nostalgia show/alternative muzik While-U-Shop thing they are now. Long ago, back when Michael Stipe had hair, didn't look like Moby, didn't whine, for fuck's sake.

I'm talking about the entire period that is eulogized in the song "Nightswimming": I don't think all these people un-der-stannnd...Hell, even that sounded whiny, but it was referring to a specific time and place. He was talking about that dim and distant time when no reasonable radio programmer outside of the college radio ghetto would even think of putting The Only Band That Mutters on their playlist. That long ago and far away place where all these people who would, not long after, become quite famous played for small crowds of their friends and their friends friends in each others' basements, later -drunk!- goin' swimmin' in the Georgia night.

I need to say a little something about all that too. Just the music, though. That's all I can really take on here. That, and two of the greatest albums of the 1980's, which both happen to be by the formerly greatest band in Alterna-America, R.E.M.

It is a matter of some debate as to when they sold out. Many said it was 'Green' (true purists had said it was 'Document'), I personally date it to 'Out of Time'. Despite the great and wistful "Shiny Happy People" and the underrated "Near Wild Heaven", it was the album where they clearly did that thing successful bands do: they note what has worked well in the past, and determine to do it over and over again ad infinitum for the rest of their career.
What had started this process though, was 'Life's Rich Pageant'. It was the first album where they literally sang in a voice clear enough to be understood. I finally started to get it, young as I was. I hadn't really been able to get it before.

So that's just it; they sold out, which is to say the music had become explicable to young teenagers like myself. This is the paradox that we who dwell in the bargain basement of hometown heroes and Special Children get to live with: craft your message, you're pandering. Fail to be cohesive, you're engaging in willful obscurantism, and therefore can be dismissed.

What then might be those two best albums I was crowing about a minute ago? That would be R.E.M.'s 'Reckoning'(1984), which was their second full length album, and 'Life's Rich Pageant'(1986). Somewhere in those two years, they went from those people we knew, liked and wanted to see do well to those bastards who signed with a major label.
Way more importantly, they went from a weirdly organic, strongly personal point of narrative to a broader type of appeal that sounded not unlike a call to arms.

'Reckoning' is muddy where 'Life's Rich Pageant' is clear, strictly in terms of production values. Besides, Michael Stipe literally mutters throughout the damn thing, but that actually makes you want to pay more attention. The music is the sort of thing that infuriated classic rock enthusiasts back in the day, and now that seems so fucking silly. It's strongly anchored in the basic American rock idiom: it sounds like country rock, but several steps forward.

The lyrical point of view is rooted in the personal mythology of someone who is asking you to step inside and check it out with them. What's a "Harborcoat"? Well, you'd know if you owned one..."Don't Go Back To Rockville" is what Tom Petty would write if he was much smarter and ten times more original. "South Central Rain" is a parenthetical story you keep writing in your head, but never get down on paper. Its first line is, But you never called...

(Actually, the folks at songlyrics.com give that as being,
Did you never call? I waited for your call
These rivers of suggestion are driving me away

Which is maybe the better line, but here we get from the private dreams of the narrator into the private interpretations of -and connections drawn by- the listener.)

Pretty much all of these songs are sing-alongs, which is weird for an album where you can't clearly make out most of the lyrics. There's this certain ritualized nature at work here in these songs of love and confusion: Here we are...Here we are...Here we aaaaarrre...
But beyond that, there's these quasi-political statements, ala
The biggest wagon is the empty wagon is the noisiest
the Conestoga horse
Jefferson, I think we lost

Which could be or mean lots of things, I guess. Might not mean a damn thing, too.

(And again, I maintain that online song lyric sites are mondegreen generators. They give that line above as 'the consul, a horse', which it certainly might be, but when you're muttering for a living, it has lots more to do with what some teenager somewhere thinks it is, and I believe you're giving up interpretation to that.)

The music is restrained, yet earthy. The lyrics have to do with the editorial You and Me that the majority of rock n' roll is about. It namechecks Chinese folk tales, and the final song is an incoherent edit from what sounds like the middle of a jam they got into, but never quite made a song out of. It sounds like it was recorded in one of Athens, Ga.'s finer basements.

'Life's Rich Pageant', by complete contrast, even begins loud and clear. "Begin The Begin" is the first song by them I noticed that rocked. It is dealing in the subjective still, but also...
Well, it's like they signed with a major record label and decided that this implied a certain duty. If we're going to be making more money and reaching more people, this means we have to talk about the world at large, and encourage right action, good behaviors.

At least that's the way I interpret it:

Bir-die in the hand
for life's rich demand
the insurgency began
and you missed it...


and

Silence means security
silence means approval
I seen it on the teevee
tiger run around the tree
follow the leader
run and turn into butter

The '80's, as the legend goes, was a great time for activism. This tends to be the revisionist view of pretty much any decade where the prevailing norm was restraint and control. So in the sense of, "well, there was a lot to protest about," yes, it was. And the case could be made that, after the lazy '70's, people woke back up again.

The music reflects this. "These Days" is the second song off of 'Life's Rich Pageant', and is a stirring anthem that could easily apply to pretty much any cause you wanted to append it to:

All the people gather...
Fly to carry each his burden
we are young despite the years
we are concerned
we have hope despite the times...


I wanted to tell Howard Dean to adopt that as his song, once. The obliqueness of difficulty, danger and life is addressed in "Fall On Me", which basically is a big long prayer to ask the sky not to fall on one. But in the video, and the liner notes, the phrase "bury magnets" keeps popping up.
The next song is another barn burner. "Cuyahoga" is the name of one of those rivers that was so polluted it actually caught fire (the Willamette being another, natch), and it was also the name of a tribe. The lyrical conceit here is...If we were that tribe, and looking at the world as it is now, what would our reaction be?

Let's put our heads together
and start a new country up
the father's father's father tried
erased the part he didn't like...

and, ominously

This land is the land of ours
this river runs red over it
we are not your allies
we can not defend...


So maybe it's time we stopped behaving stupidly with the earth, too, huh? This was a newer idea in political discourse at the time.

"Hyena" is kind of a throwaway song, but it rocks, and it always makes me glad to hear it. Same goes for the largely instrumental "Underneath The Bunker", which is a kitschy faux-middle-eastern spy theme.

"The Flowers of Guatemala" is the resident tearjerker of the album. But it comes at it sideways. It doesn't write itself a nice easy anti-death-squad rant, it instead is all about setting the scene for what potentially is lost.
And by the time the chorus of flow-ers co-ver everything...You hear it as both 'this is a beautiful place' and 'flowers are blood'...It's awesome, and a perfect blending of R.E.M. classic and R.E.M. the sell out years.

But musically, I like the anthems here better. "I Believe" is exactly what it sounds like: a statement of of basic belief.

Trust in your calling, make sure your calling's true
Think of others, the others think of you
Silly rule golden words make, practice, practice makes perfect,
Perfect is a fault, and fault lines change


and

I believe in example
I believe my throat hurts
Example is the checker to the key

I believe my humor's wearing thin
And I believe the poles are shifting

I believe my shirt is wearing thin
And change is what I believe in


Right? Seems naive now, don't it? Or does it? Seems to me that someone recently got elected President promising something as simple and vague as 'change'.

"What If We Give It Away" sounds like a pretty straightforward song; no mistaking what something so simply named is about, right? Well, wrong. I have no idea what the fucking thing is trying to say.
Although I do occasionally say, here's the trailer, Tom for no really good reason.

Another anthem. "Just A Touch" was, I thought, about the new world openin' up for your small quirky bands, and how one day they might just change the face of popular music, including the iconic phrase, can't hear it on the radio...
But a look at what some guy on some lyrics website has to say puts me in doubt. For one thing, apparently it's 'Kevin heard it on the radio'...Which I doubt, and...

Well what in the world? Women in black
Don't you remember, Sonny's, Tyrone's, packed, packed
A day in the life well nobody laughed
Look to the days how long can this last

I can't see where to worship Popeye, love Al Green,
I can't see, I'm so young, I'm so god damn young


Um, yeah. And it isn't 'set it off, just a touch', either. Good lord, I'm confused.

"Swan Swan H" is a nice little ditty that would work well with some knowingly anachronistic band like The Decembrists playing it. I like the fact that the word 'hummingbird' is chopped down to 'H' in the title, like it's part of an old sign on the side of a building that is partially obscured by plaster and decades of grime.

Swan, swan hummingbird
hurrah, we're all free now
what noisy cats are we...


and

A pistol hot cup of rhyme
The whiskey is water, the water is wine
Marching feet, Johnny Reb, what's the price of heroes?


(I maintain that that's actually 'cup of brine', by the way.)

They end off with "Superman", which is a cover of a minor hit by an obscure '60's band called The Clique. I'm not sure why they did it, but I'm glad they did.

(By the way, for fans of lingering questions, that speeded-up tape thing at the beginning? RetroWeb.com gives it as:
(Godzilla doll opens in Japanese with "This is a special news report. Godzilla has been sighted in Tokyo Bay. The attack on it by the Self-Defense Force has been useless. He is heading towards the city. AAAAAGGGGHHHH!!!!!")

Which is nice. Anyway, I love 'em both, that's why they're here, these two albums, in a tie, which is rare for the Periodic Table.
One couldn't be without the other, I suppose?

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4 Comments:

Blogger George Popham said...

Nice post. Glad to see you were generous in your treatment of Document and Green. At the time I thought those two albums sounded like they were a completely different band. I recognized that the band that gave me the first four (which to me are like one long album with Reckoning and Murmur on one side and Fables and Life's Rich Pageant on the other) was gone for good. But, to my surprise I really liked the new R.E.M. Finest Worksong and Exhuming McCarthy and, of course, End of the World As We Know It being, for me, the high points on Document.

We're sharpening Stones, walking on coals/
To improve our business acumen...

Great stuff and really gets the true political spirit of the eighties right in the cross hairs.

Green had Stand and You Are the Everything and several others.

After those two albums came out I thought that R.E.M. had done the elusive thing great alt-rock types are supposed to attempt, that is, reinvent themselves. But, counter to my expectations everyone started to hate them after that. I think that was the point at which I realized I would never understand the general logic of critical opinions about bands.

Out of TIme is the real end of the party, though I also like Shiny Happy People.

And I have to acknowledge that Automatic for the People was a surprise with Sidewinder Sleeps at Night, Man on the Moon and the beautiful and (alert, cliché adj. I almost never use) *haunting* Night Swimming.

4:25 PM  
Blogger George Popham said...

Oh and about the song Fall on Me... I looked at the lyrics and realized that I have no idea what it is about and yet have so much associated with it as if I do know what it means... this is the definition of dreamlike, isn't it? The part of that song that really makes me reel is the chorus behind the chorus... "what is it up in the air for/ if it's there for long/ it's gonna fall/ it's over, it's over me/ it's gonna fall" I almost wish I didn't know exactly what the words were... What is the sky up in the air for? It can't be talked about, it's a palimpsest of thoughts layered over time mixed up in weird half remembered dreams.

Associated memory: listening to it in the car coming back from a trip to Bagby hotsprings undertaken in the middle of the night on my first spring break home from St. John's. Driving down the Clackamas River Highway at dawn slightly hung over from too much white zinfandel from a jug ... beyond words, that morning.

4:40 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Y'know, I think I sort of remember that morning.

I remember too thinking that it was needlessly petty that people immediately started shitting on this band they so loved simply due to a modicum of success. But I also did think that it led to a noticeable decline in the music's quality.

And yeah; writing this thing brought me to the uncomfortable realization that all these years I'd been deriving great meaning from lyrics that probably are not the actual lyrics. But Stipe would approve, I think. Old, muttering Michael Stipe that is.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Salty Miss Jill said...

I need to go back and read this...but my friend's band http://www.myspace.com/persona is playing in your town on August 23 & 24, and I thought I'd plug away...

5:32 PM  

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