Reviewed on this page:
Chronic Town - Fables Of The Reconstruction - Lifes Rich Pageant - Hindu Love Gods - Dead Letter Office - Document - Green -
Out Of Time - Automatic For The People - Monster
- New Adventures In Hi-Fi - Up
REM was the American college rock band back when I was DJ'ing in the mid-1980s. They didn't score a national Top 40 hit until the decade was long under way and "alternative" had already become the Big New Thing. But their albums regularly went gold, and their core audience of college kids was absolutely fanatical. I remember one friend who couldn't bear to hear anything else; he subjected me to Murmur and Reckoning for almost 12 hours non-stop on a cross-country drive. Alas, after its glorious first decade, REM sunk deeper and deeper into cheesy, electronically-enhanced pop, emerging only once in the mid-90s with a record that made them seem every bit as hip as their Seattle grunge followers.
The secret to REM's early success? It's pretty simple - in the early 80s almost every rock band was either willfully tuneless (hardcore, industrial), unbearably pretentious (synth pop), or completely faceless (AOR). But REM was (and arguably still is) so goddamned sincere it's practically embarassing.
Guitarist Peter Buck contented himself with playing jangly Byrds-influenced rhythm parts, only occasionally daring to either solo or turn up the volume.
The rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry was just as disarming.
And singer Michael Stipe was a real character: blessed with a warm and engaging voice, he preferred to write elliptical lyrics and deliver them in a shy mumble instead of taking the spotlight. He even went to such lengths as not having his lyrics printed on album sleeves.
Writing credits were shared all around - bassist Mills even got to sing some lead vocals - and you always had the feeling that tunefulness, solid rhythms, and consistent entertainment were the #1 priorities.
On the down side, it's not clear to me that REM ever recorded anything in its heyday that hadn't already been done a million times. Their studio techniques were often primitive, their chord progressions, riffs, rhythm patterns, and harmonies were standard issue, their mandolin/12-string sound was a rip-off, they wouldn't know a synthesizer if one hit them on the head, and not one of them could play an honest-to-goodness solo. But who cares? If uncluttered, intelligent, home-grown 80s rock is what you're looking for, this the band you want to hear.
Unfortunately, the 90s were a flat-out artistic disaster for the band, even as it reached new commercial heights in the wake of 1991's Out Of Time.
After a string of disappointing albums that won the group a new audience of Top 40 listeners and alienated its veteran fan base, the group lost Bill Berry and even folded temporarily as the decade came to a close.
They've now reformed and put out a new disc, but I've pretty much given up on them after being burned repeatedly.
I have reviewed a book about REM on our book reviews page.
There are a ton of REM pages on
the web; the best full-blown REM
site I've seen has a good discography, set of web links, and
lots of current news on the band; but the unofficial official site is
good and up-to-date as well. (JA)
Bill Berry (drums), Peter Buck (guitar, mandolin), Mike Mills (bass, backing vocals, some keyboards), Michael Stipe (lead vocals). Berry left, 1998.
Chronic Town (1982)
This five-song EP was recorded on a shoe-string budget, and it shows. With the instrumentation as stripped down as possible, the band's debt to mid-70s rebels like the Modern Lovers and Television is maximal here, especially on the mannered, jittery "1,000,000." But so is their Byrds schtick, with the jangly guitar and soaring harmony thing going full blast ("Gardening At Night," where Buck even gets a sitar-like sound out of his 12-string). The songwriting isn't fully developed - "Stumble" is little more than a bunch of riffs strung together - but one or two tracks are first-rate: the snappy, earnest "Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars)" would have been the centerpiece of any later REM album. The record is more than just a snapshot of the band in its early days, and it's a shame it's so short. But fortunately you can get all of it on the CD version of Dead Letter Office. (JA)
The band's first full LP was a hit on the college circuit, boosted by the catchy single "Radio Free Europe," the first of many REM tunes to feature one of Stipe's famously slurred, but undeniably catchy anthemic refrains. The rhythm section performs flawlessly and Buck's catchy hooks spill out in a flood, resulting in one classic tune after another: "Talk About The Passion," "Sitting Still," "West Of The Fields," etc., etc. Compared to the later records the mix is arrestingly stark, but there's plenty of Buck's warm 12-string vibe and some impressively sophisticated arrangments. Still, though, Stipe was still in mumble mode - he's almost entirely unintelligible. And despite the obvious advances over their debut EP, the band still had some tricks to learn; a few tunes are thin, and some of the sound effects, unusual instruments, and studio gimmicks are distractingly unnatural ("We Walk"). (JA)
This is arguably the peak of REM's early period, with the classic singles "So. Central Rain" and "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville." There are a ton of great rockers here like the creepy ballad "7 Chinese Brothers," which makes maximal use of Stipe's vocal range. And although the sound is a bit thin, the album delivers REM's schtick in all its unfettered glory.
Even Berry's deliberate, clangy drumming is full of youthful energy and passion.
The "machinists" (presumably producers) were Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. (JA)
Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985)
Primed by the last record, I greeted this one's arrival enthusiastically as a college radio DJ.
And for the most part, it marks an interesting shift in the band's approach.
As you'd expect, there are several driving, irresistable rockers with anthemic choruses and chiming guitars: "Life And How To Live It" soars; the funky "Can't Get There From Here" is propelled by a ballsy horn section; "Driver 8" is easily one of their best tunes ever, with interlocking vocal and guitar parts and a surprisingly good country-western break.
But more often than usual they take a mellow, mid-tempo approach, and in places it's downright wimpy ("Green Grow The Rushes"); the sentimental strings and banjo are enough to make "Wendell Gee" the worst song on the record. Despite this, Buck's glowing 12-string parts are gorgeous on "Maps And Legends," "Kohoutek," and "Good Advices."
And sometimes they also get away with substituting creative dissonance for the usual mindless volume, as on the cathartic, almost terrifying "Auctioneer (Another Engine)," the languid, hazy "Old Man Kensey," and "Feeling Gravitys Pull," with an ominous string arrangement and chattering guitar harmonics.
It's all a bit too quiet and dreamy, but still a solid effort.
The singles were "Can't Get There From Here," "Driver 8," and, surprisingly, "Wendell Gee." (JA)
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
This was REM's big commercial breakthrough record, and I didn't realize at the time just how good it is because it's not all that different from the last couple of efforts, and it is a little monotonous, like a lot their stuff. But the guys really had their formula down here. "Cuyahoga" not only offers a characteristically jangly sludge-anthem, but some great sentimental Stipe musings. "These Days" rushes along like a wild horse. "Swan Swan H" gets in some 3/4 time 19th century folk flavor. "Begin The Begin" has their classic crunchy rhythm and a clever, sparingly-used lead riff.
"What If We Give It Away" has a shuffling, shimmering Buck guitar part that ranks with his best.
And the singles were pretty good too: "Fall On Me," a lush ballad with an aching vocal and a creepy middle, and "Superman," a driving, irresistable all-out rocker that gets a good harmony treatment (it's one of the few songs they ever released that isn't an original). There's exactly one weak track, namely, a silly Mexican-flavored instrumental called "Underneath The Bunker." A great place to start with REM's original catalogue. (JA)
Hindu Love Gods (rec. 1986, rel. 1990)
One of the strangest and most successful vanity projects to come out of 80s rock and roll, this is a knockoff live-in-the-studio album by Berry, Buck, Mills, and Southern pop crooner Warren Zevon. It was held for release for four years, and although it was not released with the band's cooperation, it does shed some light on their dynamics. Michael Stipe has always been careful to share credit, but it's still easy to overlook the other band members; and they're so far from metal or punk that they may seem like a bunch of wimps.
Quite to the contrary, the focus here is on foot-stomping, hard-edged electric blues and country-western numbers. Only a top-notch rhythm section could hope to get away with it, and both the selection of tunes and the gritty delivery situate the players as far as possible from easy listening. Better yet, Zevon is in peak form; his aw-shucks sense of humor and uneven, idiosyncratic baritone add a spark of personality to even the most over-recorded Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, and Howlin' Wolf material, and also the necessary sincerity to the country tunes. The best effort, though, is a surprisingly edgy cover of Prince's "Raspberry Beret." Worth a listen if you can get it cheap. (JA)
Dead Letter Office (1987)
This is a compilation of B-sides and outtakes, mostly dating from sessions for the three preceding albums. There are a bunch covers here, like a juiced up, jangly version of Aerosmith's "Toys In The Attic," an engagingly upbeat take on Wire's Strange, and a drunken performance of Roger Miller's country standard "King Of The Road." Surprisingly, REM displays a the Velvet Underground fetish with a folky take on "There She Goes Again," a country-western "Pale Blue Eyes," and an earnest "Femme Fatale."
There's also a version of "Seven Chinese Brothers" with improvised vocals that you could do without ("Voice Of Harold"), and admittedly most of the "new" material is just plain second-rate. It's always amusing, though, and Buck's light-hearted liner notes are fun. A good buy for fans of 80s REM, even if it never shows the band at its best. (JA)
A pretty typical 80s effort, showing only incremental
experimentation beyond their earlier discs, but still
cluttered with catchy tunes and engaging riffs.
Here Stipe is finally starting to enunciate more clearly,
but his lyrics are as opaque and ethereal as ever; and
similarly, Buck tries hard to get some interesting
sounds out of his instrument, even using some feedback ("Oddfellows
Local 151"), but he's basically just sticking with tried-and-true
formulas. There are occasional touches like voiceovers, horns, and
piano ("Exhuming McCarthy"), but the tracks that work are the same old same old - straight-ahead rockers like "Finest Worksong" and "It's The End Of
The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," and riffy anthems like
"The One I Love," which turned out to be REM's first major Top 40 hit. You'll enjoy this record thoroughly, but with the
band already resting on its laurels, you really should start with the earlier albums. (JA)
Also in 1987, Berry, Buck and Mills backed Warren Zevon on his album Sentimental Hygiene. (JA)
This is a greatest hits compilation, put out by I.R.S. because the band was about to jump labels. We don't review such things as a matter of policy, but I'm listing it because of the deceptive title. (JA)
REM's debut on Warner Brothers records.
At its best it sounds just like Document - a more slickly produced continuation of the band's can't-miss folk-rock formula.
All of the singles fall in this category: the slightly goofy riff tune "Stand," the standard-issue rocker "Pop Song '89," the funk-flavored anthem "Orange Crush," and "Get Up," whose harmonies and jerky rhythms recall XTC.
None of them are all that memorable, two of the best and heaviest rock tunes weren't singles ("Turn You Inside Out"; "I Remember California"), and they foreshadow their slide into overproduced balladry with several numbers that highlight Buck's mandolin playing: the gentle "You Are Everything," with a prominent accordion part; "The Wrong Child," with intricate, interlocked vocal and instrumental tracks; and the aimless, repetitive ballad "Hairshirt."
There are no flat-out embarassments just yet and most of the tunes are reassuringly familiar, but there's nothing here to make this a must-listen.
Co-produced by Scott Litt; there are just a couple guests - dB's associate Jane Scarpatoni adds a haunting cello part to "World Leader Pretend." After this REM took a break for more than two years, marking what was to become a permanent drop in productivity and a radical shift in the group's sound. (JA)
Out Of Time (1991)
A massive commercial success, and indeed it's a sell out. Overproduction is the
name of the game, with strings and/or horns on almost every
track, gobs of vocal harmonies, prominent guest artists, bassist Mike
Mills often adding keyboards and/or unimpressive vocals, and ex-dB's frontman Peter Holsapple
frequently adding bass or guitar. There's even some pedal steel. It
often works, as on the huge radio hits "Radio Song," with rapper
KRS-1 delivering an amusing but slightly grating voiceover; "Losing My
Religion, a retro REM anthem; and especially "Shiny Happy People,"
with B-52's singer Kate Pierson
joining on the sticky-as-peanut-butter refrain (she also sings on the droning, up-tempo "Me In Honey").
But the production is just a gloss. The tunes here are often dull,
endlessly repeating snappy but unremarkable riffs and chants ("Endgame"). The band is so lethargic
that many tracks sound like 45's played at 33 RPM ("Half A World
Away"). And Buck's bag of tricks is exhausted - arpeggiated
12-string, mandolin, some crashing electric, he'd done it all
before; his parts on the better rockers sound like samples from
older REM tunes ("Texarkana"). REM wasn't cut out for sweetness and light; it's tragic that they only ever returned to true form one time after this. (JA)
Automatic For The People (1992)
Some fans see this as a return to REM's hard-rocking sound, but to my ears its Shiny Happy People Vol. 2. John Paul Jones, of all people, arranged a pack of soporific orchestrated ballads, like the five-minute "Everybody Hurts," that expose all of the band's weaknesses - unintelligible lyrics, minimal chord progressions, and a tedious tonal palette.
There's nothing as noxiously crass as some of the guest appearances from the last record, but there are so many sidemen and so many tracks driven by piano, string, and even accordion parts that you'd think Peter Buck was on vacation.
His signature 12-string, electric guitar, and mandolin work show up only occasionally (e.g., "Monty Got A Raw Deal"). The good news, I guess, is that Mike Mills stays just as far away from the spotlight - and as a result, Automatic comes closer to being a Michael Stipe solo record than anything else in the REM catalogue.
All of this makes it hard to explain the spate of successful radio hits that exploited the last album's formula: the meandering "Drive," with its pompous strings; the snide, over-harmonized 60s Elvis imitation "Man On The Moon"; and the electric organ- and string-driven "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" (a.k.a., "callmewhenyoutrietowakeher"). If you're a veteran fan, only the kick-butt rocker "Ignoreland" will make you want to spin the disc repeatedly.
The biggest embarassment of the band's career - fans rushed to the stores to buy it and then dumped the disc on used CD stores in record numbers. But at least musically, it's an impressive about-face: a flat-out rock record with all of the band's trademark sincerity, none of the overproduction that ruined their last two albums, and a relentless focus on keeping up-to-date. You can hardly tell you're listening to a bunch of guys pushing 40 instead of the latest flavor of the month from Seattle. Buck overamplifies like crazy on every damn track, Stipe alternately howls his head off and warbles in a spacey falsetto, and the rhythm section seems possessed.
The hit singles "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" and "Bang And Blame" play this formula to a hilt, and on top of that there are a few satisfying 80s-style REM rockers ("Star 69"; the super-distorted "Circus Envy").
Only a handful of tracks like the leaden single "Strange Currencies" and the annoyingly slowed-down soul number "Tongue" wallow in mope-rock ballad mode. But by now REM was following instead of leading.
They not only sound like contemporary "alternative" acts, but like watered-down 80s Sonic Youth - it's no coincidence that Thurston Moore guests on the reverb-drenched "Crush With Eyeliner." There's nothing here to be ashamed of, but this time trying so hard to be trendy leaves the band with virtually no stylistic range. (JA)
New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)
In the early spring of 1996 drummer Bill Berry suffered a ruptured aneurysm during a concert. He recovered fully, though, and the band stuck to its usual schedule. This commercially disappointing album of all-new material was partially recorded during soundchecks on that year's tour.
The approach should have helped: soundcheck performances are often raw and, well, adventurous.
But if anything, the group is stranded here in over-charted waters, with disappointingly few catchy or original tunes.
Worse, instead of sticking with noisy punk, the band regresses to its sweeter, more relaxed early 90s sound, with a heavy emphasis on jangly, feel-good ballads ("New Test Leper"; "Electrolite"; the Bruce Springsteen-esque "E-Bow The Letter," with a distracting Moog synth part and an even more distracting, zombified Patti Smith guest vocal; "Be Mine," a power ballad with more of the same Moog).
The rest is predictable: recycled rockers ("The Wake-Up Bomb"; "So Fast, So Numb") and angst anthems ("Bittersweet Me"), and homages to the VU (the slow-grinding "Undertow"; "Binky The Doormat") and the Modern Lovers ("Departure" = "Roadrunner").
The only real stretches are a depressing gloom-rocker with a really annoying "techno" car alarm sample ("Leave"), a slight Mexican-flavored instrumental ("Zither"), and a suspiciously Joe Walsh-like funk rocker ("Low Desert," complete with slide guitar and electric organ).
Harmless but disposable.
Co-produced by Scott Litt; Litt (keyboards) and Nathan December (guitar) appear on most of the live tracks. (JA)
As in "Fuck Up." The band trudges back into the studio without the retired Bill Berry, and losing the band's least prominent member turns out to be a catastrophe; the disc is their most lethargic and tuneless ever.
Buck mostly sticks with acoustic strumming, gooey pedal steel, or innocuous feedback squeals (the chugging, tripped-out "Walk Unafraid") - the choruses of "Sad Professor" have some of the only genuine rhythm guitar.
Stipe's lyrics are self-pitying drivel ("I'm Not Over You"), and his melodies are so boring the vocals might just as well be spoken.
Co-producer Pat McCarthy can't get them to make anything out of all their psychedelic synth voicings and studio trickery ("The Apologist"; "Falls To Climb").
And with Berry gone and Mills focusing on his duller-than-ever, flavor-of-the-month keyboard parts (hey, that's a harpsichord on "Why Not Smile"!), the band has no rhythmic center - the drum machine parts and percussion by Barrett Martin and Joey Waronker are as forceful as a metronome.
They open with a hushed, formless improvisation ("Airportman"), they flop with some wimpy, day-glo techno ("Hope") and a couple of weak, super-self-conscious Brian Wilson tributes ("At My Most Beautiful" = "Good Vibrations"; the grim "Parakeet"), and half the disc is pallid, glacial, five-minute soft rock in their early 90s style (the wan, 3/4-time "Daysleeper").
"Walk Unafraid" and their groovy, Stax-Volt informed, Earth And Moon And Sun-ish "Lotus" are keepers, but someone should sue the band over the rest of this rubbish. (JA)
The group's first studio album after temporarily disbanding, it's apparently even more loaded down with pop stylings than their last one, and started to fall off the charts fairly quickly.
Produced by Pat McCarthy; Joey Waronker is on drums again, and Ken Stringfellow (the brilliant co-leader of the Posies) adds some backing instrumentation - the only real reason I'd be interested in hearing this thing. (JA)
Don't go back to Rockville...