Friday, October 2, 2015

Nothing Compares 2 U

I love the cello but am often skeptical of its appearance in a pop context. While it can be beyond sublime it often feels like it's used when an artist is striving for respectability and depth, which can be extra jarring when the artist in question has no need to strive for what was already within their easy reach.

That's not what this feels like. Here's it's simply gorgeous and an integral part of this largely understated and entirely effective cover, with Chris Cornell making the most of his amazing voice by almost totally reserving its power, utilizing his lower register and letting its bluesiness do most of the work.

[h/t Cover Me]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Our periodic public service reminder: the Rolling Stones suck live. They suck. Suck suck suckety suck. The most overrated live band ever, by a factor of roughly one trillion. They suck.

See? This was an ideal setting for them, and they still blew. If you caught them in your local bar on a Thursday night, you'd be annoyed and assume they were the bar owner's cousins or he owed them money or something.

Suck suck suckety suck.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Favorite Song Friday: Press

Look. Let's this get this right out of the way up front: I'm not saying this is a great song. I am, however, saying that it's far better than its reputation. And, moreover, I'm saying I love it so very hard.

Sure, its production is ridonkulous, and I say that as someone who has loved unabashedly and unreservedly many of Hugh Padgham's records. And yet it's hard to deny that the production is so 1980s it should be wearing parachute pants.

But it's not all the production's fault. Macca's style is in full bloom here, for good and bad. The good is that, of course, it's an insanely catchy song, with a bridge that most good artists would kill a dozen homeless people for in order to use it as a chorus. And the verse is even catchier. And neither comes close to how catchy the chorus itself actually is. And his voice sounds great, even for him—once you get past the silly pseudo-accent he adopts for the count-in. And, frankly, the overt sexuality of the lyric is somewhere between bracing and kind of embarrassing, and good for him. (I think.)

But then he throws in bits like the "Oklahoma" part and what the hell is with that? First of all, structurally, it's weird—the kind of weird he seems to revel in, as though he'd mastered the perfect pop form long ago and so has to deliberately try to sabotage songs in order to keep things interesting. (To be fair, he's probably not wrong.)

Anyhoo, the most famous musician in the world can do many things, but convince someone he's a boy from Oklahoma ain't one of 'em. I mean...look at the expression on the woman's face at 2:14. She tries to be cool and pretend she's not utterly stoked to be in the presence of a damn Beatle...but she can't. No one can. And no one's not fully aware that Sir Paul McCartney was born and bred 4475 miles from the Sooner State. And then, to make things worse, he has the silly drum break, apparently determined to outdo (or perhaps indo) John Fogerty on "Zanz Kant Dance."

Wow. That's a lot of negativity from a guy who claims to like the song. And I don't really have all that many arguments to counterbalance the criticisms. Except this: it's Paul. And all that stuff is true, this is kind of a lousy record, well below "Silly Love Song" standards (and I'm not kidding about that). But it's still got Paul damn McCartney unleashing that impossibly great voice on a fantastic melody, the kind which inspired the brilliant Douglas Adams to write:
Arthur could almost imagine Paul McCartney sitting with his feet up by the fire on evening, humming it to Linda and wondering what to buy with the proceeds, and thinking probably Essex.
Also the video's a hoot.

Supposedly this is literally the first time McCartney had ridden the underground since 1962. That's pretty believable, but would also make a dandy urban legend. Either way, watching the reaction of people realizing they're near a Beatle just doesn't really get old, and he's so damn charming that his deep-seated need to please and be liked somehow doesn't grate (too much). Also, his hair looked better back before he started dyeing it.

So. Yeah. Not a great song. But at least every few years I'm hit with the urge to listen to it and whenever I do I find myself playing it a half dozen times because really some people just wanna fill the world with silly love songs, and what's wrong with that?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wendell Gee

Rarely has a stone classic been so divisive.

Even normally astute critics such as one Peter Buck think (or at least thought) it weak at best. Which is astonishing, since "Wendell Gee" is where Michael Stipe, always an interesting, often a fascinating, lyricist became a truly great one.

Just as hundreds could have played Miles Davis's solos on Kind of Blue but not one other person could have written them, so too with Stipe's lyrics here.

Stipe may get too much credit for REM's success, as is so often the way with a band's frontman. But not here. No, here's it's entirely justified. Stipe's lyrics, which in their early days could be nothing more than a pleasing or perplexing combination of sounds and syllables, as he has admitted, here rises to the level of a great author. Which is the key to the song.

I said "the key" to the song, but that wasn't correct, because this is R.E.M. and rare indeed is the R.E.M. song that has only one key ingredient. So too here, as Mike Mills' chord changes are delightfully if not radically unconventional, starting with a fifth in the bass, before settling briefly on the tonic and then moving immediately to the supertonic. The following change, from the dominant to the dominant seventh, is the kind of small yet vital bit of coloration that most bands wouldn't even think of—the Beatles being, as they so often are, an exception—yet which makes a huge difference emotionally, lowering and lending ambiguity to the mood ever so slightly yet undeniably. The chorus, meanwhile, is largely a IV-I-V construction, with the tonic sandwich simultaneously imbuing the section with a feeling of resolution that's almost entirely unresolved.

As far as the rhythm section goes, Bill Berry plays the role of metronome beautifully, like Tony Williams on "In a Silent Way," while vocally adding some lovely yet subtle and nearly buried if serenely soaring harmonies (in stark contrast to Mills' far more obvious and busier vocal parts). Meanwhile, Mike Mills's bass dances around Peter Buck's guitar like Fred Astaire dancing with a sentient hatrack.

Instrumentally the real star,  however, as he himself will be pleased to tell you, is Buck's banjo, providing a sonic contrast and fulfilling the function of guitar solo, as well as underpinning the song's southern roots.

As though that were really necessary. As if there were really any doubt.

It has often needed to be pointed out that rock lyrics are not poetry. They do not, generally speaking, work on the page the way poetry does, and only truly come to life when sung. That's often very much the case with Stipe's lyrics, especially (but not only) his early ones. It's not at all the case with "Wendell Gee," although even here, Stipe's lyrics are less poetry and more southern gothic magic realism flash fiction prose. To that end, Stipe's lyrics start in media res, like a good southern storyteller. "So I was down at the holler the other day..."

That's when Wendell Gee takes a tug upon the string that held the line of trees behind the house he lived in

That's the opening. What other rock song has ever started that way? (A: none more.)

He was reared to give respect but somewhere down the line he chose to whistle as the wind blows, whistle as the wind blows through the leaves

Okay. So far we've got a pleasant song about an odd but harmless outsider, a guy who was raised right but chose to live on the outskirts and go his own way—in other words, another Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables song. Which is a good thing.

And then.

He had a dream one night that the tree had lost its middle so he built a trunk of chicken wire to try and hold it up
But the wire, the wire turned to lizard skin and when he climbed inside

Before we have time to process this bizarre, dreamlike scenario, it's immediately followed by a return of the chorus, with additional lyrics:

There wasn't even time to say goodbye to Wendell Gee
So whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows through the leaves

Peter Buck's banjo then takes over, giving the listener time to absorb what just happened, if that's possible. Then another run through another chorus, albeit one with again some additional/different lyrics:

If the wind were colors and if the air could speak
Then whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows through the leaves

And just like that, Michael Stipe shifted from intriguing rock lyricist and inside sidled into the pantheon of southern gothic writers such as Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Fred Chappell and William Faulkner. With gorgeously evocative phrases such as "if the wind were colors and if the air could speak," Stipe sketches a character study of a mythical yet somehow relatable figure such as Wendell Gee, who disappears into a dying a tree wrapped in lizard skin. And somehow, as with a novel having a corpse for a narrator or the best magic realism, it works.

Despite appearing to hew more closely to literature than gutbucket rock and roll, "Wendell Gee" is in fact very much part of the classic rock and roll lineage. Just as there as some things which words cannot truly capture, for which only something such as "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom" or "da-doo-ron-ron-ron" or "sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-tee-da" or "de-do-do-do-de-da-da-da" or "hello, hello, hello, how low" can properly convey the full emotion, so too a phrase as emotionally evocative and overwhelming yet mysterious and indefinable as "if the wind were colors and if the air could speak."

It is one measure of just how weird Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables is that a song about a guy disappearing into a lizard skin tree is the absolute perfect ending. Even more, it's one measure of its greatness. But far from its only one.

And that's R.E.M. and Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables. As cerebral and defiant a band as ever existed, and yet securely in the great rock tradition while simultaneously standing outside it—which is itself part of the great rock tradition. How appropriate.

So whistle as the wind blows 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Good Advices

Way back at the start of Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables, "Feeling Gravitys Pull" set the tone with the twice repeated line, "Time and distance are out of place here." And from that moment on the album is filled, pretty much wall to wall, with stories and thoughts and phrases which reinforce that theme.

From the directionless guidebook of "Maps and Legends" to the weary conductor of "Driver 8" to the definition of being lost in "Cant Get There From Here," there is no sense of place on this entire record which seems permanent. This extends to the Kensey clan on "Old Man Kensey," to the man who split his house in two on "Life and How to Live It," to the unsafe, inaccessible highways of "Green Grow the Rushes" and to the fading nighttime lights of "Kohoutek." So much of Fables seeks to find something there, only to reveal there's no there there.

So comes "Good Advices," the penultimate track, with what amounts to an instruction booklet for those who don't feel they have a place to belong:

When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes
Keep your money in your shoes, put your trouble behind
When you greet a stranger, look at her hands
Keep your money in your hands, keep your travel behind

Who are you going to call for?
What do you have to say?
Keep your hat on your head
Home is a long way away

At the end of the day I'll forget your name
I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away

When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes
Keep your memories in your shoes, keep your travel behind
Who are you going to call for?
What do you have to say?
Keep your hat on your head
Home is a long way away

At the end of the day, when there are no friends
When there are no lovers
Who are you going to call for?
What do you have to change?

A familiar face, a foreign place
I'll forget your name
I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away

Who are you going to call for?
What do you have to say?
Keep your hat on your head
Home is a long way away

"Good Advices," one of the most sublime and evocative tracks R.E.M. ever recorded, closes the loop on "time and distance" with delicate perfection. There is no stopping, no destination, just the travel. The journey is where the contentment comes, not the arrival. A line as sweet and intricate as, "I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away" (which very closely leans on Robert Frost at his best) drives this point home once and for all. It's strangers everywhere, the faces and places are familiar but the names remain a mystery. Don't bother stopping or even taking your hat off (a decidedly "inside" gesture), because the journey must continue. Be polite, be cordial, but be cautious. And keep moving.

Intentional or not, the band is prescient enough to add to this theme by providing "Good Advices" with a rarely used fade-in from Mike Mills and Bill Berry, with Peter Buck's first chord serving as the starting gun. Michael Stipe's voice possesses a slight echo to it, as if sung by someone "a long way away," and the tenderness with which he croons adds to the idea that comfort may indeed come, but not in a way that most people expect.

Like "Carnival of Sorts" and "Pilgrimage" and "Little America" (there's that song again) before it, "Good Advices" is the child of a band that up to this point had spent so much of its existence on the road, moving from one tiny gig to the next and always moving towards...something. Most bands lead these transient existences in the early years, some lead them forevermore. R.E.M. is no different in that sense; the difference is they spent so much time cataloging it and writing about it.

In a culture built on grand storytelling and the generational narrative, R.E.M. uses Fables of the Reconstruction to fit their own story into the south's long, long road home. "Good Advices" is their navigational primer. The difference this time is at the end of the day, we won't forget their name.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Auctioneer (Another Engine)

What is at the other end I don't know 
Another friend, another wife, another morning spent

Although the automobile gets the most press, the train has been a central image of rock and roll since its very earliest days, with Elvis Presley's haunting yet triumphant cover of Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" and Chuck Berry's joyously ambitious "Johnny B. Goode," up through the Rolling Stones' rapacious yet amazing cover of Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" and even the punk-pop perfection of The Clash's "Train in Vain." It's not exactly surprising, given the earliest rock and roll tended to be made by poor, largely rural artists, for whom trains were often a way of life—if not the traveling on, then the driving rhythms and long, low lonesome whistle.

It's also not surprising trains would appeal to the defiantly outsider southern R.E.M., even if there's a certain humorous irony in it figuring so prominently in the first album they recorded outside their native south. There's a literal and figurative power to the train in American folklore and history, and it's been argued that the sound of the train was a large factor in first the blues shuffle and later rock and roll's related rhythms. Naturally, then, "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" would bear absolutely no resemblance to the blues and instead be the closest the post-punk band would ever come to an outright punk song.

The pounding four on the floor throughout most of the song is closer to a Black Flag song than any of the other classic rock train songs, and much more aggressive than any other song on Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables, even the acidic "Feeling Gravitys Pull"—in fact, it's the second fastest song the band would ever record, and an odd, jarring filling between its two far more sedate and seemingly introspective neighbors to either side, "Kahoutek" and "Good Advices."

And yet. This is R.E.M., so naturally things aren't quite what they seem. For all its sonic fury, the lyrics betray the same concerns Stipe's been wrestling with for the entire album.
She didn't want to get pinned down by her prior town
Get me to the train on time, here, take this nickel, make a dime
Take this penny and make it into a necklace when I leave
What is at the other end I don't know, another friend
Another wife, another morning spent
Looked at out of context, one would expect this to be a typically moody, atmospheric R.E.M. number, especially given that it's on Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables. And yet, of course, it's just the opposite. And yet, if one looks past the speed and focuses on the themes, one sees how it relates to the tracks which bookend it:
Home is a long way away
I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away
At least it's something you've left behind—like Kohoutek, you were gone
Fever built a bridge, reason tore it down
R.E.M. went on to make better albums, but not even the great and powerful Automatic for the People was more unified tonally, and that's an under-appreciated trait. Also, as this song and their earliest shows show, it turns out R.E.M. might have made a half-decent punk band. But it's probably for the best that they didn't go further in that direction and chose a very different route instead.

Listen to the bargain holler

Thursday, September 10, 2015


"Who will stand alone?"

A dying comet briefly shoots across the sky, bringing none of the explosive wonder that had been hoped for, and then is quickly and quietly gone forever. Thus becomes a metaphor for love and loss in "Kohoutek," another in a series of Side 2 deep cuts on Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables and one of the first songs about romance R.E.M. would ever record.

In real life the Comet Kohoutek was a bit of a disappointment. In the early 1970s it was supposed to awe us lighting up the nighttime sky. Instead it broke up too early and left in its wake something underwhelming, unfulfilling. And leave it to R.E.M. to turn a pop culture anomaly into the impetus for its first true love song. Though better it was Kohoutek than, say, Al Capone's vault.

"Kohoutek" stands as a big bright shiny example of the respect R.E.M. always afforded its fans. The song is written and performed without explanation or any glaringly obvious exposition. It's called "Kohoutek," for crying out loud, a pretty innocuous and dated old American curiosity, yet it's not about the comet or the fascination that ensued around it. It's a love song, and an oblique one at that.

But Berry-Buck-Stipe-Mills think enough of the audience to not have to spell anything out for them. Not unlike a half a dozen years after Fables the band would score its biggest (and arguably best) hit with "Losing My Religion," another song where the title gives away little to anything, R.E.M. didn't mind giving its listeners a little something to think about when they put their music on. And therein lies one more not-so-subtle secret to their success--they trusted the fans to trust them. Well done, boyos.

As a song, "Kohoutek" is fairly standard. It starts right in, almost mid-beat, which is rare for a Fables song; no melodic lead-in or off-center intro to start things off. In fact it would be a fairly middling song all the way through were in not for three rather critical components:

1) Some of the sweetest lyrics of their early career. My oh my did they write this one:

She carried ribbons, she wore them out,
Courage built a bridge, jealousy tore it down.
At least its something you've left behind,
Like Kohoutek, you were gone.
We sat in the garden, we stood on the porch,
I won't deny myself, we never talked.

Good grief that is pretty. Downright poetic for a band whose lyrics in the early years were never exactly a priority. Throughout Fables of the Reconstruction we see a lyrical evolution with the band, something bigger growing. That they could knock off a line as gorgeous as "We sat in the garden, we stood on the porch, I won't deny myself, we never talked"  in one of the more obscure tracks on the album speaks to the chops they possessed.

2) Peter's guitar at the end of each verse, including that lovely little mini-solo he plucks out right in the middle. The former, just a lilting two-note climb, gives the song its tenderness. The latter leans back on the band's estimable folk roots and could easily have found its way into a Mamas and the Papas song (a band R.E.M. frequently covered in those days) 20 years earlier. Peter Buck never considered himself a traditional rock guitarist, and certainly never considered himself a balladeer. On "Kohoutek" he is both.

3) Michael's stunning falsetto at the end of each verse. Peter's guitar fills are the yin, Michael's voice is the yang, drifting up, up and away with a tenderness he was only now becoming aware he possessed. All of those concluding half-lines("We never talked," "Who will stand alone?" "Will I stand alone?") are the lasting trump cards of "Kohoutek" and instill the song with a sad sweetness that seems totally at home for both him and the band behind him.

Again, in a lot of ways "Kohoutek" is unremarkable, drifting into the vast woodwork of a rather amazing canon the band would assemble. But listen to those little things, consider the subject matter and maturity of it all. And then thank R.E.M. for having the confidence in its fans to present things that so often were never as they first seemed.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Green Grow the Rushes
"Stay off that highway—word is it's not so safe."

Start with, as usual for R.E.M., the guitar. From their very first single, "Radio Free Europe," one of the band's trademarks was Peter Buck's arpeggios. While clearly owing a considerable debt to the Byrds, Buck put his own stamp on the simple broken chord technique. It was featured on song after song, and always effective, and the fact that Buck's skill grew considerably helped keep his style evolving, rather than growing stale. But with Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables something else happened.

Buck had already begun writing riffs—in its earliest years, apparently most of the riffs, such as they were, were actually written by Mike Mills and taught to Buck. But on "Green Grow the Rushes," note how his broken chords straddle the line between simple arpeggios and actual riffs, until by the post-verse section of each song, as well as the chorus, it falls entirely on the riff side of the ledger. And yet, while clearly a riff, it's not any riff a Jimmy Page or Mick Ronson or Steve Gaines would ever have written, not in a million years. It can be hard for someone coming to R.E.M. for the first time to understand what the fuss is about, so greatly have their innovations, their personality been absorbed and regurgitated by later generations—and no whining, that's simply how popular culture works, and it's a sign of how great they were. But here's a band who's taken something as simple, as elemental, as fundamental to rock as a guitar riff and reimagined it, and how revolutionary is that? And who could imagine a song as unimposing as "Green Grow the Rushes" would be such an exemplar?

The rest of the song follows from there. Bill Berry's drumming is, as always, restrained yet driving. Listen to the way he closes the song out, at the end of the outro—for a drummer not usually noted for his jaw-dropping technique, his playing there wouldn't sound out of character for a Jeff Porcaro or Jim Keltner, and for a rock drummer, there may be little higher praise.

Michael Stipe has held "Green Grow the Rushes" up as perhaps his first overtly political song, but that it's hailed as such feels like rank revisionism to me. It's only thanks to Stipe's hidden hand that anyone thinks of the song as political in anyway:
I rewrote 'Green Grow the Rushes' two times – as 'The Flowers of Guatemala' and 'Welcome to the Occupation' – where I actually ghostwrote the bio that went out to the press, so that they would say that 'this is a song about American intervention in Central America.'" — Michael Stipe, 1989
In reality, the lyrics are Stipe's typical—and I don't mean that in anything approaching a derogatory sense—inexplicable, indecipherable melodious mumble, with only the title and the occasional random phrase jumping out at you. In fact, the one and only line that was every crystal clear to me was the one quoted up above: "Stay off the highway—word is it's not so safe." That incredibly threatening warning, the kind of advise given in a horror story (perhaps of a southern gothic nature), juxtaposed against the relatively benign, yet definitely not cheery, music chilled me to the bone, like finding yourself lost in the woods and stumbling upon a cabin where an old man gives you some water and a little food and casually mentions how no one's ever found out the things he did and it's only then you notice the bones scattered here and there.

In contrast, the backing vocals are among the most traditional the band had yet gone with. Unlike many other songs on the album, Stipe sings neither entirely alone nor with R.E.M.'s distinctive overlapping, unique vocal lines. Instead, Stipe is subtly double-tracked for most of the song, with Mills joining him only on the chorus for the third and final singing of the title each time, until the outro, when Mills and Berry take over singing the title, and Stipe begins singing a series of simple "la"s. But it's the function those las serve that is so interesting, as they essentially take the place a guitar solo would, were this another band's recording.

When one thinks of Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables, one probably thinks of "Driver 8," or "Cant Get There from Here." Perhaps "Wendell Gee" or "Maps and Legends" or "Feeling Gravitys Pull." It's unlikely the first song to leap to mind is "Kohoutek" or "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" or "Green Grow the Rushes." They're not filler, none of them. But they're also not...well, they're not the first songs likely to leap to mind.

Which is fine. Any album, like any sports team, or any film, needs elements that aren't the ones that immediately grab you or that demand your attention. A team can't have nothing but 11 Jim Browns on offense, a film can't have nothing but "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," and an album cannot consist of 8 "Thunder Road"s. It just doesn't work. You need the ebb to go along with the flow, the wane to accompany the wax.

And that's where a gem like "Green Grow the Rushes" comes in. Much of the second side of Fables is...well, let's say remarkably consistent. Some would claim monochromatic, or even boring, but such claimants would be greatly mistaken. But it's not inaccurate to say that fully 60% of the side is very much cut from a similar cloth.

"Green Grow the Rushes," Kohoutek" and "Good Advices" are all mid-tempo, atmospheric tracks which, while worthy in and of themselves, largely serve to limn the album's more obvious highlights. They keep the mood of the album flowing along nicely—no mean feat. They are full R.E.M.'s trademarks: punchy, melodic bass, tasteful, incisive drumming, murmured vocals only sporadically intelligible yet always featuring an exceedingly catchy melody line.

And yet it's "Green Grow the Rushes" that tipped Fables into the favorite category for me, in no small part because of its lesser—relative to the album's more famous songs—status. It's unquestionably second tier, even in the context of the LP, much less the band's larger oeuvre, and yet it's an immaculate little construct in of itself. That it's not regarded more highly speaks less of its own intrinsic quality and more of the insanely high standards of the rest of the band's catalog.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Cant Get There From Here

 Back in the day 30 years ago when it was still mostly LPs and tapes, Side 2 of Fables of the Reconstruction kicked off with a song like none other R.E.M. would ever do. "Cant Get There From Here," with its country stomp, funky strut and honking horns, is and was sui generis in the band's vast catalogue, from the descending crash of the four notes which opened it to the loose, lingering end ("Thank you Ray").

And Lord was it polarizing. R.E.M. hardcores, and that's really all we had back in 1985, had been weened on "So. Central Rain" and "Talk About the Passion" and "Laughing," and many of them greeted "Cant Get There From Here" as if they'd been serenaded by aliens. One early(ish) book about R.E.M. called it unequivocally the worst song they ever did. And lest we forget, the song was the album's first single and charted higher than any other R.E.M. had up to that point, so the first, faint cries of "Sell out!" began to bubble up here and there.

But you know what? Screw all that. "Cant Get There From Here" is one hell of a fun ride. Thematically it was another sideways travelogue of R.E.M.'s limitless sojourns around this great land of ours, this time paying particular attention to a place on the map known as Philomath (it's in Georgia and, honestly, is one hell of a melodic name). To that end the song isn't that different from, say, "Little America," which seems to lend "Cant Get There From Here" some of its roadsy roots as well as lyrical ancestry:

Lighted in the anvil yard,
Green shell back, green shell back.
Skylight, sty-tied, nero pie-tied
In tree tar black brer sap.

—"Little America," 1984

Hands down, Calechee bound, land-locked, kiss the ground,
The dirt of seven continents going round and round,
Go on ahead Mr. City Wide, hynotized, suit and tied,
Gentlemen, testify.

—"Cant Get There From Here," 1985

It's the style that's completely different. "Little America" is a pure post-punk rocker, probably the most flat-out rock song they would do until 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant came awash in them. "Cant Get There From Here" was mindless country joy, the first song they did that used horns and the first time Michael Stipe truly let loose with his vocals, yawping out yowls at the start of each chorus and adding some marbles to his traditional warble. (Sorry for that one).

The rest of the band is along for the ride on this one; (save for Mike Mills, whose dominant bass is close to a John Entwistle impression, particularly on the fills) Peter gives us a nice scratchy rhythm line and, yep, gets all jangly with it at the end of each verse, and Bill lends some bristling cymbal work while keeping time as steady as the clickety-clack of a train. But this is the song where Michael airs it out, making good on the promise he started to make on "Driver 8" and "Life and How to Live It" and emerging as a true, bona fide rock-n-roll front man for the first time ever (though nowhere near the last).

"Cant Get There From Here" is pokey, punchy fun from start to finish (as is the video, where the band actually prints some lyrics on the screen, dons giant duck-heads and, get this, smiles a few times!). It sounds like nothing else on the album, yet still manages to fit the narrative of bringing us this southern experience. Lawyer Jeff and Brother Ray have their own place in all of this, just like Old Man Kensey and Wendell Gee do. It's the way that its presented that's wholly unique, a trick R.E.M. loved to play throughout its 31 years of existence. Maybe because they were so damn good at it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Old Man Kensey

"There's more of a feeling of place on this record, a sense of home and a sense that we're not there." So said Peter Buck of Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables.

Despite being one of the greatest quartets in the history of rock—and considering their competition (hello, Beatles), that's a pretty select group—in many ways, R.E.M. was instrumentally more like a power trio (albeit the least powerful of power trios). Whereas the Fabs and the Who and Led Zeppelin and the Clash and the Replacements all more or less followed (or, originally, set) the traditional guitar, bass, drums lineup and structure, R.E.M., like the Police and, later, Nirvana and Green Day, reimagined a band's musical architecture from the ground up. Rather than the guitar being clearly the most important instrument, R.E.M. (especially early R.E.M.) upended things, building songs around either the bass or the entire rhythm section, with the guitar contributing the kind of counterpoint the bass normally provides, standing, as the lyrics would have it, the conventional arrangement on its head.

Nowhere is that more obvious than on "Old Man Kensey." One of the only songs the band wrote well ahead of time—in fact, it first debuted on their previous "Reckoning" tour—"Old Man Kensey" is as atmospheric and mysterious as R.E.M. would ever get, and that's saying something. What's more, given that it was one of the first songs on the album to have been written, it can be seen as a key track, sonically.

It opens on Mike Mills' ominous bass. We'll soon realize that ominous mood is somewhat deceptive, as we haven't inadvertently stepped into a horror film. Rather, we're simply taking tea with an absolutely bizarre, disturbing family of outcasts, none of whom are actually violent, but who simply wish to be alone, taking no part in polite society. And good for them.

Peter Buck's guitar joins the scene, slightly metallic in tone, but a thousand lightyears from metal in approach, instead opting for minimalist lines with (in a very different context) a slightly country bent, albeit country as if Chet Atkins were playing a session for Brian Eno in a Chicago blues joint.

Almost immediately Bill Berry's drums come in, almost all primal drums, with almost the only cymbals being the awesome choice of using a trashy Chinese cymbal for a crash, emphasizing the outsider, folk art quality of the setting.

Michael Stipe enters, singing about...well, who the hell knows. Transcriptions abound on the internets and it's entirely possible they're right. But that's not important, other than Mike Mill's echoey backing vocals, singing "That's my folly." Is it a coincidence that that's one of the clearest lines of the entire track? Not likely.

Nor is it a coincidence that Stipe's plaintive "I'm ready to go" is another crystal clear line, but ironically so—rarely has a band sounded less ready to go, unless its not so much in the "ready and rarin' to go" sense, and more in the (as the Peter Buck quote makes plain) "ready to go home and crawl under the covers and never come out again." As with the entire album, their depression is our gain. 

The song glides along, a bridge lightening things ever so briefly, before returning to the humid status quo. One of the few time time signature changes in the entire R.E.M. oeuvre, with a weird shortened measure that also has a slight ritard, and we draw to a quiet close, things having not changed at all, still where we started, if a bit more unsettled than before.

This is what R.E.M. decided to close the first side of their third album with. (For comparison: their next two studio albums would end their first sides with "Underneath the Bunker" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"). If one still requires yet more proof that this was a band in turmoil yet determined to go its own way, look no further.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Life and How to Live It

A meandering Rickenbacker guitar plays at the outset, faint and distant, echoing through the studio. It sounds like the lonely notes that play over the opening credits of a movie or television show about to introduce us to someone, or something, solitary and secluded. It evokes emptiness and absence. And hangs out there like morning mist draped over that oh-so-familiar southern kudzu.

But then we're blasted out of it by that same guitar, now suddenly triple-timing it with a series of chords that are, stunningly, not only in a major key, but also, dare we say, kinda popp-ish?

This is how "Life and How to Live It" starts. And 15 seconds in we think, "Where in the hell is this song going?"

Where it's going is into R.E.M.'s deep reservoir of southern gothic yarnspinning, where we are about to become acquainted with the first of several strange figures that populate Fables, all of whom are disconnected from the linear world and, seemingly, from society itself. Soon enough we'll meet eccentric and mercurial Old Man Kensey, we'll learn about Lawyer Jeff and we'll see a tree farmer named Wendell Gee. All conjured out of the baroque central casting where Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe always were so at ease to use as a playscape.

But first, with "Life and How to Live It," we'll meet an author who literally divides his house into two sides and takes turns living in each. And writes about it in an eponymously named book that no one will ever read.

Simple enough, huh? Hell, for early-era R.E.M., this practically passes for straight-on storytelling.

Burn bright through the night, two pockets lead the way
Two doors to go between, the wall was raised today
Two doors, two names to call your others and your own
Keep these books well stocked away and take your happy home

My carpenter's out and running about and talking to the street
My pockets are out and running about and barking to the street
To tell what I have hidden there

Burn bright through the night, two pockets lead the way
Two doors to go between the wall was raised today
Raise the wall and shout its flaws, the carpenter should rest
So that when you tire of one side the other serves you best

The hills listen hear the voice in time, listen to the holler
Listen to my walls within my tongue
Can't you see you made my ears go tin?
The air quicken tension building inference suddenly
Life and how to live it

Raise the wall and shout its flaws, the carpenter should rest
So that when you tire of one side other serves you best
Read about the wisdom wall, a knock-knock-knock
A secret knock, a hammer's locked, the other wisdom lost

My carpenter's out and running about, talking to the
Listen to the holler
My pockets are out and running about and barking in the street
To show what I have hidden there

Listen to the holler
If I write a book it will be called
Life and How to Live It

So. Now that that's cleared up!

What we hear in "Life and How to Live It" is a band from the south embracing it's southernness, but on their own terms. A band built in the tradition of storytelling telling a story, but on their own terms. And a band whose members were raised almost entirely on 1960s-70s rock-n-roll and pop—one of the first American rock bands to be able to say that—giving us their interpretation of what post-punk pop sounds like. Only, again, they do it on their terms.

Like the fable (there's that word again) of the blind men and the elephant, it can be what you and you alone think it is. There is no wrong answer and there really is no right answer. This songs sets an odd premise in motion and uses odd imagery and word placement ("...the air quicken tension building inference...") to roll it out. What you make of the finished product is up to you. That, to a tee, is "Life and How to Live It," and it also on a much larger basis what R.E.M. was all about from the start. And that is what makes this one of the most fascinating tracks not only on the record, but in their entire catalogue.

After all, what better way to tell an open-ended story than by having literally two different sides to it. So that, as the man said, "when you tire of one side the other serves you best."

We'd be remiss if we didn't quickly mention the musicianship on "Life and How to Live It," because all four of them just bring it on this track. From his opening arpeggio wrapped in mystery, Peter Buck is in command of his jaunty, very-nearly-but-just-not-quite pop guitar lead throughout. The interplay between him and Mike Mills' bass, particularly coming as as the "chorus" line ("My pockets are out and running about") heighten the pulse as the song propels along. Stipe's voice rings with confidence and manages to navigate some of the most offbeat phrasing of his career with particular aplomb (listen to how commanding he sounds on the "Read about the wisdom" lyric).

And as for Bill Berry, well...if you didn't know who was playing drums yet had a working knowledge of 1980s drummers, you just might think this was the work of another southern-based drumming prodigy who was rather huge at the time. As in Stewart Copeland.

It's almost taboo to compare rock drummers to Copeland because his playing style was so damn unique. But if you listen to what Berry does on this track—the razor's edge he cuts throughout, the resounding crack you hear when he hits the snare, the propulsive splash of the cymbals during the chorus and and that clipped, heightened urgency he lends from the moment he makes his entrance—is Stewart Copeland Incarnate.

"Life and How to Live It" is on its surface the epitome of a classic album deep track, buried on Side 1 on the LP and in between early pop nuggets like "Driver 8" and "Can't Get There From Here" on the CD. And the nice thing about deep tracks is they give the band room to roam, to stretch it out a bit and see where the mood and the story can take them.

With "Life and How to Live It" R.E.M. roams around plenty, and the journey takes them to that most familiar place. They sing about an oddball lifestyle and a life divided in two, but they also sing about their ability to bring something wholly unique to the table and to then leave it to the listener to sort out. It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last time, but "Life and How to Live It" showcases this ability at its highest heights.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Driver 8

Peter Buck once said,
"I can write that kind of stuff in my sleep. I can write 'Driver 8' every day of the week. We all can."
Peter, my man. I don't know how else to put this, so I'm just going to blunt, something I believe you appreciate.

Go fuck yourself.

In case my meaning isn't obvious, please allow me to elucidate.

One of my favorite quotes about music is in regards to the Miles Davis masterpiece Kind of Blue. Some extremely sagacious soul once wrote that there were hundreds of trumpet players who could have played Miles' solos on that album, and not one other who could have written them.

That's "Driver 8."

I get where you're coming from, man, I do. Your point is that it's a mid-tempo song in a minor key, that it utilizes the E Minor-to-A Minor chord change so beloved by bands and artists such as the Beatles, Elvis Costello and oh yes, R.E.M. It's moody and atmospheric and has a cool riff and moves to the major for the chorus and a different minor for the bridge and ends unresolved and has mysterious unfathomable words and all that. I get it. I do. You spell it out like that and it's clearly so formulaic.

Except one actual listen to the actual song blows that theory to shit. That ringing guitar riff that drives the song? There aren't hundreds, there are thousands, millions of people who could've played that. And there was exactly one person in the world who could've written it and, surprise surprise, he did! And that person—SPOILER!—was you! What are the odds?

Bill Berry's drums are so basic, so straightforward, and as you well know, finding someone with the restraint to play just those quarter notes on the cymbal, just those half notes on the snare, that simple kick drum pattern, when they can play stuff so much more complex...well, that ain't easy. Listen to the way, in the intro, Berry doesn't even play the cymbal on the final beat of the fourth measure, instead moving his right hand to the floor tom. There is no way that tiny little bit wasn't written only after playing the song a few hundred times, honing and honing and honing it down to its purest essence. Easiest thing in the world to play, hardest thing in the world to find someone willing to play.

Or check the bass line. Mike Mills mirrors the guitar lick for the first half of the riff and then—in direct opposition to the way these things usually go—gets busier, doubling his own notes, going almost contrapuntal with his note choices. This is part of the R.E.M. DNA, as Mills, a far superior technician, rumbles below more busily as Buck chimes up above.

Then look at how the bass works with the chords. Take a gander at the chord progression for the verses. Simple as can be: em-am-G. The first two chords held for four beats each, and then they hang on the G for two entire measures. Except that for that second of those G measures, Mike slips from the root of that chord down a step to the F#. It's a little thing, a tiny thing, that change. It's just one little note, but it makes so much difference, by keeping the chord progression/riff from sounding too pat, too resolved, too hackneyed, too ordinary. As my imaginary friend Chris says, "It gives the progression (and song) just enough unsettled darkness and uncertainty to keep propelling it forward, and goddamn if it doesn't makes the song actually sounds like a lonely tired train (conductor) plowing through the darkness." Also note that that F# is a seventh of G, and if that F# had been played an octave higher, it would've sounded like a pretty and mellow and mildly melancholy folk chord. But no...our boy(s) chose to play that note beneath the root (G) in a lower register, where it become the footing of the chord structure but down there it sounds darker, and unsure.

It's a great chord progression: simple, to the point, memorable. But the band must have felt that something else was needed there. Some recurring guitar fill? Nah, too shrill, and distracting, and if it were the same guitar fill all the time it would get annoying, and if it were a different guitar fill every time, it would be annoying and distracting. Drum fill/feature? Same problems. But since Mike's solution was on bass, you feel it as much as you hear it, and it doesn't fight any of the other instruments, either in frequency or rhythm. It's brilliantly contrapuntal is pretty much every single way. Also also also, for an added additional level of so-fucking-awesome, dig how that recurring bass riff works with the vocals. Sometimes the vocals happen over that riff, sometimes not, but whatever the vocal part does, it always always works with that busy bass part.

That's how this little band was.  Those two measure of bass reminds one of the super-filligreed wrought iron work on balconies in New Orleans—super-detailed and dense and twisty, but it's black and dark (aka lower frequency) so it doesn't pop or annoy or distract. Instead, it performs a structural function and, as a nice secondary benefit, is also quietly gorgeous. And, as with lots of bass parts, people might not be able to point to it or hum it, but they would definitely notice if it weren't there—the song would feel wrong and ungrounded and its emotional direction would be less clear.

Hey, you know what band did this before you mooks? Hold on, let me do the math...carry the, wait borrow the one...and...that's right, no one. Oh, sure, there was some slightly similarity in previous power trios—since that's essentially what you guys were—with Cream and the Police sometimes inverting traditional instrumental roles, but no one came up with the solutions you did. Maybe because no one else had Mike Mills and Peter Buck in the band.

And then there are the words. Oh, the words. "She is selling faith on a go-tell crusade." Michael Stipe admitted he didn't know where that came from, but remarked upon how authentically southern it is. Which illustrates exactly where it came from. Because for all R.E.M. was actually made up of transplants—Berry from Minnesota, Buck and Mills from Cali, Stipe a transient military brat—the entire band had by this time soaked up enough southern ambience to [almost] literally be part kudzu, and none more so than the sponge-like Stipe.

"Children look up, all they hear is sky-blue bells ringing." Good Lord.

"Way to put myself, my children to sleep" is so goddamn powerful, so evocative, even as you may not be exactly sure what it means, and what could be more authentically southern than that?

Ultimately, the secret to the song may just be the secret not just this most mysterious of their albums, but to R.E.M.'s entire career and oeuvre: "We can reach our destination...but we're still a ways away." It's the journey that matters, not the actual getting to the actual end.

So. There was one and exactly one band who could have come up with "Driver 8." The best American band in the history of rock and roll.

Oh, also, Peter? As you yourself said, Bill wrote the verses.

so there

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Maps and Legends

One thing that gripped me on a recent re-listen of Fables of the Reconstruction is the overpowering sense of uncertainty that exists throughout the album, this idea of being out of place, even lost.

It's stated over and over again ("We can reach our destination, but it's still a ways away" from "Driver 8," "Stay off that highway, word is it's not so safe" from "Green Grow the Rushes," "I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away" from "Good Advices" ). Along with pretty much every inch of "Cant Get There From Here."

And for a band that was admittedly the proverbial fish out of water during the often grueling Fables recording sessions, plucked from their Athens, GA comfort zone and thrown into a foreign studio in London with a foreign[ish] producer in (the extremely Britishized American transplant) Joe Boyd, such a sense of placelessness seems to make perfect sense.

Never more so than on "Maps and Legends," the eerie travelogue which spotlights the haunt and the hunt of those roads taken and not taken. If Fables has a true declarative statement it may be found in the ominous, only partly audible warning that repeats throughout this mesmerizing track: "Is he to be reached? He's not to be reached."

Everything about "Maps and Legends" seems to be a bit askew, right from the very first notes where Mike Mills' bass starts three notes ahead of everyone else, like someone in a rush to get to some place but has no idea where. We basically have two chords that follow throughout, leaning heavily in the minor, and this feeling of overarching darkness rides along at each stop of these strange, unfamiliar roads. Michael Stipe's voice is characteristically (for this period, anyway) hard to decipher, yet the low, baroque quality is perfectly suited to the lyrics. Which are typically open for interpretation and based much more on feel than they are on any kind of straight narrative.

Called the fool and company
From his own where he'd rather be
Where he ought to be, he sees what you can't see
Can't you see that?

Maybe he's caught in the legend
Maybe he's caught in the mood
Maybe these maps and legends 
Have been misunderstood

Down the way the road's divided
Paint me the places you've seen
Those who know what I don't know
Refer to the yellow, red and green

The map that you painted didn't seem real
He just sings whatever he's seen
Point to the legend, point to the east
Point to the yellow, red and green

Fascinating here that Stipe (or the lyricist, which may have been him and may have been any of the other three members, depending on whom you ask and when you ask it), leaves the driving to someone else, so to speak. Despite the map of the title and the focus the song has on a journey, there is no direction to it. Lines like "He sees what you can't see" and "Paint me the places you've seen," not to mention the foundational assertion that "maybe these maps and legends have been misunderstood" imply an almost intentional lack of focus. "I don't know where we going, but we're going."

Years after this song and record were released, and years and after R.E.M. hit it big, Stipe told a Rolling Stone interviewer that he wondered if the true spirit of Jack Kerouac, and those romantic road aspirations he brought to the fore starting in the 1950s, weren't living now within rock-n-roll bands, on all those seemingly endless journeys in vans and buses across America to the next potential gig. "Maps and Legends," not unlike it's wordier and more jaunty step-cousin from the previous Reckoning, "Little America," shows just how strong the wanderlust can be, just how powerful the desire for motion can be. Even when one has no clue where to go or why to go there.

I always count "Maps and Legends" as an example of R.E.M. clicking on all cylinders. The musicianship is undeniable; there's a soulful quality to Stipe's voice that shows the singer evolving a bit. Listen to those robust chords from Peter Buck, the pulsing rhythm that Mills and Bill Berry provide, the odd, almost inaudible backing vocals singing who the hell knows what at various parts of the song, and then, at the wordless bridge, listen again to the way Berry echoes Stipe's tuneful moaning with a beat that hesitates, slows and finally kicks back in full-force. Like a driver slowly down, searching for the right place to turn.

But it's the atmospheric urgency—something of a contradiction that shouldn't work and yet by god surely does—that truly makes "Maps and Legends" a standout track, in 1985 and still today. No one knows where the narrator is headed as the final "he's not to be reached" hits at the end. But we know he's on his way. And we sure as hell feel inclined to go along for the ride with him.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Feeling Gravitys Pull

"It's the most tense record we've ever made." — Peter Buck

R.E.M. wasn't sugarcoating things.

The things that make Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables great are all laid down right in the first seconds of the first track on the first side.

The atonal, dissonant guitar line with its muted chicken scratch and eerie harmonics, sounding like a pensive air raid siren composed by Béla Bartók for Eddie Hazel to play when sitting in with Sonic Youth circa 1987.

The tribal drumming, which sounds like it's conveying the urgent message that the village is inundated with a horrific outbreak and it's best to stay well away.

The rumbling bass, which sounds like the precursor to a serious but not devastating earthquake.

The lyrics which are ever so slightly clearer than on previous releases, but for the first time what you can hear isn't just enigmatic, it's unsettling, even threatening, with imagery of a world that is, at best, teetering on the edge and is more likely in the throes of extreme violence.
Peel back the mountains, peel back the sky
Stomp gravity into the floor
Time and distance are out of place here
Shift sway rivers shift, oceans fall and mountains drift
It's a Man Ray kind of sky
Let me show you what I can do with it
Reason had harnessed the tame
Holding the sky in their arms
Gravity pulls me down
It's odd and offputting, miles away (4159 of them, in fact) from the immediately engaging opening tracks of their first two albums.

And yet...and yet there's the tender, tentative singing from Stipe on both the surprising, gently hopeful bridge-like section, and the outro. Yet even there, on the latter, it's paired with odd, jarring, disturbing strings which—far from sweetening, the usual use of strings on a pop song—set the listener on edge, taking an already disconcerting song and bringing it to a troubled, unresolved close, like a bad dream from which you awaken before it gets really bad...but which you know was going to soon.

It fades to a close, but not quite all the way to silence, allowing us to hear that the issues are, without question, unresolved. Will they be in subsequent songs? It's doubtful, but hope springs eternal.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Fables of the Reconstruction Turns 30

Fables of the Reconstruction turns 30 this year, amazingly.

The third full-length release from R.E.M., and the album that in 1985 seemed to move them ever so gently into the mainstream (a process that wasn’t completed until the phenomenal Document was released in 1987), Fables seems to stand alone among R.E.M. albums in terms of inspiring such disparate opinion and reaction. None other than Bill Berry made his opinion of Fables clear in a Rolling Stone interview in 1987 with a Spinal Tap-esque two word review: “Fables sucked.”

It didn’t, of course, and Bill’s overwhelming greatness aside, hell, even the best of us get it wrong sometimes. (And facts be damned, that's one awesome review.)

But either way, for decades fans and critics have been divided on the record. Many were turned off by its grim murkiness, an abrupt departure from R.E.M.'s first two records, which while lyrically oblique and often atmospheric still had a gentle, soaring quality that also defined for a generation R.E.M.'s folksy southern jangle. Others didn’t care for the country turns the album occasionally took, and some found it steeped too richly in vague Southern Gothic mythology, while horns are often a lightning rod for rock fans. (The fools.) Yet the album has its champions too, as many believe it was R.E.M. first successful reach outside its comfort zone, with musicianship that matched its daring and lyrics that proved to be some of the finest of their career.

So did Fables of the Reconstruction work? Did it fail? What exactly was the impact of this strange, brooding album which, all arguments aside, remains perhaps the most musically diverse album of the band's early years.

The two of us here at Reason to Believe will spend the next few days looking at Reconstruction of the Fables as a whole and also breaking it down, song by song, to examine every inch of an album which meant so much to us in our formative years and which has only grown in stature since.