Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Moon River

So I found myself rewatching Eddie Vedder inducting R.E.M. into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as one is wont to do when unable to think of the correct cover copy on a Tuesday night, and was struck by how adorably awkward he comes across, as well as how heartfelt. I was surprised that he devoted such a disproportionately large amount of time to Michael Stipe, at the expense of the others—two and a half times as much to Stipe as to Peter Buck or Mike Mills, and never once actually mentioned Bill Berry's musical contribution to the band. Which is odd. You can understand a lyricist devoting extra time to a band's lyricist, but it's surprising that multi-instrumentalist Vedder, of all people, would give such short-shift to the musical part of a band, and most especially this band of all bands.

Also odd was that he said, "If R.E.M. had a secret weapon, I would say it was Mister Mike Mills." While accurately pointing out that Mills plays bass and keyboards and is a wonderful writer, he goes on to isolate Mills's vocals as the key to R.E.M., describing them as almost co-lead vocals, rather than "merely" backing vocals.

What's odd isn't that that's inaccurate, by any means. What's odd is that there's nothing secret about it. It's blindingly obvious to anyone who's ever paid any attention to R.E.M. It's like describing Scottie Pippin as the secret weapon of the Chicago Bulls during their six title run. Wasn't really much of a secret there.

The importance of Mike Mills to R.E.M. cannot be overstated. He's a great bassist, creating melodic, inventive lines. He's a wonderful keyboardist, adding invaluable, gorgeous textures. And he's a lovely singer, with his secondary vocals providing intricate and surprising counterpoint to Stipe's voice. But a secret weapon he was not. Their true secret weapon, so secret that as astute a listener as Eddie Vedder completely missed it, was the guy who can be seen adding the lowest harmonies at the beginning of this gorgeous cover.

That's their secret weapon. And that's why, no matter how hard they tried—and they tried—they never created an album post-1995 as good as their pre-1995 albums.

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