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.

Friday, August 14, 2015

When I Write the Book/Everyday I Write the Book

For years I thought about how great a medley of these two songs would be, notwithstanding Elvis Costello's lack of affection for his own song. And then lo and behold the bespectacled one went and did it himself and brilliantly. Going acoustic may not have been a huge leap, but moving it into a country shuffle with a backing choir? Genius.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


I love "9-9."

The frantic, frenetic energy of the Wireian meets Gang of Four arrangement.

Peter Buck's angular, metallic (not in the sense of heavy metal, but the sense of sounding truly like metal) guitar.

Mike Mills' (and, at times, Bill Berry, as well) unusual (for R.E.M.) shouted backing vocals, doubling Michael Stipe's lead vocal, rather than providing counterpoint, as was more common for them.

Bill Berry's screwed up drum pattern, with the downbeats and upbeats reversed, a trick first used by Ginger Baker on "Sunshine of Your Love" and later utilized occasionally by Stewart Copeland, throwing the entire feel off, making it difficult for the listener to find the center of gravity, rendering the entire song askew and the listening experience uneasy.

The fact that by design the only fully audible words are "conversation fear," making it among the more autobiographical of early Stipe lyrics.

If it's the weakest track on Murmur—it's not, but if it is (it's not)—well, it's only because something has to be and not even track can be a "Standing Still" or "Perfect Circle" or "Radio Free Europe" or "West of the Fields" and most good bands would love to have a single song this weird and great.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Hurry Up Sundown

When I watch a film like the oh so pleasant and at times remarkably accurate "That Thing You Do" I can't help but marvel at how spot on the songwriting was. The title track fits its time period perfectly even as it's simply a fantastic song, able to stand up to being played in the movie roughly 73 times and never once do you come close to getting tired of it, as though it seemed as though you'd known it all your life the very first time they play it. That's some seriously skilled writing on the part of Adam Schlesinger, one half of the songwriters of Fountains of Wayne, as well as reportedly consultants at their much in-demand telephone hotline.

Based on this relative throwaway of an outtake, or outtake of a relative throwaway, Bruce Springsteen could maybe score a gig like that, should the whole rock and roll legend thing suddenly dry up. This song could easily fit on a hidden masterpieces of the 1960s collection and no one would doubt it for a moment. (Other than the vocal which, while great, sounds a bit too adult to pass for sunny bubblegum.)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Follow You, Follow Me

Someone asked me not too long ago what my all-time favorite Genesis song was. After running down a few dozen candidates, I was shocked to realize this just may be it. Probably not–more likely "Ripples" or "Turn It On Again" or "Cinema Show" or one of their instrumentals. No, wait, maybe it's "Blood on the Rootops." Or maybe "Dancing with the Moonlight Knight." Whatever. "Follow You, Follow Me" is a strong contender and there have certainly been times it was it.

And this cover more than lives up to the original. Mike Rutherford's oddly syncopated guitar works wonderfully on the original, and is absolutely absent here. Instead, it's got a plainly strummed guitar, an interestingly building Enossification of the backing tracks, and of course, Mark Kozelek's warm, hushed vocal, which manage to convey a delicate tenderness, and a haunted gravitas at the same time. Something about his voice makes it hard not to suspect that he's singing this to someone who's already left him. Which makes the opening words all the more effective.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Oops!...I Did It Again

Now this...this is a cover. It's faithful to the original material in pretty much every way, retaining the original chord progression, the melody, the lyrics. Yet Richard Thompson indelibly stamps his own personality on it—his is so strong, I can't imagine he'd be able to not, even if he were to try—and in doing so makes crystal clear that which could sometimes be hidden by the videogenic Lolita imagery of the original: it's one hell of a great pop song.

Listen to how the audience laughs when they first realize what he's playing—this, of all songs, during a concert devoted to, as the night was titled, 1000 Years of Popular Music, and indeed some of the songs were nearly that old—and yet by the end they're singing along flawlessly...and joyfully.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

10 Ribs & All / Carrot Pod Pod (Pod)

In which the mighty Led Zeppelin apparently wonders what it would sound like if they wrote a song for Carole King to add lyrics to.

And do it quite well, I might add. Although so far away, she's got a friend.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Fly Me to the Moon

Blossom Dearie is something of an acquired taste, although it may be easier for those of us who grew up on Schoolhouse Rock to acquire said taste, given that she was the voice behind the much beloved "Figure Eight" and "Unpack Your Adjectives."

I don't care much for jazz vocals, alas, as a general rule. But this is one of my favorite songs and oh my goodness does this go right to the heart like an arrow to the knee. So tender, so sweet, so direct.