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.