29 April 2009

HOT FIVE: R.E.M. Warner Bros

05: Out Of Time [1991]
Featuring..."Radio Song", "Losing My Religion", "Low", "Near Wild Heaven", "Shiny Happy People", "Half A World Away", "Country Feedback"

There are plenty of questionable songs in the R.E.M. catalog, and even a few outright stinkers. Out Of Time, the band's second album for Warner Bros, contains at least two of 'em. "Shiny Happy People" was fairly annoying even before it was a radio and MTV hit, but "Radio Song", featuring a rather lifeless KRS-One (whom I genuinely like), is perhaps my least favorite R.E.M. song of all time, and they had the horrible sense to lead off the album with it and eventually release it as a single with it's own meaningless video...It's a bloodless, plodding tune that leads directly into the biggest hit of the band's career, "Losing My Religion", which proved that seven albums in, they could still write a "classic R.E.M." tune. Out Of Time also contains two of my favorite R.E.M. songs from their Warner Bros years, "Low" and "Half A World Away", not to mention "Country Feedback", their best straight C&W tune since "Rockville". "Me 'n' Honey" ends the album on a throwaway note, the song meant to be this album's "Superman", but instead the duet with Kate Pierson of the B-52's is an unfortunate routine finish to an otherwise solid, if not stellar, album.

04: Up [1998]
Featuring..."Lotus", "At My Most Beautiful", "You're In The Air", "Why Not Smile", "Daysleeper", "Parakeet"

It only seems natural that R.E.M.'s first album without drummer Bill Berry would make use of drum machines and plenty of keyboards and synths. While there are still guitars on Up, it would seem Peter Buck was more interested in creating textures than being upfront with his usual melodic leads. What we end up with is perhaps the biggest left-turn in the band's discography. As a whole, the sound is soft and warm and breezy, a triumph of tone on an album concerned with air and flight, a literal departure from their previous longplayer, New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which was an album built for the road, and concerned with pavement and metal and glass and modernity. Up is mostly about the sky, from the album's title, through songs like "Airportman", "You're In The Air", "Parakeet", and "Falls To Climb". A decade later, Up still sounds rather fresh and inviting, an underappreciated, and maybe even forgotten, gem in their 25 year career. Solid and lasting.

03: New Adventures In Hi-Fi [1996]
Featuring..."How The West Was Won & Where It Got Us", "The Wake-Up Bomb", "New Test Leper", "E-Bow The Letter", "Bittersweet Me", "Be Mine", "Electrolite"

New Adventures In Hi-Fi is grimy and fuzzy. It's all about travel and exploration and escape, about love and lust and other earthly delights, and it's perhaps no surprise because many of the songs were written and recorded on the road during their Monster Tour of 1995. As a whole, the album has a sweeping, almost epic feel to it...Gradually unfolding, like the American landscape through a tourbus window...Heavy and raw and alive, sometimes rushing along like all the windows are open, at other times moving in slow motion, content to enjoy the ride, and it brings to mind "You Are The Everything" from their Green album..."Here's the scene, you're in the backseat, laying down, the windows wrap around to the sound of the travel and the engine...All you hear is time stand still..." But that's another song from another album, and we'll get to that later...Ironically (or not), R.E.M. didn't tour in support of this album, but I did spend six weeks on a road trip around the western half of the United States in the 1996, with my old friend Ike. In fact, New Adventures In Hi-Fi was released on the fifth day of our trip, and I bought the cassette at Amoeba Records in Berkeley for the road. It proved to be a remarkable soundtrack for our own new adventures that autumn. Even without my own deep personal connection with this album, critics and time have been kind to this album, and while it might be a song or two too long, it's still a very good and solid longplayer.

02: Automatic For The People [1992]
Featuring..."Drive", "Try Not To Breathe", "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight", "Everybody Hurts", "Star Me Kitten", "Man On The Moon", "Nightswimming"

To be honest, I can't explain why I like Automatic For The People so much. It's a bit scattershot, stylistically, and doesn't really have any utterly remarkable individual songs, and yet, listened to all the way through in one sitting, the album has a nice flow to it, and even as I type that fucking cliche, I understand how meaningless it sounds. "Everybody Hurts", of course, was an enormous hit for the band, but for me, it's just a bit too earnest, even if it ranks as one of Michael Stipe's best vocal performances. It does come on the heels of the first three song - three very solid songs that illustrates how the album doesn't really knock you out, but just keeps bringing one good song after another, the next a natural progression from the last, until we get to the final three songs, perhaps the three best on the album - "Man On The Moon", "Nightswimming", and the wistful "Find The River". "Man On The Moon" was one of their biggest hits, of course, and "Nightswimming" is simply one of the finest songs in their entire catalog, and because the album is so solid and so well-arranged, can be confidently placed at the end, followed up finally by the equally lovely and contemplative "Find The River". A truly great collection of songs, the sum greater than the parts...And isn't that what a truly good ALBUM is supposed to be?

01: Green [1988] Featuring..."Pop Song 89", "Get Up", "You Are The Everything", "Stand", "Orange Crush", "Turn You Inside-Out", "I Remember California"

While the argument certainly can be made (and won) that Green is NOT the best album from R.E.M.'s Warner Bros years, I'm ranking it #1 here for at least two reasons. First of all, it marks perhaps the most radical departure for the band, in that they simply "went for it" when they seemingly "sold out" by signing with Warner Bros. Green is a big and shiny album, full of plenty of big pop hooks and a radio-ready sound. They got their big contract, got a glimpse of how big they could get, and went for it. Not only did they craft an album readymade for mass consumption, but the band stepped up their live act. Forced to contend with the rather big and open stages of arenas and stadiums for the Green World Tour, the band cranked up the amps, wore louder suits, and Michael Stipe, in particular, proved he was a great frontman. Now he was leading crowds of 15,000+ around the world, and he was every bit as mesmerizing as he was in those early days, when crowds of a few hundred were child's play for him. I saw the band on the Green World Tour in September of 1989 at Alpine Valley, an outdoor ampitheater in the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin, and it remains the greatest and most memorable concert of my life. It was a cloudless night of a million stars, and I leaned back on the grass, stoned on weed and wine, and was stunned and shaken. They were larger than life, and yet with a crowd of about 14,000, it also felt perfectly intimate. Stipe had become a masterful performer, and even an outright entertainer, and the band brought the tunes and amps to fill those major league spaces. They could have failed, but they didn't, and I was able to gloat to my friends because from their very first album, Murmur, I had been telling anyone who would listen, and plenty who wouldn't, that R.E.M. were going to be a band for the ages. Green marked the crucial turning point simply by being the band's first release for Warner Bros.

And here we are.

Hotcha! Hank

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