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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Legends of Note: R.E.M.

Hello friends, topknot here. Welcome to my new column for MOBFD, “Legends of Note.” After a fun round of R.E.M.-based tweets with fellow Monsters, the idea for a column exploring musicians of legendary status was rather spontaneously thought up. Having spent a good portion of my early twenties writing about underground/indie bands, I thought the idea of writing about big bands (both commercial and cult) would be a fun challenge. After all, what is there left to say about bands like R.E.M., the Rolling Stones, or even Neutral Milk Hotel that hasn’t been written and regurgitated time after time?

Well, here’s what I’m thinking. Every other week, I will pick 1 band or musician that is considered in someway legendary, and I will choose the 1 record they’ve created that has left the largest impression upon me. At the end of each column, I will announce the next column’s focus, and invite anyone to email me with their thoughts on the best album by said band/artist. I will then include this in the next post. Make sense? I hope so!

Okay, with that out of the way, this week we delve into R.E.M., with the help of thekelsburrows, Teacherman, and Mans. I'll share my thoughts first. Enjoy!

It’s appropriate that this column begins with R.E.M. In 1995, I was lucky enough to see them on the Monster tour at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. It was my first real, big concert, and I loved it. “Monster” was the first R.E.M. album I bought, its fuzzy guitars and ironic sensibility fitting right in with my teenage musical tastes. I had of course heard “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts” on the radio and MTV, but “Monster” felt like something new, and I still think it’s a better record than its presence in every record store dollar bin would lead you to believe (interestingly, it’s one of the most expensive on vinyl). So for a while, my copy of “Monster” and my mother’s copy of “Automatic for the People,” which I basically stole from her, were the extent of my R.E.M. knowledge. I knew they had a whole career in the 80’s, but didn’t really know where to start.

For some reason, the next R.E.M. record I discovered was their 3rd proper full-length, “Fables of the Reconstruction/Reconstruction of the Fables.” I’m sure it was my older brother’s copy, and I’m sure the strange, graphically-confused cover art caught my interest (is Michael Stipe wearing a turban?), as did the open-ended reading of the title (one side of the LP reads “Fables” first, the other begins with “Reconstruction”).

The first few notes of opener “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” deepened the aura of mystery. Was this really the same band I had seen on stage a few months ago? I can’t remember if I listened to the whole record the first time through, but I know I shelved it, and turned instead to the more upbeat “Green” and “Document.”

But something stuck with me. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but slowly “Fables” got to me. Those strings that fleshed out ‘Gravity’s” became haunting and beautiful. “Driver 8,” with its pastoral lyrics, sounded like some of the finest words Michael Stipe ever put to paper. Album closer “Wendel Gee” became a classic of American songwriting, sad and pretty and real. Taking time to discover these gems, the album felt like a secret masterpiece, first overlooked, but rediscovered with new ears.

“Fables” is indeed an oddity in the R.E.M. trajectory. It follows the jangle and urgency of “Murmur” and “Reckoning” and serves as a quiet, highly introspective moment before the relative pseudo-political bombast of “Life’s Rich Pageant” and “Document.” It’s not that “Fables” is down-tempo per-se, but it’s certainly dark, murky, and reserved. The hooks are there, but they’re slightly askew. It’s not fun, you can’t dance to it, but it facilitates an emotional response previous R.E.M. albums only hinted it (see “Perfect Circle,” “Camera”).

If we can set aside “Can’t Get There from Here,” a rather unfortunate stab at something funky (horns and all), we do get moments of pure pop bliss: the almost manic chorus of “Life and How to Live It,” the utterly gorgeous “Kohoutek” (almost Shoegaze and nicely falsetto-laden, the only R.E.M. song in which Stipe refers to himself in third person), the near-twee sway of “Good Advices.” It all adds up to the sound of a band on the verge of success, slightly nervous but highly ambitious. It’s a sound steeped in the mystery of the American South, a sound that could be a career killer if not done just right, a sound that only R.E.M. could create.

I do think they would go on to make “better” records, but much like Galaxie 500’s swan-song “This is Our Music,” “Fables” is the kind of album that allows the listener to discover something new with each listen. It’s the kind of record where it’s hard to imagine how 4 people could’ve been so in synch with each other, playing parts easy enough to isolate, but hard to imagine working without everything else taking place.

Odds are, if I’ve persuaded anyone to give this album a listen, said listener will find my claims a bit on the side of hyperbole. But please, listen again. And again. Wait a month, listen again. Wait for a cloudy day, listen again. Buy the vinyl for used for $5, or splurge and get the fancy new re-mastered CD, and listen to it in the morning. And then at night. In the winter, in spring, the fall. Try it out in the summer. And then, let me know if I’m wrong. I don’t think I am.

Man was very kind and sent me the following, very beautiful essay regarding his favorite R.E.M. album, "Green."

By David
1. Hello, my friend. Are you visible today? The middle school cafeteria, cleared of round tables and multi-colored chairs. Free from the soft light of pink florescent bulbs. Parallel lines of linoleum tile tapering to an unseen vanishing point behind locked doors. Over those lines, lines that eternally draw closer but never touch: the Spring Dance.
The Remedial Math classroom is open and in it dozens upon dozens of Liz Claiborne suede jackets are piled. Billows of soft brown. Purses piled on the teacher’s desk. In the corner of the cafeteria opposite, the DJ’s table sits. Four lights flash on a black pole behind him. Blue and red and green and yellow.
Young men in new cable-knit sweaters and dress shirts purchased from the department store by the movie theater. Young women in green and blue dresses that glitter in the flashing lights and matching shoes that skate across the tiles in time with the drum machine. Hair ascending heavenward or new fades or tight ringlets around the neck. Gold chain necklaces on everyone. Our posse is on Broadway and the drop ceiling titles rattle.
In the halls that surround the cafeteria, the multi-colored chairs are lined and filled with nervous boys who do not ask girls to dance and the shy girls who do not get asked. Their best shirts. Their nicest shoes.
I sit and in my mind there is another Spring Dance of my own creation. There, in a cafeteria much like this one, a slow song comes on and I walk over to where she is standing, alone, pink ribbon in black hair, grey eyes seeing me through the dark, and I take her hand and we rock slowly back and forth at an arm’s length all night long. No one seems to have noticed me sitting here.

R. Stand in the place where you live. Rural Kentucky. Late Winter through Spring of 1989. The two largest things in our town are the cemetery and the stockyards. Cows escape regularly from the stockyards and roam the downtown. Luckily, the cemetery does not have this problem.
Along the Northern end of town, a man-made lake and dam. A blue bridge across green water. Limestone ledges. High school students on pontoon boats crushing beer cans disappeared from garages and basements. Older girls in cut-off jeans and older boys without shirts on, diving from the edge of the boat and slicing the water without a sound.
To the South, a small shopping center with the movie theater. On Friday and Saturday evening, pick-up trucks cruise slowly around the perimeter of the parking lot, windows down, bass booming like blooms of new flowers across the hills.
I am standing in line to buy a ticket to Pet Semetery. The mother of a boy from my church buys tickets for us because it is rated R.
I was born here and will live here as long as I can imagine.
Inside, sitting two rows away from me is the girl with grey eyes. If I remember correctly, the goddess Athena also had grey eyes. This girl does not have an owl as far as I know. She is sitting with her best friend who happens to be my third cousin. They whisper in each other’s ears something I cannot hear. The movie starts and my mind drifts. There is nothing else to do in this town.
At dusk, the sky is pink. During a storm, the sky is orange. During the day, the sky is grey. At night, the sky is brilliant white from the perfect revelation of every star in the Milky Way.
5. I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down. Christmas, 1988: My step-father gives me a Walkman. Halfway through 8th Grade and I’ve never listened to music before. Before this, the empty hours of my days were spent reading collections of ghost stories and watching movies that my mother rents for me and my siblings. I take ballroom dance lessons on Saturday evenings. Come here lover boy as a girl puts her white gloved hand in mine and we awkwardly describe squares around the church fellowship hall.
I don’t know the names of any musical groups with the exception of the Beatles and the Pointer Sisters and the Judds. With money saved from Christmas, I purchase a cassette tape and listen to it non-stop for weeks. A keening voice and reverberant guitar. I save money for another month and buy a second and third and fourth cassette. Each uncovers some hidden room, secret staircase, lost letter to a lost love.
In April, the first warm waves of wind blow across the county and I walk from place to place, earphones on, volume on 8, hands in pockets and mind scattered across the Arm of Orion. With my birthday money, I buy an album by R.E.M., recommended to me by the redheaded boy who sits next to me in Language Arts. Later, I will be the best man at his wedding.

2. Sleep delays my life. When I imagine her standing on the Blue Bridge looking out over the lake, I hear those chiming guitars like all of the handbells of all of the churches in the Commonwealth ringing at once and I want to actually see her standing there and know what she sees.
When I imagine her walking with me through the cemetery at night, sharing some secret feeling, I hear that distant, buried voice calling to me to Wake Up! Wake Up! and I want to wake to walk with her in the choir of cemetery crickets.
When I imagine her standing alone at the dance waiting for me to take her hand, I hear the mandolin strings skittering across the surface of the organ drone and I want to take her warm hand in my warm hand and I want to move past thinking about things to being.
Faint words rise up in the dark, but I want to be something more than words but words are easy for me.

6. A late long march into spring. The Spring Dance looms. As waves loom over a child at the beach for the first time. A wall of salt. A hidden pull.
Our academic team wins the local and regional competitions. We go to the state meet and get a day off from school. We ride on the bus to the city. I sit two rows behind her, listening to my walkman. “Let’s sing a happy song,” our teacher says as we rattle along, but we don’t know any.
The low bare hills are crowned with black trees.
The boy next to me is drinking ginger ale. “I’m not supposed to be like this, but it’s okay.” I can’t hear what he is saying. I turn to the window.

7. Follow me. Don’t follow me. All of them, all of them, all of them. The girls in tie-dyed t-shirts and long hair. The boys in football jerseys after practice, sweat still beading, panting. The girls with short hair and glasses bringing too many books home. The boys in pleated pants and tucked in Oxford cloth shirts whose mothers press their underwear. The girls in the language classes and the math classes and gym extending long arms to say “Écoutez! A² - 2ab + b² = (a – b)²!” as they launch the volley ball to the rafters. The boys in jean jackets with sleeves cut off sitting on the hoods of their sisters’ cars and the boys in Black by Popular demand t-shirts sitting on the bumpers of their brothers’ trucks and the boys in both. All of them listening to the same songs in their bedrooms or their brother’s cars or on their parents’ stereos. All of them.
10. I remember this. A short list of things that I will never see:
The gleaming glass of the teeming skyscrapers of New York City. Blue water that is blue beyond blue in a remote Caribbean bay. The eternal summer sun quaking with strange harmonies as it sets the Pacific Ocean. The Borely Rectory. The countless reliquaries of forgotten saints scattered across Europe. The endless white expanse of Russia or the Arctic or the Antarctic or Canada or Montana.
I am consigned to these bare hills and limestone outcroppings. These short streets and cows milling about the parking lot of a department store. I will forever consider Pizza Hut a fancy night of fine dining and will walk from one end of town to the other, listening to this album in this Walkman until my batteries die.
But in my mind, there are other things that no one will ever see and I remember them all.

11. This world is big and so-awake. We stream through the halls on the Friday of the Spring Dance. A girl smiles at me and I look at my feet. A boy in the library looks at another boy reading from the World Book Encyclopedia and knows there is nothing he can do about how he feels. The old librarian speaks French and German and wonders how she got there, sitting behind the low desk, checking out few books to few children, waiting for the last bell just like anyone else. The girl in the special class wearing her older sister’s green sweater is excited because her mother is taking her to a movie that night. A tall girl in a jean jacket with her name spelled in rhinestones tries not to cry as she takes the back stairwell down to gym, her Biology book pressed close to her breasts which she wished she did not have so that everyone would stop looking at her.
In the locker room, I stand in my gym shorts and no shirt and a boy who’d been held back several times asks me if I like sucking on titties and I blush and avoid his gaze. He then asks what makes me such a faggot. I shrug and he laughs, beats on the lockers with his fists and runs out howling. The heavy boy sitting next to me giggles and I call him an unkind name. Bells ring and ring and ring.

9. Feed me banks of light . And Kentucky explodes in warm, wet life with drooping leaves and plump petals of pink and purple flowers and our jeans and sweaters and puffy coats and scarves and gloves are forgotten forever in favor of shorts and t-shirts and beads of sweat on arms and necks and in Algebra, the last period of the day, she turns to me, the girl with the grey eyes and who may or may not have an owl, and says, “I don’t think I like anyone. Does that make me bad?” and I say, “No no no no no.” and she asks me what language I am going to take next year, our first in high school, and I say, “I don’t know. What are you taking?” and she thinks for a moment and says, “Maybe Latin. I don’t know.” and I say, “Latin Latin Latin Latin Latin!” and she asks me what I listen to on my Walkman and I say, “R.E.M.” and she says, “Oh, I have that. I like it. I was listening to it last night in bed. I was so tired, I went to bed early. Before it was dark. I just stretched out and listened to it until I fell asleep.” and I say, “You aren’t a bad person.” and she said, “Oh, I know. I am awesome!” and I think, “Latin Latin Latin!” because the words I have cannot contain this.

3. Here's a scene. Everything that exists has always existed. When you lean in to kiss the neck of the person you love, the atoms that are your lips and her skin have always been, spinning and flickering from the birth of the universe, spinning and flickering in the crackling void for innumerable years, only to find themselves here, now, constituted as two people, in this sudden moment, this moment that will not last forever, but even as you and he lay, someday, alone in your graves, and your bodies disappear, and the earth disappears, and those atoms wander off again to other cold corners of creation to become black holes or destroying stars, even then know that all of everything existed just for that one moment, and that one perfect song played, and everything else after is just its faint memory.
When I get to the dance, I found a chair along the wall and [redacted].

The stars are the greatest thing you've ever seen and they're there for you.

Thank you Mans. Next up, the kelburrows offers some thoughts on "Out of Time."

Out of Time: A Love Story

For me there is no question, Out of Time is not only the greatest REM album but one of my favorite albums ever. Why? Well, because it was my first true love and as such it has staked a permanent claim on this music-nerd’s heart. Out of Time was released the same year that I transitioned from listening to my parents’ music to listening to music of my own choosing and it was the first album I ever really listened to that I felt was mine alone. The year was 1991 (more Werther's for the old lady, please) and it was the same year I left home for boarding school, acquired a Walkman, bought a few cassettes, and started taking the city bus to school every day. I don’t really remember buying Out of Time but I’m sure I was prompted to acquire it by ubiquity of the single "Losing My Religion." At the time, the concept of "never buy an album with a song that your mother may have heard" did not yet exist to me. That year I rode the bus to school every day and every day I listened to Out of Time. I loved it more than I had ever loved any music and, because I was lonely and living apart from my family for the first time, Out of Time became my only true friend and constant companion. Whoa, women be writing some EMOTIONAL album reviews, right? Whatever. Granted Shiny Happy People doesn’t really stand the test of time and barf-o lamestream on Losing My Religion etc etc … all criticisms of unevenness on this album are fair enough, I suppose. Do me a favor: before you pass judgment, listen to Country Feedback, Half a World Away, and End Game about 1,500 times each and then get back to me. Or don’t, because you’ll be dead from happiness. RIP, you.

Thank you kindly kelburrows! Last, but not least, we have Teacherman, giving us a lesson on "Up."

I hate it when people say "There are two kinds of people" and then proceed to attempt to categorize the entirety of the human experience, spanning race, class, culture, and gender into what is without fail one of two very cheeky divisions. "There are two kinds of people: lovers and fighters" or "there are two kinds of people: Edwards and Jacobs."

That said, there are two kinds of people: REM fans, and everybody else. This is not to suggest that REM fans are better or prettier or more cosmopolitan than everybody else. Perhaps, on the contrary. The REM fans I know tend to lean towards the broodier, muskier end of the spectrum. And one could certainly use other bands to create this dichotomy. Bruce Springsteen fans and everybody else. Eliot Smith fans and everybody else. Beliebers and adults. The point is that REM is one of those bands that, if you are into them, you are all-into them. As you might guess, I am an REM fan.

My inculcation began, perhaps oddly, with the band's 11th album, Up. I had, of course, listened to REM previous to purchasing Up. I owned copies of Green and Monster but mostly skipped around (a relatively new concept given the young technological advent of compact discs) replaying radio singles. Up caught my attention though upon reading a Rolling Stone article which explained that in response to drummer Bill Berry's amical departure from the band in October 1997 to pursue other interests, the remaining band members had chosen to simply utilize drum machines rather than find a replacement. This struck me as profoundly and elegantly cool.

For me, Up was a revelation. I was a senior in high school and my musical awareness consisted mostly of Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews and the Clueless soundtrack. Music for me was something to have on in the background while having a conversation about the merits of Taco Bell or Wendy's for dinner. Up , though, was something different. Here was an album that required, even demanded, engagement. Most songs necessitated multiple listens, though the potential for appreciation was present upon first hearing. Michael Stipe, I found, did not speak to me as much as he spoke for me. I "gave" "At My Most Beautiful" to my two-year girlfriend at the time, Sarah Greene. "Daysleeper" was my rallying cry when staying up all night to finish an AP Stat project. "Why Not Smile" was my open letter to the world when I was At My Most Tragic.

From Up I went backwards. I revisited Green and Monster and found beautiful spaces in between the worn-out singles. My sister gave me Eponymus and Out of Time and our relationship gained roots. I found Automatic for the People on my own and cried the first time I heard "Sweetness Follows."

After I broke up with Sarah my sophomore year of college, late at night I would drive the winding roads of Paris Mountain, 20 minutes outside of the austere gates of Furman University. The pain I felt was commiserate to the years I had spent with her and it occurred to me somewhere on Rileman Road that "crushes" are what they should call it when the affair is over. I grieved as only a teenager can: completely and carelessly, having had no practice in the art. I would get lost on my way up the mountain, but would find my way again on the return trip down. My voice singing Michael Stipes' words: "everybody hurts, sometimes. But hold on. Hold on."

Thank you Teacherman. And there you have it! Anyone else have thoughts on R.E.M.? Please post them in the comments.
Next time, we will take a look at Sonic Youth. If anyone out there has something to say about SY, please email it to me at chinatownbakeries (at) by Saturday 1/29/11.


  1. This was great and you all should feel great. Monster was my personal favorite REM album, but that is based solely on sentimental reasons, so I cannot really argue the point without delving into the life and times of teenagerbobbytables, which I like you all too much to subject you to.

  2. Great job, everyone. I am older-than-everyone enough that I was there when William Travis drew a line in the sand and everyone who considered Monster a personal betrayal crossed over to one side. I was able to keep the peace by scratching out the exact spot on the CD that held "Bang and Blame". Interestingly, if you were to map Monster to a cortical homunculus, Bang and Blame is where Bill Berry had his aneurysm. Probably a coincidence! Anyway!

  3. Yes, "Monster" without 'Bang and Blame' is great. I kind of think every R.E.M. album after "Reckoning" has 1 song that shouldn't have made the cut.

  4. If you don't include one shitty song, you will never know that you included all of the good songs.


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