Scot and Jeff talk to Reason's Matt Welch about R.E.M.
Introducing the Band
Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD), with guest Matt Welch, former Editor-in-Chief and current Editor-at-Large of Reason and co-host of The Fifth Column podcast. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattWelch and read his work here.
Matt's musical pick: R.E.M.
How did Matt get into them? Matt tells his story of being a kid in 1983 and having a friend hand a copy of Murmur to him. He explains how he learned to play guitar by spinning early R.E.M. records, and how their music followed him all through his life, from an auto-body shop in North Long Beach all the way to eastern Europe during the post-Communist '90s. Jeff marvels at how R.E.M. was the one American indie band from the '80s scene to gain escape velocity and make it big.
The Early Years
The gang discusses R.E.M.'s early mysterious LPs, the foundation of their legend. Is Murmur the greatest debut album of all time? Jeff certainly thinks so; whereas Scot doesn't even think it's the best of their first two records. preferring the more energetic Reckoning. Matt nominates "We Walk" for his upcoming compilation disc entitled Songs That Singlehandedly Ruin Otherwise Perfect Albums. Attention is given to the fully-formed nature of the band's sound--it didn't come about by chance, as it turns out--and the hints of impending gloom found on songs like "Camera."
KEY SONGS: "We Walk" (Murmur, 1983); "Wolves, Lower" (Chronic Town EP, 1982); "Gardening At Night (different vocal mix)" (Eponymous, 1988); "Laughing" (Murmur, 1983); "Perfect Circle" (Murmur, 1983); "Sitting Still" (Murmur, 1983); "Talk About The Passion" (Murmur, 1983); "Harborcoat" (Reckoning, 1984); "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" (Reckoning, 1984); "Pretty Persuasion" (Reckoning, 1984); "Camera" (Reckoning, 1984)
R.E.M. in Transition: Fables Of The Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant
The gang celebrates Fables Of The Reconstruction as the height of R.E.M.'s 'southern gothic' approach, as Matt explains how its rolling textures and chords actually sound like the landscape they seek to evoke. Jeff, meanwhile, explains that he doesn't entirely trust people who dislike the song "Driver 8."
Scot focuses on the underrated greatness of the record's 1986 followup Lifes Rich Pageant, and everyone heartily agrees that it is mysteriously neglected. Jeff explains why it was a record that should have failed: heavily reliance on old/recycled material, a curiously odd instrumental, a cover track -- and yet none of that matters. Matt singles out the effectiveness of the album's environmental and political themes: powerful without ever seeming preachy.
KEY SONGS: "Driver 8" (Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985); "Maps And Legends" (Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985); "Feeling Gravity's Pull" (Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985); "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" (Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985); "Fall On Me" (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986); "Superman" (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986); "Cuyahoga" (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986); "These Days" (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986); "Swan Swan H" (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986)
R.E.M. breaks into the big-time with a big new sound. Document and the major-label debut of Green.
Jeff just can't think of enough bad things to say about Document, the R.E.M. album that broke the band into the mainstream with its two major radio hits, and Matt tends to agree. Scott appreciates it a bit more as the first record where he really became aware of the group, but all agree that "King Of Birds" is quietly one of R.E.M.'s most underrated songs.
It also points the way toward Green, their big-boy-pants major label debut for Warner Brothers. Matt is similarly iffy on Green but Jeff is a big fan, insisting it be understood as two EPs--a catchy rock one and a visionary oddball folk one--that rammed into one another in a head-on collision.
KEY SONGS: "Finest Worksong" (Document, 1987); "The One I Love" (Document, 1987); "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" (Document, 1987); "Disturbance At The Heron House" (Document, 1987); "King Of Birds" (Document, 1987); "Stand" (Green, 1988); "Orange Crush" (Green, 1988); "Hairshirt" (Green, 1988); "The Untitled Eleventh Song" (Green, 1988); "World Leader Pretend" (Green, 1988)
Chamber-pop: R.E.M.'s artistic culmination, or the beginning of the end?
Okay, so nobody wants to defend KRS-1's rapping on the extremely cornball "Radio Song," but otherwise the gang has high praise for Out Of Time, R.E.M.'s mega-smash #1 album that established the in the top commercial rank of rock acts. Jeff has a weak spot for well-recorded chamber-pop with odd conceits, and defends "Belong" in particular. Matt and Scot theorize that Mike Mills did such a good job singing lead vocals on the record (with "Near Wild Heaven" and "Texarkana") that he doomed himself from ever getting another lead again (ah, intra-band politics).
Automatic For The People, the band's universally-praised follow-up, surprisingly divides the gang far more: Matt boldly stakes out his position as That Guy and argues that it's not that great of a record, not even among R.E.M.'s top five albums, and marks it as the Beginning Of The End. Jeff is having none of that however and singles out "Sweetness Follows" in particular as the sort of song he is simply in awe of. Everybody defends "Everybody Hurts."
KEY SONGS: "Losing My Religion" (Out Of Time, 1991); "Radio Song" (Out Of Time, 1991); "Texarkana" (Out Of Time, 1991); "Near Wild Heaven" (Out Of Time, 1991); "Belong" (Out Of Time, 1991); "Me In Honey" (Out Of Time, 1991); "Drive" (Automatic For The People, 1992); "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" (Automatic For The People, 1992); "Everybody Hurts" (Automatic For The People, 1992); "Sweetness Follows" (Automatic For The People, 1992); "Man On The Moon" (Automatic For The People; 1992)
The disastrous faceplant of Monster, the revival of New Adventures In Hi-Fi, Bill Berry's departure and the long slow sunset of the band
The gang discusses the unexpected flop that was R.E.M.'s "hard rock"/we're-a-live-act-again move, Monster--to date the the most returned CD of all time--and speculate on why it failed so miserably. Scot memorably describes it as a record that "sounds good . . . once." Matt suggests that they didn't fully understand the genres (grunge and glam) they were trying to cop, while Jeff speculates that they just couldn't go home again; they had changed into something else during their evolution and there was no return.
Jeff has high praise, however, for its follow-up New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which he considers the last truly great record the band ever released. Matt and Scot are less impressed, but this merely means that they are wrong. (N.B. Jeff writes the show-notes.) Jeff also praises Up as an admirable attempt to react to the loss of Bill Berry, who retired from the group in 1996 after a brain aneurysm, and while Matt can see the argument he thinks the band should have hung it up at this point. All three agree that R.E.M. lost something critical with Berry, something that renders their last four records (and the final decade of the career) a curiously unnecessary appendix.
KEY SONGS: "Strange Currencies" (Monster, 1994); "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" (Monster, 1994); "Be Mine" (New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1996); "Bittersweet Me" (New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1996); "Leave" (New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1996); "New Test Leper (acoustic version)" (B-side of "Bittersweet Me," 1996); "Wall Of Death" (Beat The Retreat - A Tribute To Richard Thompson, 1994); "Lotus" (Up, 1998); "Walk Unafraid" (Up, 1998); "Hope" (Up, 1998); "All The Way To Reno (You're Gonna Be A Star)" (Reveal, 2001); "Beachball" (Reveal, 2001)
Matt, Scot and Jeff each name their 2 key albums and 5 key songs by R.E.M.
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