March 26, 2008

Bringing It All Back Home

Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stone Magazine's #31

exile staff consensus: Awaiting Votes

the breakdown: Awaiting Votes

the essays:
None Yet

some of the album (covered):

the introduction:
When one of our esteemed colleagues Dr. Ancient Scientist told us he was using Bringing It All Back Home as a part of one of his college lectures we thought "What a perfect time to feature this classic album on!" Hopefully he'll post his lecture later on in the month.

But getting back to Bringing It All Back, this album has been lionized, adored, immortalized, and canonized countless times in film, print, and probably podcasts. It's when Dylan fully emerged from his folk tradition and became the greatest American rock artist of all time. Is that fair to say? We're sure to figure that out. In the meantime check out some of the above covers of the album's iconic tracks. There are a few we wanted to include - like Caetano Veloso's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), Ricky Nelson's "She Belongs to Me", and a Grateful Dead version of any of the songs but neither nor the venerableseed had a copy. Please note that imeem did have William Shatner's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and its exclusion is intentional.

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March 22, 2008

What's He Saying?

The year was 1988. Summer had been spent swimming, staying up late to watch 120 Minutes on MTV, and trying to figure out the lyrics to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” But now it was the beginning of high school freshman year and there were much more important things to figure out.

Like what to wear. I mean this in all seriousness. After 8 years of catholic school uniforms I finally had my chance to show my real identity beyond belligerent acts of too long earrings or purposely mismatched socks. But just what was that identity? I flip flopped between long hippy skirts, goth-y tops, trendy pants – most times unsuccessfully merging all three. I’m sure I looked a mess.

I had to ride the bus. No license yet. No parents or older friends willing to drive into the city every morning. The bus came early and took a circuitous route through the suburbs – plenty of time (I would later learn) to catch up on homework left undone or papers only half-written. Enough time to listen to most cassettes end to end. Which is what I did every morning.

There were two older students on my bus whose sullen faces made it obvious that this was not their preferred method of transportation either. Francie used her time to apply layer upon layer of makeup. Foundation, eyeliner, blush, mascara – she was a woman transformed by the time we arrived. Kevin, like me, slunk into his seat with his walkman on, eyes closed. Maybe he was trying to figure out the words too.

One day, he decided to talk to me. “What are you listening to?” I can’t remember my response but I do remember being smug in the answering. For the purposes of this essay, let’s say it was Echo and the Bunnymen or some other appropriately alternative name. He was impressed. “What are you listening to?” I asked. “Only the greatest band ever. R.E.M.”

I knew about R.E.M. or at least I thought I did. They wrote the song that drove me crazy with lyrics I couldn’t decipher and a video of the skater who I couldn’t decide was hot or not. The lead singer had long hair and came off as kind of a dick when interviewed. He was always being asked about how he felt about their newfound commercial success. I honestly didn’t know they existed before their newfound commercial success. Sure I had Document. Who didn’t? It was a 120 Minutes staple and whatever 120 Minutes sold, I was buying.

Once Kevin decided he could trust me (?) the daily exchange of tapes began. Reckoning for Crocodiles. Murmur for The Head on the Door. Dead Letter Office required some negotiation until Kevin was satisfied that he was receiving something of equal value. None of our tapes were originals. They were recorded from CDs or other tapes or other recordings of CD’s or tapes, making Michael Stipe’s words all the more illegible. I always felt like I was furrowing my brow and really, really listening to try to get the mystery out of these tapes.

The stash that I was NEVER privy too was Kevin’s collection of bootleg performances that he and another upperclassmen were apparently in competition to collect. These guys were hell-bent on amassing one-off performances, tracking rumours of unannounced shows. Any city, any club where Stipe was alleged to appear, they were somehow tracking down, trying to get a copy of the show. I have no idea how they did it. I picture a clandestine network or R.E.M. fans slipping unmarked manila envelopes in the mail to each other under the cover of darkness.

Frankly, I still didn’t get it, but the tunes were catchy and their obsession was fascinating. I kept listening. And I listened enough to know that I wanted Green for Christmas and needed to tape Eponymous off a friend. I never saw R.E.M. as masterful lyricists, but keep in mind, I could barely make out the words. Years later, as I give Murmur a proper listen, I can finally give it its rightful respect.
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March 19, 2008

Shaking Through the R.E.M. Wall

In the past three weeks I've become completely immersed in Murmur. I can't stop listening to it. I can't stop humming its tunes. Its choruses are in constant rotation in my head. My dreams contain its melodies. It's a new discovery, a revelation and acceptance of a group and a sound that I never wanted to understand or spend any time with. What was my problem(s)?

Let's recap Murmur first. The album is flawless. It's mesmerizing, it envelopes the being, sucks you into its heart and refuses to let you go. It's lithe, willowy, and steadfast; urgent, measured and soft; meaningful and meaningless, epic, understated, and restrained; longing, yearning, and self-confident; complex and so very, very, simple.

It's the perfect pop album. It's the perfect place to start listening.

It's Michael Stipe without the blue eye mask, with long hair, with only a tad bit of the pomposity but the full dosage of romanticism. Nevertheless, on record he doesn't sound any different than he would today. He doesn't sound any more mature on Murmur. Not one bit more learned, not one bit more full of understanding. In 1983 he sounded old and sage-like, much closer in age to his 48-year old self today than a sensitive 22-year old about to announce himself to the world at large.

The rest of the band was no different. Their sound was self-assured almost to the point of self-actualization. This was how their souls sounded, they knew it and they would never feel any need to change. And I guess this was always the beginning of my self-imposed no-R.E.M. wall: they sound old.

This kid always thought "Talk About the Passion," "Fall On Me," "It's The End of The World," "Losing My Religion," etc. ad nauseam sounded like old people's songs. And not the cool older cousin kind of older person's song, more like a song for your parents or your authority figures. R.E.M. felt like it was music for and by those disaffected baby boomers who came just a tad bit too late to protest in 1968 but just soon enough to be memorialized by Richard Linklater in the 1976-set Dazed and Confused.

Heck, I've always blamed R.E.M. for making KRS-One old and stodgy before his time. Pop Song '89 why did you have to happen! I still can't accept the fact that KRS was only five years younger than Stipe at that time. Impossible!

Pop Song '89's painful juxtaposition of my beloved new, young, exciting, Gen-X musical form with twangy old-person's gentle and bordering on adult contemporary guitar rock told me everything I needed to know about R.E.M. I was never going to like them. My musical taste was also never going to get old. I would never let it happen.

Well, it's happened. This week in fact while Murmur's been on heavy rotation. Thing is, their accept at all costs musical maturity isn't really that bad. It's beautiful, it's peaceful, and it's nice. That doesn't mean I'm going to start liking Automatic for the People or any Steely Dan album for that matter.

I really really mean it this time. I really do.
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March 14, 2008

Indie Americana

Shining PathI don’t know about R.E.M.’s Murmur being the best album of 1983, but I do believe it is an extremely important album for an underrated music decade. At least, it is an essential text for understanding the American independent music landscape that bustled with energy below the thick layer of high selling pop of the day.

Part of the importance of the album is how borrows partially from the post-punk creativity of early 1980s, but only does so to create a launching pad for creating strikingly enticing and unique paths of melodic rock filled with a surprising dexterity and cohesiveness for an emerging band. Traces of a distinct non-Blues inspired post-punk are sprinkled throughout the album, but are overwhelmed by a vibrant new organic and string-led (guitars) pop sound.

For example, “Pilgrimage” has a cavernous, sober, and rather methodical opening sound which is quickly swept aside for a more upbeat and pop chorus, one that even breaks into a collection of voices and guitars the second time around. Immediately next in line, “Laughing” begins with a dub/reggae skank-influenced rhythm a la The Slits and Pop Group, only to quickly forgotten as the song surges with a gentle, but firm melodic structure. “Catapult” is similarly deceiving as it starts dark, heavy, and inward, especially with the heavy marching beat, but changes tone and opens up as it introduces a wavy chorus with a high-pitched mandolin guitar feel. “Moral Kiosk” and “9-9” have a jagged, more chaotic, and rhythmically experimental (industrial and tribal) vein, but are heavily supported by an undercurrent of melodic guitars and astute pop chorus structuring. And, between “Shaking Through” and “We Walk”, highly melodic and upbeat tracks (musically), one can find a somewhat hidden musical aside that sounds unlike the accompanying tracks. These contrasts show a band bursting with creativity and ideas and amazingly adept at bring in disparate elements into a cohesive whole.

Again, these post-punk elements serve as references and do not define the overall music. Rather, R.E.M.’s ambitious melodic rock experimentations are what give the album its feel and depth. They are clearly not afraid incorporate tight pop choruses that structurally resemble classic song-writing in many songs, but that incorporate sounds and energies unlike that of the contemporary scene. “Moral Kiosk” and “West of the Fields” use staggered and competing vocal chants in the chorus parts to create a very interesting feel of tension that moves forward in an exhilarating manner like a marching procession. “Catapult”, as mentioned above, has a chorus that breaks free from the shackles of its lyrical contemplations and seemingly carries you on a countryside journey.

Indeed, one thing that is striking about the album’s music is how much of the songs seem like ideal companions for driving through the gentle and picturesque country roads of the southern United States, like the Blue Ridge Parkway. The chief reason for this is how the music flows so naturally and with little to no adulteration from high-tech gimmickry being used repeatedly across the Atlantic Ocean at this time in music history. Here, I think is part of the appeal of the music. It attempts to be new, but does not forget the craft or art of constructing sound and melody, something not that far off from some sounds of the region where R.E.M. hails. I don’t want to link their sound with bluegrass music or Allman Brothers gently and gorgeous guitar streams, but I think there is a spirit or undercurrent in the not-so-distance background of Murmur that elicits and justifies these types of mind or memory associations.

The other impressive element of Murmur is how it seems somewhat minimalist and gently muted at times, yet seems to resonate and reverberate in the mind. It’s not the louder D.I.Y music variety that is emerging in American underground and indie music scenes at the same time, yet on repeated listens, it really does creep in the caverns of your ears and head and becomes an infectious, extremely rich sound.

In conclusion, let me say that I listened to Murmur for the first time just recently as I am somewhat ignorant or indifferent about R.E.M in general. Still, with my little knowledge, I can see the direct connection with Automatic for the People, the group’s much ballyhooed album of the 1990s and probably its last great piece of work. My memory and instinct suggest to me that Automatic was so successful critically and commercially as it represented a return to R.E.M.’s strengths of creating understated and vibrant resonant melodic rock. Even in terms of sound, there are blueprints laid out in Murmur that are copied in Automatic, like the affected, deepened voice in parts of “Talk about the Passion” that reappears in “Man on the Moon”, or the somber and gentle feel of “A Perfect Circle” in comparison to “Nightswimming”. More than the direct comparisons, though, there is an overall feel that binds the two albums, one that is rooted in the South, yet striving to be different with a simplicity and unpretentiousness that creates its own aura and charisma. The title for Automatic is taken from an expression used by man behind a Athens, Georgia eatery, and I can’t help but thinking that R.E.M. had a strong yearning to return to its roots and glorious, less complicated (not superstardom) early years. Murmur is that return and how fortunate they were to have such a memorable reference to re-examine.
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March 8, 2008

How much, how much, how much time?

My one previous submission to this blog is a testament to my specific musical tastes. Surely, dozens of artists I’ve avoided either purposefully or not would interest me, but I am more than content with having only one occupy the majority of my listening time. R.E.M. is my touchstone, that to which all else musical is compared. I relate at least one life experience each day to an R.E.M. song, lyric, or image proposed therein (as best as I’ve interpreted them, at least).

A history of me and R.E.M: I was aware of R.E.M. when I was a pre-teenager thanks to the videos for “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World…” I was not mature enough to grasp the music yet and still wasn’t quite there for Green when “Stand” was all over MTV and even featured in the Get a Life opening. When I was 15 years old, a confluence of burgeoning maturity and self-awareness, high school English and religion teachers helping me see the real through the symbolic, and a new confidence to reject my many Lehanian acquaintances’ belief that anything even remotely aesthetic was quee-ya opened me up to Out of Time and the ubiquitous “Losing My Religion”. For the first time, I was able to appreciate popular music’s ability to be challenging on multiple levels. My last 18 years have seen a constant R.E.M. absorption – collecting music, reading biographies, seeing them live (ninth time this June), and now anxiously awaiting Accelerate, the new album praised as the best of their three-legged dog era and one of their best overall.

Perhaps surprisingly, Murmur does not play as major a role in my devotion as one might expect. I first heard R.E.M.’s debut LP when I was 18, so my understanding of its historical significance is more borrowed than perceived. I won’t deny countless observers’ acknowledgement of Murmur as alt rock’s genesis, but the album falls a little short among R.E.M.’s top works behind Reckoning, Lifes Rich Pageant, Automatic for the People, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Murmur establishes a number of R.E.M.’s standards. Most obvious are the jangly guitars and mumbled lyrics. (“Sitting Still” is the archetypal R.E.M. song.) But more important is the band’s practice of keeping albums thematically whole. Each album (with the exception of the disordered Around the Sun) generally explores a single topic. Murmur focuses on the notion of legend, referencing Greek tradition (“Laughing”, Moral Kiosk”, “West of the Fields”), Christian tradition (“Perfect Circle”, “Talk About the Passion”), and the mythology of cultural idealism (“Radio Free Europe”, and the breezily waltzy, seemingly benign “We Walk”, an outsider’s account of Jean-Paul Marat’s bloody assassination in 1793).

For the sake of completion, the other R.E.M. album themes are:

Reckoning - water
Fables of the Reconstruction - the South
Lifes Rich Pageant - the environment
Document - fire
Green - responsibility
Out of Time - relationships
Automatic for the People - mortality
Monster - sex
New Adventures in Hi-Fi - travel
Up - hope
Reveal - consciousness
Around the Sun - ?

Okay, back to Murmur. Of all the tracks, “Radio Free Europe” and “Perfect Circle” stand out strongly for me. This version of RFE is folksier and darker than the superior single released in 1981, fitting the feel of the album much more appropriately. (I was in the Letterman audience for an R.E.M. appearance in 1998. I’d much rather have been there for this.) I feel an especially close connection to "Perfect Circle" with my singular interpretation of it as a description of the confusion and discomfort the remaining eleven apostles felt after the death of Christ. Retired drummer Bill Berry is informally acknoweldged as PC's lyricist (each member gets equal credit for every song). Guitarist Peter Buck has said the recording of PC marked the first time he felt "we were a real band".

R.E.M. A real band.

More later when we get to Document and Automatic for the People...
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March 3, 2008


Murmur, R.E.M., Rolling Stone Magazine's #197

exile staff consensus: awaiting votes

the breakdown:
4.0 cannons - venerableseed
3.5 cannons - eurowags

the essays:
3/19 @ noon - what took me so long to like R.E.M.?
3/14 @ noon - eurowags unexpectedly takes a Southern journey with R.E.M. and Murmur.
3/8 @ noon - jb makes perfect (circle) sense of Murmur

the album (minus two songs):

the introduction:
25 years ago today the #1 album in the United States was Thriller. That shouldn't come as a surprise given this week's (2008) second best selling album: the Thriller 25 anniversary release. And rightfully so. 1983 was the year of the Thriller. The year of the Motown moonwalk, the year of the red zipper jacket, the year of pop, the year Michael made MTV.

Thriller was, of course, one of the two finalists for Rolling Stone Magazine's 1983 Best Album. Its win was a no brainer. Who could beat its perfect nine songs, seven! of them top ten hit singles. Who could match its grip on the cultural zeitgeist and lasting historical impact?

It's unlikely challenger was a Byrds-y debut album from an Athens, Georgia four piece with mumbled vocals, mysterious lyrics, blurred cover art, limited sales, no MTV exposure, and only one released single which peaked at #78. Its melodic, beautiful music, though, was just as catchy as Jackson's Thriller but, the Album of the Year judges must have deliberated: "It's a nice little album but with its tiny label and small impact we can't give it the title; we'll look silly. Thriller is an epic, industry-changing, music-shaking event. Let's go with it."

Thing is, they didn't think that at all and Murmur was unexpectedly crowned 1983's Best Album. Turns out that opaque masterpiece has been just as influential as Thriller and its songs have been just as timeless. Thriller might have defined what music looked like in the eighties but Murmur defined what music would sound like. It invented college rock, it invented alt-rock, it was the future, it was our music. Let's listen 25 years later and see again how good it sounded.
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