R.E.M. – Murmur

Like Chronic Town before it, Murmur hasn’t aged badly, if at all, in the very, very nearly 30 years since its release. Not that it sounds new, in any way. There’s a certain old-timeyness, a pleasingly analogue feel, perhaps as a result of the band’s “no sequencers, no synths” determination, perhaps from the band’s singular approach and desire to do just whatever worked for them, and not do whatever didn’t: Bill Berry insisting, for example, on recording in a drummer’s booth – a practice even then already outdated.

Or perhaps because it’s just a really magnificent collection of songs from start to end. Having fallen out with IRS’s original choice of producer, R.E.M. turned to Mitch Easter again, who, with help from Don Dixon, once more coaxed the best out of the band. At this point I believe the standard approach is to remark on Stipe’s obtuse vocals, or Buck’s perfectly unshowy arpeggios, so in the spirit of not following the crowd and in the spirit of collective credit (I’m, like, so R.E.M.), I’m going to offer up plaudits to Bill Berry and Mike Mills for their part in Murmur‘s perfectly formed sound. This is an album about them just as much as it is about Stipe and Buck: Mills with his backing vocals and his beautifully melodic basslines, Berry in perfect combination with him.

This review is part of R.E.M. Day

R.E.M. – Chronic Town

Recorded in a spirit of independence, experimentalism and a touch of music concrete, and produced by fellow Athens musician Mitch Easter, Chronic Town was recorded at Easter’s Drive-in studio in October 1981. Already the familiar R.E.M calling cards are present: Michael Stipe’s often mumbled vocals, the words drifting in and out of sense; Peter Buck’s distinctive ringing guitar sound; Stipe recording his vocal parts in unfamiliar places. There are tape loops, backwards sections, Stipe

Of the EP’s opening track “Wolves, Lower”, Easter said:

There was an assumption that, of course, we all knew what it was about. It didn’t take long before you realised that this official mystery thing was what everybody was going for, so I couldn’t act as if I was mystified.

What’s remarkable to me about Chronic Town is how fresh and exciting it sounds today (“today” here can be taken literally or as code for “generally, 30 years on”). It may only amount to five tracks, but from the opening bars of “Wolves, Lower”, through “Gardening at Night” (a song about pissing on lawns, I’m told), to the frantic energy of ‘Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)“, it kicks off with a trio of tracks that any band should envy. The pace, and the fun, lets up slightly with the punchy, post-punky, ‘1,000,000”; “Stumble” gets it back on track, closing the EP driven along by some signature Peter Buck sounds.

Chronic Town was released on I.R.S. Records, the label that would take them all the way into the big leagues and a lucrative deal with Warner Bros in 1988. At the time I.R.S. was not a rich label, and not a label given to handing out large advances. In signing, R.E.M. would join acts like The Go Gos, and the Danny Elfman-headed Oingo Boingo, signing to I.R.S. because of the assurances that they would be left to their own devices creatively.

Having signed for I.R.S, it was time for R.E.M. to record their first full album

This review is part of R.E.M. Day

R.E.M. Day

On 11 March 1991 an album was released that would launch a new chapter in my musical life, and inspire in me a devotion to one band. The band was R.E.M.; the album was Out of Time. To celebrate its (all important) 23rd birthday, I’m going to be spending a day listening to the entire R.E.M. back catalogue, in order, from Chronic Town to Collapse Into Now. Studio albums only, mind – I’ll be ignoring the various best-ofs and Dead Letter Office.

There will be highs (almost everything) and no doubt lows (*cough* Around the Sun) and I might just go crazy before I’m done – largely because I intend to write up each album in turn, which will probably result in lengthy essays on Murmur and Reckoning and about a dozen garbled words on Accelerate and Collapse Into Now.

As a quick reminder, the order of service will be as follows:

(Update – now with links to album reviews as they are added)

  1. Chronic Town (1982)
  2. Murmur (1983)
  3. Reckoning (1984)
  4. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
  5. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
  6. Document (1987)
  7. Green (1988)
  8. Out of Time (1991)
  9. Automatic for the People (1992)
  10. Monster (1994)
  11. New Adventures in hi-fi (1996)
  12. Up (1998)
  13. Reveal (2001)
  14. Around the Sun (2004)
  15. Accelerate (2008)
  16. Collapse Into Now (2011)

And now a little history…

Although I didn’t buy Out of Time on its day of release, its lead single “Losing my Religion” gnawed away at me until I could resist no longer. So, off to Woolies I went (I hadn’t quite embraced the spirit of independent record shops at this stage), little realising that the seven pounds I was about to spend on this cassette would become merely a down payment on a series of future investments, firstly gathering up the back catalogue of the next twelve months, and then for the next 20 years after that devouring every new R.E.M. release.

Between Out of Time, and the release of Automatic For the People, I binged on every R.E.M. release I could get hold of, buying up all the old albums, and all the “limited edition” singles from Out of Time. I even managed to get hold of a copy of Chronic Town, though that would have to wait until a trip to America in the Summer of ‘92.

I don’t feel like I listen to nearly as much R.E.M. as I used to, and yet when the day is done they’ll be back on top of the pile of my most listened to artists on last.fm. That is at least until The National Day, whenever that might be…