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Picture of the week - High Key Stone Forest

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I used this tutorial to edit the picture, just that I use darktable, because open source, baby!

Links especially formatted to make Jeff happy.

I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Automatic for the People

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Mike Mills gets really annoyed when people pirate their music. So, I'm sorry to say that when I was about 10 (in 1992) my sister got a copied tape of Automatic for the People from someone. On the b-side of the tape I recorded Monster, two years later. This tape was the heart of my REM collection. I didn't really start listening to it until '94, I was busy being a Bon Jovi and Take That fan first #noregrets. But then it took over my life. I listened to it several times a day and when my family went on a trip to Chile in '95 my sister and me listened to it on the several day long car trip up and down the Chilean coast (usually fast forwarding through Monster). The songs are basically part of me now. And if I ever meet Mike Mills, I'll buy him a beer.

Automatic for the People

This album has been rightly called a timeless masterpiece. They did not set out to record a mid/low tempo orchestral album, they had planned to do a proper rock record again and seemed themselves a bit surprised at the outcome. They continue to use a wide range of acoustic instruments, there is an accordion, an oboe, string arrangements, but it does not have the playfulness of Out of Time, it has a melancholy, which cuts deep. They even manage to make Mills' background vocals sound melancholic.
It feels like a less experimental album than Out of Time, most songs primary instruments are bass and guitar and the songs are written in traditional song structure (verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge etc). Despite the overarching theme of aging, changes, loss and memory of the album, it is not one note. There is cynicism in Drive and Ignoreland, whistfulness in Try not to Breathe, Nightswimming and Find the River, humour in The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite and Man on the Moon and emotional sincerity in Everybody Hurts. To me the core songs of the album are Try not to Breathe, New Orleans Instrumental No.1 and Sweetness Follows. Try not to Breathe is a surprisingly life affirming song about the right to die. The lyrics on this album are insanely good (and heartbreaking).

I will hold my breath until all these shivers subside

The basis of the song is a (unsurprisingly) melodic bass line, lead guitar and rhythm guitar. The simple main riff / theme gets at some point repeated by all three. It is a good example how, despite the orchestral parts of this album, it is very much grounded in folk music. New Orleans Instrumental No.1 is Berry on bass, Mills on Organ and Buck playing electric guitar with some weird effect, which made me google the song in frustration as I could not figure out which instrument was played. The bass line of Sweetness Follows is played on cello and added to it is the long sustained electric guitar from Country Feedback, organ and acoustic guitar. It creates a perfect atmosphere of sadness and distance. And the lyrics are super depressing.

It's these little things, they can pull you under
Live your life filled with joy and thunder
Yeah, yeah, we were all together
Lost in our little lives

Of course it is my favourite song from the album.

While the previous three songs might be a perfect summation of this album, the last three, Man on the Moon, Nightswimming and Find the River are simply the best REM have ever written. Man on the Moon, the favourite of most of the members is a perfect REM song, like Gardening at Night and Fall on Me. It is built on a slide guitar riff by Berry, that Buck extended upon and has great backing vocals in the chorus. Nightswimming, built on a simple piano piece from Mills is a perfect example of less is more. At it's core it is just piano and voice, with perfect lyrics about being nostalgic for the innocent times of youth. Find the River underscores the folk music feel of the album, with the melodica and river metaphors. It could have gone cliche easily, but somehow ends up in beauty.

Shout outs:

  • In the third verse of The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite Stipe mispronounces Dr. Seuss as Dr. Zeus and giggles at his mistake in the chorus. It is one of my favourite music moments, especially considering the heaviness of the album in general.

  • Everybody Hurts was my favourite song when I was 14 (and the song which taught me finger picking). Now, 38 and cynical, the emotional sincerity of it is sometimes hard to swallow. Especially as the whole arrangement of it, strings and all, underscores it.

  • REM are really good in using an organ. It appears on several songs on this album, and they used it frequently throught their career. To me it is a fundamental to the sound of REM as Bucks mandolin.

  • The string arrangements are perfect on each song and are done by John Paul Jones.

  • Closing thoughts: This was a hard album to talk about. I do not have the musical knowledge to adequately express how great it is and my emotional attachment to it makes it hard for me to listen to the songs in an analytical way. This is the one album every record collection needs, even if you don't like REM or alternative rock. Like, if you don't have it in your record collection I WILL judge you. The next album is Monster, the one always found in used records racks, symbolising simultaneously the highest point of commercial success and decline of REM.

    Picture of the Week - Lonely Mountain

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    turns out the area between Mývatn and Egilsstaðir is perfect to take pictures of nothing.

    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Out of Time

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    With this album my history with REM starts. Unfortunately I do not remember if the first song I ever heard was Losing my Religion or Shiny Happy People. I was 9 and the older, cool kids had "disco evenings" at the yearly biking trip and let me as one of the only non-teenagers join. The tape of the playlist of these evenings was the first non-kids music I listened to. Other than the two songs, I didn't really get into REM until later, but these two are forever intertwined with childhood memories.

    REM had just come back from an extensive and exhausting world tour with Green and Peter Buck did not even want to look at an electric guitar anymore. Taking the acoustic songs from Green as an inspiration, they started writing songs on mandolin and other obscure instruments. The resulting album is a masterpiece (minus one song, which is an atrocity, but we'll get to this later). Time and memory has had an interesting effect on this album. For a 90s kid like me, the sound of it, especially Losing my Religion has become THE sound of the 90s. I have to forcefully remove myself from the familiarity with it to appreciate how out there and utterly removed from any trends in any music decade it is. Going acoustic was also a strange decision for them to make, having just been named "The best American Rock Band" by the Rolling Stones.

    Out of Time
    The album is full of random instruments, there is the mandolin of course, strings, organ, melodica, clarinet, saxophones (in a good way this time!) and my favourite, the harpsichord. It all works, because one of it great strengths are the arrangements. They manage to include a lot of ideas, harmonies (the background vocals game is strong on this album) and somehow still make it sound light and accessible. I'm particularly found of the way the strings come in at the latter parts of Low and Half a World Away.

    The album in general sounds light, but has a few songs, which already hint at the melancholic, darker mood of Automatic for the People. Low, a hypnotic baseline, which is elevated by the background organ and string arrangement, Belong and Country Feedback, with Bucks sustained lead guitar and feedback effect, which would reappear at Automatic for the People..

    The album to a big part sounds so light (even though most songs are in minor key) because of the background vocals. There are a lot of Mills vocals on this album. This album has two songs in which he sings lead, Near Wild Heaven and Texarcana. Texarcana even has lyrics written by him. On the 25 anniversary edition (god, I'm old!) they have old demos, and the demo from Texarcana has Stipe singing lead with completely different lyrics. He just never finished it, so Mills rewrote it. The only other lyrics (I know of) by Mills were on Don't Go Back To Rockville in '84. Near Wild Heaven is THE Mike Mills song. It's just so sunny and upbeat. It is also the first occurrence of Stipes patented "babababa" background vocals, which would reappear on their cover of Love is All Around. Sadly Out of Time is also the last album he gets to sing lead.

    One song on this album, however, is a serious musical misstep we have to address. Worse than the saxophone solo on Document. And I know what everyone is thinking, but I'm not talking about Shiny Happy People here. It is Radio Song. The first REM song I would actually call bad (only whatever Around the Sun is can compare in horribleness). The song is even worse in context, the whole album is timeless and then you have this one rap part, which a) completely clashes with the rest of the song and b) dates the album immediately (rap styles changes a lot over the years). Worse, Stipe is attempting some rap adjacent speak - singing, which fails utterly and REM have never sounded so white. Now that I digitalized my record collection, I just removed this song, now Out of Time starts with Losing my Religion, which is a good first song anyway.

    Shout outs:

  • Shiny Happy People does not deserve the ire it has been getting. Just like Stand from Green, the silliness of it makes me happy. It exists in 3 stages: 1. the song and it's lyrics, which leaves you wondering if this is supposed to be ironic. 2. the video, which will just leave you utterly confused. 3. The Sesame Street performance, which will lead to blissful acceptance that this song exists.

  • The harpsichord on Half a World Away makes me so happy. I really need to know who had the idea (and thank them). It even does the baroque arpeggios, which somehow perfectly fit into the song, while simultaneously being ridiculously out there.

  • Losing my Religion is one of the best songs in Rock/Pop history. I know people got a bit tired of it, as it has been endlessly played, but if you take the time listening to it, you noticed how intrinsic the mandolin part is, how well arranged it is and how it breaks a lot of pop rules and is still weirdly catchy. I do however think, that it did not blow up (and moved REM to stardom) on musical merit alone (sorry, guys). I think the title (and Christians getting upset, because they did not know that "losing my religion" = getting upset / angry in the American South), gave it a lot of attention and this was amplified by the music video. Everyone still knows the video. It is one of the best music video ever made, it defiantly stood out in the early 90s, when music videos were still new. I think REM getting as big as they got, partly thanks to MTV, is one of the reason they lost a lot of street cred and were told to have "sold out" with Out of Time.

  • Closing thoughts: REM decided to release a weird, baroque, acoustic album, after they have been hailed as the next great American Rock Band, against all trends in the commercial or alternative music scene (this was the start of grunge after all). And somehow the stars aligned and they became world famous with it. Saying they sold out with the album is some weird a posterior reasoning, using success as an indicator for selling out. This album is great, if you do what I did and remove Radio Song off it. Then it is a short album of 10 perfect songs, only surpassed by the next one, Automatic for the People, an album fused to my soul.

    Picture of the Week - High Key Desert

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    We went through the desolated landscape of the North/East of Iceland on the way to Egilsstaðir. It was perfect to do some high key photography.

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