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I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Why?

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Why did I do this? It is definitely not a topic, which attracts a lot of readers. I disappointed some people, who thought I was writing about sleep cycles (people tend to think I'm smarter and a lot less silly than I am). Another friend of mine was surprised anyone could have REM as their favourite band. So why did I spent this much time on silly blog posts about a band I had not thought about for the past 20 years (god, I'm old), which no one wanted to read about? And was it worth it?

Yes, it was worth it. When I started I was in a strange state of stress and boredom. Sitting around an empty work place with a pandemic raging. It is a natural reaction for people to escape into childhood nostalgia during times of great insecurity. I could have just listened to the albums I had brought from Germany last Christmas and in March and April last year, it was what I did. Once I started to write though, a way to communicate my thoughts out of my empty office, I found the therapeutic value in it. Consuming media passively is one thing, sitting down and actively letting your thoughts be occupied with a topic unrelated to all the anxiety inducing happenings around me ended up being occupational therapy. It helped me out of the anxiety spiral I tend to fall into, helped me get my focus back and last but not least, made me happy.

I feel a bit at a loss now, after a year of writing these posts I will miss it (only one playlist post left). They were a lot of fun to write. I had not really thought of REM for a long time and I'm glad to have rediscovered them. I had forgotten how deeply entwined their music was with my formative years.

Some notes:
  • During all the posts, I wrote REM instead of R.E.M. I know this is wrong, but laziness won out here. I think I saved myself from typing hundreds of ".".

  • I do not vouch for any of the "facts" in any of the posts. I'm already a lazy researcher for topics that matter and here I often relied on memories of things I thought I read 25 years years ago.

  • I learned in the little research I did that I hold some unpopular REM opinions: I seem to be the only REM fan, who does not like "Don't go back to Rockville". I also seem to be one of the few people who still likes "Reveal". Of course it all comes down to taste with music in the end, but I'm right everyone else is wrong.

  • There is something to be learned from their retirement. Bill Berry is the poster child here, but even the others seem just so content to have given up stardom and concentrate on things that make them happy.



  • I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Chronic Town and where are they now?

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    Chronic Town was recorded to have something to give to live venues when REM where trying to book shows. They had already recorded there first single Radio Free Europe a year earlier, had toured all around the South, dropped out of school and were very much committed to be doing this full time, even if it meant living out of a van for most of the year.

    Wolves, Lower
    This song is delightfully post - punk. Like Gardening at night, it is already perfectly showcasing the typical REM style. Buck's arpeggiated guitar drives the song. Mills's bass is mixed in the foreground and melodic as always. After writing about the post-Berry years, it is so nice to hear his drums again, but not only the drums. In the pre-chorus (another very REM thing) you can clearly hear his voice making this song immediately my favourite from the EP.

    Gardening at Night
    I wrote about it before, this is the version where Stipe sings in a strange falsetto, reminding me that I prefer any live version.

    Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)
    It actually starts with a carnival organ riff. And it gets a star for having the album title (Chronic Town) in the lyrics.

    1.000.000
    As a European I write this song title with "." not ",". Stipe's vocal performance is a bit more aggressive here, which works well with the more acoustic leaning sound. I am reminded of Talk about the Passion from Murmur.

    Stumble
    And we are at the end. I love the bass in this, it is REALLY mixed into the front here. They were a student party band at the beginning and the songs had to be songs you can dance to and this one really shows this. Even though I went to university 20 years later, I can see myself dancing to this in some squat bar in Amsterdam to this.

    ------------

    Where are they now?

    Bill Berry
    I just realized that he was my age when he retired and now I'm really jealous. He still lives on the farm he moved to when he retired. Every now and then he joins some friends playing music, but nothing serious. He usually declines interviews, so there is not much to find about his post REM life. He gave a rare interview for last years episode of Song Exploder about Losing my Religion, making it an immediate must see. His band before REM (Love Tractor) just re-released their first album and he helped remix it. I did not listen to any post REM music from any of the members, but this would be the first I'd check out.

    Peter Buck
    I'm so glad, I decided not to check out any of their post REM music now, because Peter Buck has been super busy. I think he released more music after REM than with them. He even started singing on his records. Fed up with the music business, he released it all on small indie labels without any promotion. He also seems to be producing literally any and every indie band that crosses his way. Having seemed quite miserable during the last years of REM, it seems that he decided to just do what he wants and nothing else. Like Bill Berry he seldom gives REM related interviews and has done no promotion for any of the anniversary re-releases, but was on Song Exploder last year.

    Mike Mills
    I was surprised that he had not released a solo album. He wrote and performed a "concerto" (mix of classical and rock music according to Wikipedia, I guess something very much not like Muse, unfortunately) with one of his high school friends who is a famous violinist. How many musically super talented people did this high school have in the same grade? Otherwise he seems to pursue music more like a hobby, he is in the Baseball Project, where he and his friends write songs about their shared interest baseball and is the only member to perform some of the old REM songs at random events. He and Stipe are also doing all the promotion for the anniversary releases. He still lives in Athens and my secret hope is, that during the last year he and Bill Berry (basically neighbors) got together and recorded some Beach Boys inspired songs.

    Micheal Stipe
    For a long time after REM had split Stipe had removed himself from music altogether and focused on his visual art. When they met in university, he had been registered as a visual arts student, with music only being a hobby. He had also overseen all the album artwork and band merchandise during all of REM. It is kind of cool, when looking at the band as a project, how the members divided tasks according to interest / strength. He now has released three photography books. True to my laziness, I have not looked at any of his photography work. He returned to music in 2017, first as guest performer and last year released his first solo single. He also seems to frequently write op eds in the Guardian, which I have not read either.


    My REM the Warner Bros era without Bill Berry playlist

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    I did not include all singles again and went with the songs I liked most or thought represented the album the most.


      Up
    1. Hope (I like it because of it's monotone and weird electronics. It also represents Up well)
    2. At My Most Beautiful (One of the bands favourite songs, especially Stipe. Probably the only real love song he ever wrote)
    3. Why Not Smile (all hail the harpsichord)
    4. Diminished ("I watched you fall, I think I pushed")
    5. Reveal
    6. I've Been High (One of my favourite REM songs, sunny and relaxing)
    7. She Just Wants To Be (Live this is especially good)
    8. Beat a Drum(This or I'll Take The Rain is the best song on the album)
    9. I'll Take The Rain (see above)
    10. Around the Sun
      nope
      Accelerate
    11. Man-Sized Wreath (To me THE Accelerate song)
    12. Until The Day is Done (This is here because it reminds me of Automatic for the People)
    13. I'm Gonna DJ (the only song that is a bit different, I hope I have this much energy when I'm in my 50s)
    14. Collapse Into Now
    15. Uberlin (I'm so glad they embraced some of the musical ideas from Reveal again)
    16. Oh My Heart (the accordion )
    17. It Happened Today (Mike Mills, Eddie Vedder and Joel Gibb going all out in the background vocals)
    18. Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter (with Peaches, Lenny Kaye and Patty Smith reminding us that REM started out as post-punk)
    19. Blue (the continuation of E-Bow the Letter)



    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Collapse Into Now

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    We have arrived at the end. Well kind of, this is not the last REM related blog post, there are still some playlists coming up and I already decided to have a look at their first ever release, Chronic Town. Collapse Into Now was the last album REM released. And as perfect as my timing is, it was released ten years ago, in spring 2011. They disbanded in autumn 2011. But before we go into it, there is a hair issue to be addressed.

    What is this hairstyle?


    So every member (except for Bill Berry, who is perfect) had made unfortunate hair decisions over the years. Stipe's haircut during the Green tour (a rat tail) should have been the worst, followed by Mills's soul patch. In the end Peter Buck however decided to take the price home for worst hairstyle simply by being the most persistent. My first thought was that he had somehow upset his hairdresser, or lost a bet, but he has kept the Prince Valiant hairstyle since 2011.

    Collapse Into Now
    They knew this would be the last album when making it. It is reflective both in tone and music. There are songs that remind me of Automatic for the People (Oh My Heart), Reveal (UBerlin and Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I), New Adventures in HiFi (Blue) and there is also still the "typical REM sound" they resurrected with Accelerate (Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter, That Someone is You, Mine Smell Like Honey). Mills's organ is back as is Buck's Mandolin and to my delight there is also an accordion on Oh My Heart (I loved the accordion on You Are The Everyting, back at Green and was always sad they did not use it more). The accordion is not played by Mills this time, but long time collaborator Scott McCaughey, who also got a writing credit on Oh My Heart. Next to their usual studio musicians, they also collaborated with a lot of outside artists, a bucket list of people they like to work with. There is Eddie Vedder and Joel Gibb belting out background vocals on It Happened Today as if their life depended on it. They pay homage to their punk influences by including Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye and Peaches, especially on Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter.

    They use the same producer as on Accelerate, Jacknife Lee, but the sound is much broader on this album. You can hear their whole spectrum, the folk influenced mid tempo songs, the punk influence, the jangly rock. I am more forgiving to this album looking backwards, rather than forwards, considering it is their last. A full stop to an almost 30 year long career. But it also makes me sad, the album has a real "we are done, thank you for the good times" vibe . Good for them, being able to retire in dignity, before the world decides for them that their time is over. (I haven't actually spent much time checking out what they did after REM; but my guess is none of them ended up at Dancing with the Stars.)

    Shout outs:
  • UBerlin and Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I reminds me again that Reveal was a good album and I'm quite glad they embraced the direction they went in on this album again

  • Oh My Heart makes me really emotional, the song is from the point of view from someone returning home to New Orleans after Katrina, but it also resonates with me and my complicated relationship with Iceland

  • Everyday Is Yours To Win has Mills on guitar and Buck on bass.


  • Closing thoughts:
    It is a solid album, but I will never enjoy as much listening to it as it makes me sad. I think it was a good decision for them to break up when they did, everything as to end sometimes. But even a good end is an end and I am not ready to let go yet. So after the post Bill Berry playlist in the next post, I will return back to the beginning and look at Chronic Town. I'll also spend some time on Wikipedia and see what they have been up to the past 10 years.


    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Accelerate

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    It has been 3 months since I wrote the post about Around The Sun. Partly because the Christmas beers took over the blog, but also because the album decreased my enthusiasm a bit. I was not eager to go on to Accelerate. I liked it when I first listened to it. I was at work alone in April, listening to all the REM albums to keep me from going crazy and after Around the Sun was just happy to hear jangly guitars, melodic bass lines and vocal harmonies again. Accelerate is REM retracing their steps musically, which makes my opinion of it change daily.

    After Around The Sun, REM knew they were in trouble. They had let themselves be distracted by touring, releasing a best off and side projects. Most of the writing and recording of Around The Sun had been done by each member individually, without much communication between them. They knew they needed to refocus. They met up to write the songs together and recorded most of them together in an old chapel (now performance space) in Athens. REM playing in an old church in Athens, just like old times. It fits with the decision to return to their trademark sound, focusing on the kind of music they are comfortable with and use their energy into making it good.

    Accelerate
    Until Accelerate REM never made the same album twice. Every album was either developing the sound from previous albums further or a complete departure. For the first time, REM are looking backwards, drawing from some of the most recognizable elements of their music from the past 27 years. Music wise the album is closely related to New Adventures in HiFi, except when it comes to mixing / production. Both albums have the spirit of live recordings, but while New Adventures, which was recorded live on tour, has the typical clear and multilayered sound of Scott Litt, Accelerate was mixed and produced by Jackknife Lee, who went for a more compressed sound, equivalent to the sound of a live performance.
    The desperate attempt to sound new in Around the Sun had caused them to add random elements to songs (looking at you electronic randomness in Final Straw). Not trying to redefine the sound of REM they focused their creative energies on writing good guitar / bass / vocal parts.
    It is a very guitar heavy album, and Buck sounds so happy to just be able to go all out on guitar. Whether it is his usual jangle on most songs, folk inspired acoustic guitar on Houston and Until the Day is Done (which reminds me of Automatic for the People) or solo guitar, he seems to have so much fun. One of the best decisions they made on this album was to take the piano away from Mike Mills and hand him a bass and a microphone. How I missed both his melodic bass and vocal harmonies. The Album starts with a really cool bass riff at Living Well is the Best Revenge and just keeps going from there. I love the background vocals on the album. There are the usual counter melody vocal again, but also some more creative touches, such as the high harmonies Sing for Submarine or the "wohoos" on I'm Gonna DJ. Stipes singing performance is reminiscent of his more punk influenced singing style from the 80s, reminding me of his vocal performance on Just A Touch from Lifes Rich Pageant. Bill Rieflin is the drummer on this album and is very much earning his paycheck with most songs being very fast paced. He is not trying to copy Bill Berry and this album made me realize how distinct and different from traditional rock drums Bill Berry's style is.

    I have a moment of brilliance
    I know that I am not qualified at all to write about music and am frequently getting distracted by hairstyles and glittery suits, but I had my moment of brilliance on this album. When I listened to Houston I heard a familiar melody. The guitar part of the verses in Accelerate sounded really similar like the guitar part of the intro of Try not to Breathe from Automatic for the People. They are also both mid tempo songs with a folky fingerstyle guitar. It bugged me and I read several reviews of Accelerate, seeing if someone had heard the same. None mentioned it. So I decided to do some more research and looked up the chord progression for each song. Behold! I was right. The chord progression in Try not to Breathe is D, am, C, G, Dsus4, am; Houston's chord progression is D5, am7, C, G, D5 am(7). The main similarity is a small riff back to the D(5). It is more a reference than a copy, but it is there and makes me wonder if it was intentional.

    Shout outs:
  • I kept pronouncing Men Sized Wreath as Men Sized Wrath in my head, as I did not know what a wreath is. REM, my own private English teachers.

  • The solo guitar on Accelerate is continuously walking up the scale during the whole song, ending in some high vibrating notes. It is one good example on Buck doing really cool guitar things in the background without showy rock solos.

  • I'm Gonna DJ, the last song is cool. It also made me realize my (and I guess others) problem with this album other than REM musically retracing their steps. It is very young sounding, a song that a band might write in their 20s or 30s and here are these 50 year old's ignoring my definition of age appropriate music. My problem though, not theirs. I really love this song.


  • Closing thoughts:
    I had been excited about the new direction they went with, with Up, was sorry this journey ended with Around the Sun and can't help feeling Accelerate is a little bit of a creative capitulation. If this album had come out in the 90s, I would have loved it. If some young, new band had come out with it, I might have bitched a bit about copying REM, but would have loved it. This album was the last they toured on (a great album to play live). Collapse Into Now is their last album, they released it in spring 2011 and split in autumn. I can't help feeling a bit sad listening to it, but at least I will get to bitch about hair styles again.


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