Archive for September, 2012

R.E.M. – Document – Looking Back at the Album 25 years Later

September 27th, 2012 No comments

In the midst of a presidential campaign season, R.E.M.’s politically motivated ‘Document’, turns a quarter century old. From the fiery pulpit of Michael Stipe and guitar work of Peter Buck, R.E.M. masterfully craft these 11 songs into an iconic work. I always felt that Stipe laments the dangers of ‘isms’ but while the band has always sought a more progressive point of view and while it truthfully ridicules some of the Reagan cheerleading of the 80’s, it also clearly points fingers at some dangers of institutions in general.

‘Finest Worksong’ opens the album as an almost “Pseudo Workers Party Theme song”, straight from the “Barack Obama Socialist” handbook some might say. There is a certain hokeyness to the lyrics, as if I need to sit there and be inspired to psych myself up for the workday. It drives home an opening statement and an idea. The album follows some of the themes of prior albums in a different manner. ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ opens thoughts up to the idea of “Let’s begin again”, “Lets start a new country up”. For Document, it’s let’s organize with a different purpose than the America that we currently live in. Let’s not just talk about beginning again but actually starting over. The first side of the album becomes a bit of a propaganda piece, a PSA, if you may.

Realize that R.E.M. becomes more than just singing these mantras without actually believing in the concepts behind them. As they tour, their shows always have a local politically minded groups with worthy causes having tables set up near the entrance ways for fans to gain knowledge. Realize that this is before the internet where the power of information was much more expensive than it is now.

‘Welcome to the Occupation’ and ‘Exhuming McCarthy’, both make their points known with one suggesting the hypocrisy of how America values it’s own freedoms but not those of other countries, in this case a country in Central America and another, a reference in the title to Senator Joseph McCarthy who went on his dirge regarding communist spies in the United States. They kick start this album in such a manner in that we are not speaking about ‘Hope and Change’ but challenging the very fabric of America and the party on the right. As some have claimed that Ronald Reagan has grown to become an icon among the right wing, there needs to be a realization that the progressive left did not have the power during this time challenging the listener to understand the ideas of what it means to be an American.

‘Disturbance at the Heron House,’ grapples at the heart of the album. The song contains all the necessary ingredients for a classic R.E.M. track. There are lyrics like the following: “The followers of chaos out of control” and the “Gathering of Grunts and Greens” which will leave even the most studied R.E.M. fan questioning what is being derived by the song unless they read the “Stipe Notes” and see that the song is Stipe’s version of Orwell’s classic novel “Animal Farm”.

For me, the song’s strength was not realized for me initially, on the album itself but live and in this case the acoustic version.

R.E.M.’s songs invoke a level of flexibility that show both their delicate nature in tracks like the one above or their more “Stomp and Stammering” nature like the version on the album. Bill Berry’s percussion has this very shocking and persistent beginning, a sense of prevailing order where the fable being shared is quite the opposite. Stipe’s mechanism of enunciating during various elements of the acoustic track pulls in the listener in the sad spectacle.

‘Strange’ is the second time that the band has covered a song from another band on a regular album. In this case, its Wire’s with the lyrics slightly altered to Michael’s own nervousness rather than Joey’s. It offers a nice segway into ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’, a song that would be considered more popular now, especially with all the various “Doomsday” items that will hit the news, the song often becomes part of that news cycles soundtrack.

If we were old school, we would then flip sides and run into the song “The One I Love”. It’s the first time that Michael Stipe uses the word “Love” in any song and one listen to the caustic lyrics and one you realize that the reminiscent moment holds very little meaning. The simple message is Stipe doing Morrisey, “A simple prop to occupy my time”. However, on the live version on the Deluxe Edition that was released, we see a much more vulnerable side. The acoustic version here shows an even darker side.

Per the liner notes, it would appear that there were plenty of different versions of the song available and each one would seem to be reinvented but each would have a different story. For a song that repeats itself, it is one of the few that often feels so complex and yet at the same time, you can take a word like “Love” that Stipe had refused to use in a lyric before this and somehow made sure that it would be utterly complex, confusing and their first legitimate hit single.

The 25th Anniversary Edition of Document contains not the complete but most of the show from Utrecht, Holland from September 1987. The diehard fans out there will whine and scream that the second disc was not the complete show, choosing to leave off some cover tracks like the Clique’s ‘Superman’, which appeared, on ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’.

Others will complain that they would have preferred a demo concept, like the previous 2 reissues that contained early versions of songs worked on during that period of time. What I have found with Demo’s in the past is that while there will be a handful of the songs that will feel unique, there will be some that just do not feel all that different than the version that ended up on the album itself and will thus get 4 songs that feel partially interesting.

While this might satisfy the anal retentive R.E.M. fan wondering if it is true if a song was originally written with a mandolin in mind, the truth of the matter was that R.E.M. is a live band. For the fan that is introduced to R.E.M. with this album, the show that is attached is a worthy piece of history with one minor exception being the editing down of So. Central Rain to remove both Time After Time, and the Capella snippet of “Red Rain”, from the album. That part is a bit of a travesty because the medley is one of the most beautiful renditions of So. Central Rain that I had heard and for me there is a bit of sentimentality in that it was this B-side that had pushed me deeper into the R.E.M. discography looking for anything and everything R.E.M.

By the time of Document, Michael Stipe had been getting much more comfortable in the live setting taking on the role of the lead singer more prominently than before. While the band had grown by leaps and bounds, Stipe had exhibited a level of growing pains in front of the audience. Interviews were rough, as he would get tired of the same questions being asked and often make up answers while the other band mates would roll their eyes. If you read old interviews you will note that it is often Mike and Peter doing interviews for this reason.

When he got around to touring for Fables, he would often tell stories onstage about Old Man Kensey before the band would sing or discuss Brevis Mekis, i.e. the man behind the song ‘Life and How to Live It’ who split his house in half and would live in one side for awhile and would move and live on the other half. While the live show does contain a mention of Mekis during Life and How To Live It, it’s the ability of the songs to be injected full of energy that might be missing on the album versions. This is not to say that their music is boring on the albums but rather, unlike todays bands, the live sound often features less meddling and more emotion. While their earlier albums can be characterized with less studio work than their later years, they were never trying to be Pink Floyd either, expanding songs past the 10 minute mark

‘Oddfellows Local 151’, a song that is actually referencing a liquor store (The Firehouse is a liquor store in Athens) rather than the suggested thought that it might actually be a firehouse and Peewee was union member. Its duplicative meaning is often tricky and when realized, maybe even a little hilarious. As I am reminded from doing an Athens tour with Paul Butchart that we did pass by that Liquor store but did not see Peewee hanging around anywhere. The live track emanates more of the eeriness of the moment that you don’t feel as much on the regular album a song that in my opinion feels much more sanitized than on the live version.

Document is the last of the truly strong politically motivated albums the band released. I have always felt that “Green” has been a little flawed and considering some of the carefully worded lyrics for “Document”, “Green” always felt a bit more dumbed down, ‘Document’ is often complex , especially musically but I am always mindful of the lack of music and lyrics that can match the power of what Stipe penned to paper 25 years ago. A work of art.

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Yes, Even Michael Stipe would be able to take out Steve Doocy (R.E.M./Fox News Saga)

September 8th, 2012 1 comment

“Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song “Polly.” I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience. Sorry to be so anally P.C. but that’s the way I feel.” – Kurt Cobain from the liner notes of Incesticide

I have to admit before I start this, that one of the aspects that I have always appreciated about R.E.M. is their support for causes, whether they were local issues, global politics or their ability to build awareness among their fanbase. In their heyday, the reason that the music meant so much was not just limited to the fact that they were good songs, but that it meant something. They were more than just a pop song on a piece of plastic but carried an inherent meaning much greater than many people realize. They grew in prominence from grassroots beginnings, keeping their small town charm while providing audiences with thoughtful rock and roll that didn’t dumb down their audience but rather challenged them.

Throughout their career, they had been very careful about having their songs used in advertisements for products, clearly understanding that they did not want to go down that path of selling out their music. There was even some misconception of course when I believe it was Microsoft used the song “Superman” from Lifes Rich Pageant on an advertisement. Of course, while the song received acclaim from the band, it was actually written by a little known band “The Clique” in 1969. But for the most part, you can say over their 30 years they were pretty clean in that respect.

That all boiled over when I would imagine, Michael Stipe was on his second espresso of the morning, flipped to Fox News and found Fox and Friends playing the song that he made a hit.

Ok, maybe I am slightly exaggerating my point here aka pulling a Ryan. He was probably on his first expresso. The simple point is that Fox News had used a clip of Losing My Religion on the air. Oh the horror!

Of course, the response from the reviled Fox:

“Fox News Channel’s use of an R.E.M. song was in full accordance with its license agreements with all appropriate parties. Nevertheless, we’re always flattered to have this much attention for a song selection and we hope R.E.M. was able to satisfy their publicity fix.”

Since, I have misplaced my online correspondence law degree from Dr. Nick Riviera’s School of Law, so I am really not going to discuss the legalese of the case but if I were to make a guess, I would imagine that R.E.M. doesn’t have much of one but that really wasn’t the point.

My knowledge of Fox News of course is that it is about as relevant as professional wrestling. In fact, in many ways professional wrestling and Fox have a lot in common in that they are both fake, a display that is purely entertainment with no educational value whatsoever. The only difference of course is that the hosts of Fox are not lathering themselves up with body oils (at least when they are on the air).

To their credit they have a strong fan base of nimrods, and I would imagine that nimrods have to go somewhere to be entertained and they have built a healthy franchise in instilling hatred and fear.

My knowledge of Losing My Religion of course can be summed up by looking at my iTunes collection which features a hefty 66 mp3s, most of them live performances, not to mention countless others on disc. I had often joked that I wanted to come out with a boxed set of 20+ discs just playing all the different versions of ‘Losing My Religion’ with the dream that there would also be a full 200 page booklet written by Peter Buck describing each of these versions. Of course, knowing Peter Buck he would fucking pull it off and people would buy it just to read that shit.

(Peter Buck of course is the guitarist of R.E.M. who is coming out with his own solo album out November 20th, which just so happens to be my 40th birthday. Of course Peter Buck is such in dire need of PR that he is releasing his album only on vinyl and limiting it to 2000 copies.)

The true meaning of the song has nothing to do with becoming atheist as the nimrod might understand. It would be about completely obsessive or infatuated with someone else. The song has nothing to do with organized or disorganized religions/cults/sects whether they are Christian, Muslim, Judiaism.

The song is about being 18 and totally infatuated with someone and doing everything fuck shit wrong and getting totally depressed about that and listening to the song about 50 times in a row. It has nothing to do with choosing not to take communion anymore.

If you are like me, sitting with your Che Guevara shirt on, and staring at naked photos of Oak Trees in a luscious manner, or bronzing children’s lunchboxes, I would imagine that if you ever had written a song or put together a piece of art and that piece was represented on a station like Fox, of course you are going to be upset. You are a liberal and your creation is now being broadcast on the anti-Christ channel. Congratulations, someone is taking a shit on your lawn and now you have to pick it up!

I was clearly impressed by quote by Michael Stipe: ‘We have little or no respect for their puff adder brand of reportage. Our music does not belong there.’ the emphasis on Puff Adder of course.

If R.E.M. were in the business of keeping its fans they would have kept their mouths shut during their career. They would not have supported candidates, protested wars, got booed on stage for their comments ,.etc. The point was that they just didn’t put shit on a record and sell units but rather were the band that mattered. So I am not sure how this is a PR move. Their comments in this case could have clearly alienated fans who might not be aware of their status of being very progressive in their politics.

From someone like myself who feels very passionate about politics, I have to admit that I do have problems listening to “Republican” bands. You will not see me play any, Ted Nugent, Hank Williams Jr. or Megadeth anytime soon.

Yes, you rile up the fanbase by being political but alienate some fans that might not share the bands opinions.

At the end of the day, it is their song, they are playing on and they are fucking playing a Mandolin. Does Steve Doocy even know what a fucking mandolin is? There are times when a nice “Fuck You” is warranted.

In the meantime, I think I will have to devise my own “Puff Adder” playlist to dedicate to Fox. Stay tuned.

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