Friday, September 29th, 2006
Every year or so I go into a big R.E.M. kick. I recounted my history with the band during one of these phases a couple years ago and I find that when you’re as inundated (and occasionally assaulted) with as much new music as I am, it’s helpful to retreat and recentre oneself – get back in touch with one’s roots, so to speak. Be reminded of a time when music was a single, beloved cassette tape in a walkman, played to the point of death and not a half-dozen CDs and press releases in a bundle of padded manilla envelopes in the mailbox.
But it was one of those padded manilla envelopes that brought me the new R.E.M. compilation And I Feel Fine…: The Best Of The I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 and its companion DVD When The Light Is Mine: Best of The I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 Video Collection. I didn’t pay this release much heed when it was first as it’s generally wise not to when bands you grew up with go into archival mode, but I have to say – I’m really enjoying this double-disc set.
Now while my R.E.M. indoctrination began two albums into the Warner years with Out Of Time, I almost certainly spent far more time immersed in the I.R.S. material. All of those albums, and Document, Lifes Rich Pageant and Eponymous in particular, all got heavy, heavy, HEAVY rotation through my teen years and I’m very pleased at how well that material has held up over the years. Hell, just the Murmur material is still amazing – “Radio Free Europe” is and always will be a first salvo for the ages. But while cuts like “Harbourcoat” are missed, the 21 tracks on the first disc do a great job of reaffirming early R.E.M.’s greatness. In a way, the second disc (come on, who would only get the one-disc version?) is even better, offering rare live tracks, outtakes and alternate mixes as well as band-selected album cuts that while they couldn’t qualify as “hits”, are certainly essential pieces of the puzzle. You can hear how young, creative and intent on making music they were and that’s an interesting contrast to the current incarnation they’ve (d)evolved into over the past 25 years.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying I liked Stipey better when he had bad hair, wouldn’t make eye contact and mumbled a lot. The glam activist icon thing just isn’t doing it. Of course, if they were still making good music all would be forgiven but they haven’t made an album more good than bad this century and though they say that they’re ready to rock on the next album, don’t forget that the last time they said that we got Monster. Not exactly one for the ages. I’m not ready to write them off completely yet but you can’t help but think they should have made good on their promise to call it quits when Bill Berry left in 1997.
This trip down memory lane did make me wonder one thing – in today’s ultra-wired society, does there even exist the sort of environment or underground that would allow a band like R.E.M. to slowly grow and develop as they did over their ultra-prolific six-year run on I.R.S.? Able to garner enough of an audience to sustain and motivate, yet stay out of the spotlight and remain insular enough to grow artistically without the huge pressures of an entire, oh, blogosphere watching and documenting their every move, performance and utterance? Not to say that today’s young artists are stifled by the attention, but it must have an effect on your work to be under the microscope like that.
The liner notes from rock scribe Anthony DeCurtis also make this point, declaring it inconcievable that the band (and by extension, any band) could find the “opportunity to evolve and discover its voice without the pressure of having to generate enormous sales”. Which is not to say that I yearn for the days pre-internet or that bands today are at a disadvantage for being able to tap into a potential worldwide audience or be declared saviours of popular music simply by posting their first recording on MySpace, but still. Makes you wonder who, if anyone, of today’s younger acts will be able to craft as long and generally productive a career or will the hyper-accelerated and miniscule attention span mindset of today’s audience simply not allow it? Or will we all die in a horrific meteor strike before anyone finds out? Place your bets.
I haven’t watched the DVD yet but do remember seeing most of the videos from this era on TV at one time or another so I know what sort of low-budget, ’80s-styled goodness awaits. And you can see a few of the vids on the ecard for the compilation – I dug up a couple other faves on YouTube. For audio, I will offer my one adjustment to the And I Feel Fine tracklist and direct you to RBally, who has a complete live show in Germany circa 1985, Marathonpacks, who wrote a short love letter to “Shaking Through” off Murmur and Aquarium Drunkard, who contemplates “Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)” from Chronic Town. And some guys called Pavement once wrote a whole song about Reckoning. “Time After Time” was their least favourite song. “Time After Time” was their least favourite song.
MP3: R.E.M. – “Harborcoat” (from Reckoning)
MP3: Pavement – “Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence” (from No Alternative)
Video: R.E.M. – “Fall On Me” (YouTube)
Video: R.E.M. – “Driver 8” (YouTube)
eCard: And I Feel Fine…: The Best Of The I.R.S. Years 1982-1987
Tinderstick Stuart Staples will play a solo show at the Mod Club on November 2. I presume Staples has heard of R.E.M.