AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #125 : R.E.M. (2)

TAKE YOUR INSTINCTS BY THE REIN

I feel after 12 successive guest postings that I should have another go myself.  The last time I had such a quality run like this I took on the task of an ICA for R.E.M.  It’s history repeating….

There’s a lot of amazing stuff being posted out there in the little corner of the internet occupied by the those folk to whom you can easily visit by clicking links over on the right hand side of this place. Fans of R.E.M. should be particularly delighted with a new series launched a few weeks ago by The Robster over at Is This The Life?

“Over a period of several years I acquired all manner of rare and unreleased gems from market stalls, record shops, mail order, the fan club and, later on, the Internet trading community. I’m going to post all manner of things from my stash in the coming months for as long as you remain interested.”

There’s been four postings in the series thus far, all of which have been of the utmost quality. Some of the versions offered in the first few weeks indeed have been superior to those available via studio albums or previously available live/alternative versions.

As a way of saying thank you, I thought I’d have a stab at a second ICA for the band. The last time round was a posting that I took a great deal of time and care over, and it was only completed thanks to the imposition of a combination of rules including that I couldn’t include singles, I was restricted to one track from each album (or a b-side from one of its singles) and that all tracks had to feature the legendary Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe line-up.

To my immense relief and satisfaction, the ICA was very well received with suggestions that I have a go at Volume 2 and not to let the rules get in the way. It’s taken a while and I make no apologies for that as I’ve had to cut down what was a very extensive list down to just ten. It’s an ICA which I think contains a few surprise selections but the thinking all the way through wasn’t to just pick out ten great tunes for the sake of it but to forge something that would make for a second volume that worked across across both sides of the would-be vinyl without being predictable.

SIDE A

1. FINEST WORKSONG (from Document, 1987)

Tempting as it was to go for the Mutual Drum Horn mix for something a little bit less known, I couldn’t pull myself away from the original version that opened up the LP that introduced the band to a bigger audience than before. Oh and of course, it also provides the sub-title of this ICA.

This was a big and thumping introduction to a record that in sound and production was a fair way removed from what had come previously. It was almost as if, having quietly delivered, some would say murmured, a number of softly sung and beautiful sounding protest songs up until now, Stipe was determined to make sure that his voice was going to be heard this time round. And nobody should doubt that he was angry and wanted his fans to rally with him.

2. (DON’T GO BACK TO) ROCKVILLE (from Reckoning, 1984)

I wrote about this track at length in December 2014 and am happy to repeat what I said then.

A sad tale of long-distance love told over a quite exquisite tune that can’t quite make its mind up if it is indie, pop, honky-tonk or country.

Such is my belated love for this track that on the only occasion business has ever taken me to the Washington DC (it was back in 2002 and I was delighted to learn that the conference venue, which was where I was also staying for three nights, was the Watergate Hotel), I used a spare afternoon to hop on a commuter train out to Rockville, where I had a walk around for about an hour and took some photos.

There are days, and many of them at that, when I think that this is my all-time favourite R.E.M. song. I know that many folk out there feel exactly the same way.

3. MAN SIZED WREATH (from Accelerate, 2008)

There’s very few who will speak out in favour of Around The Sun, released in 2004 to the most unfavourable reviews and really poor sales. Even the band members were quick to dismiss it once the obligatory promotional efforts had been dispensed with and the fact it took the best part of four years for the next material to be released showed they were determined not to repeat the mistake of making a boring sounding record by a bored sounding band.

Supernatural Superserious was chosen as the comeback song, its online release in February 2008 pre-dating the new album, Accelerate, by around six weeks.  It was a bit of a worry as it sounded as if it had a riff based on Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow.  But over the ensuing period, as the band did some promo work, more of the album tracks got an airing.  My ears pricked up a bit when I heard Man Sized Wreath and while I’ll be the first to admit that in the overall canon it is a long way from the everlasting quality of the earlier material it was just a relief to hear the band sounding energised once again and for that alone I’m happy to include it within this volume and it fits in well with the overall feel and tenure of this ICA.

4. MUNICH (live) (from Radio 1 Live Lounge, 2008)

The promotional work for Accelerate saw the band members do a few things they hadn’t for a few years. On 26 March 2008 they went into the live lounge of BBC Radio 1 where they played a version of the first single from the new album (see Track 3 above), talked about their upcoming gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London and, in keeping with the tradition encouraged by the live lounge production team, played a stripped down cover version.

The song they chose was Munich, a single that had been released by indie-guitar band Editors back in 2005. Each of Stipe, Berry and Mills had declared themselves fans of the UK band who weren’t all that well-known outside of Europe having tried but failed to crack America. Whether it was a back-handed compliment to the fact that Editors had put a well-received cover of Orange Crush on an earlier b-side or the fact that the lyric of “People are fragile things, you should know by now. Be careful what you put them through” resonated so much with the band on the back of the criticism of Around The Sun only they themselves know. Think of it as the delightful little oddity that is necessary to help with sales of second volumes of compilations.

5. MAN ON THE MOON (from Automatic For The People, 1992)

One of the big sing-a-long hits really has to be included. I shied away last time round but refuse to do this time. It would be disingenuous of me to ignore just how massively popular the band became as the 90s dawned on us just because they are the songs that took them into arenas and stadiums, justifying the high-price contract offered by Warner Brothers. Let’s be honest and frank about it. If R.E.M. had remained something of a cult act throughout their career, then a song which celebrated the life and times of a recently deceased comedic actor who was the very definition of cult would be seen by many as the height of cleverness and indeed genius. Lyrically and musically, this is a great song that no amount of sing-a-long audience participation, or indeed guest vocal contribution from the bloke out of Coldplay*, could ever ruin.

(NB:  this was written long before KC’s ICA of last week; it’s just taken a long while to get round to posting it; honest!!)

SIDE B

1. ELECTROLITE (from New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1996)

The closing song from the final album recorded by a four-piece R.E.M. has long been one of my favourites. It’s a song that seems to perfectly draw that particular era to a close but perhaps stripped of that context and its particular placing on that particular album runs the risk of not working within an ICA.

The band was, of course, no strangers to including piano-led ballads within their albums but what makes this a cut above the others is that a seemingly simple sounding tune conveys an epic and seemingly metaphorical lyric, one which says goodbye to both the 20th Century and their ailing drummer. Sublime and beautiful in equal measures.

2. WALK UNAFRAID (live) (originally from Up, 1998)

Up was always going to be a difficult album to come to terms with, being the first without Bill Berry. There were many, particularly among the critics, who thought that the band should have called it a day when one of the original members was forced to quit because of concerns around his health. It was a million miles away from the very early R.E.M. and a million miles away in the other direction from the platinum-era R.E.M.

And yet, it’s an album that in many places contains some of their most compelling material from any part of their career, particularly the clearly autobiographical Walk Unafraid in which Stipe acknowledges and indeed celebrates his transformation from timid frontman to articulate spokesman for the disaffected and deeply concerned. I wasn’t convinced by the song as it appeared on the new album – the tune didn’t quite somehow back up the message – but the spunkier and more defiant version I first saw and heard in Manchester in 1999 on the promotional tour for the album, and which was replicated in the live CD/DVD from gigs in Dublin in 2005, is more like it.

3. GARDENING AT NIGHT (from Chronic Town EP, 1982)

It’s now 35 years since this particular song was first heard by the general public, thanks to its inclusion on the Chronic Town EP. Rumoured to be the first original song they were ever truly happy with, it’s clearly one that is of huge significance to the band as evidenced by:-

– the original version has been added to with three other takes of the song, all from the early days, being included on various compilation albums that have been released over the years
– it was performed during the band’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2007
– there have been five live versions made available through official releases
– the song title also inspired the name of the band’s publishing company, Night Garden Music

I do fully accept that the production makes this song very much of its time, but it does more than hold its own with so many other of the classic releases from that classic jingly-jangly pop era and it still fills the floor at indie gatherings for folk of all ages.

4. SO. CENTRAL RAIN (from Reckoning, 1984)

“Go build yourself another dream, this choice isn’t mine
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”

Gut-wrenchingly beautiful. At a time when Morrissey’s songs of a love gone wrong were taking much of the UK by storm, here was an example of the genre from the other side of the pond that was equally brilliant.

5. KING OF BIRDS (from Document, 1984)

I don’t know why, but I have more problems selecting the final track on my ICAs than any other. It’s that need to identify and choose the killer song that would make the listener want to go to their turntable to flip the vinyl back to Side A for a further listen while recognising that most studio albums don’t finish with a track that was selected as a single. The secret of any success in closing out an ICA is to use something of a hidden gem. I think I’ve succeeded here……………………..

Once again, I’ve left off so many that I really wanted to include. I reckon I could churn out at least three more volumes and still not be close to completing the task of offering up essential R.E.M songs but given how hard it was to nail down Vols 1 and 2 then I’m going to draw a line.**

But please, feel free to offer up your own version if you’re so inclined.

JC

*why I’m not fond of Man On The Moon played live – here’s the version with Chris Martin as recorded live in London in 2004 at a benefit gig for the OXFAM charity

**I reserve the right, in the very fullness of time, to compile Vol 3 solely on the tracks being offered up by The Robster.

10 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #125 : R.E.M. (2)

  1. A very interesting selection JC. I’ve resisted doing an ICA for R.E.M. myself because I simply could never condense it down to 10 songs, so kudos for both your fine efforts. King Of Birds makes a fine closer as well.

    (I am going to have to tweak a future episode in my series though – Munich was due to make an appearance in a couple of weeks…)

  2. Excellent selection, JC, mixing the obscure with the “big hits” and pleasingly not limited to their earlier stuff. Although the later albums are patchy, I find there’s something to enjoy on most of them… even Reveal. I’m especially fond of Up.

  3. What a wonderful read. And you included my favourite: Electrolite – about which baggingarea said it well.

    Three bold props for Around The Sun: Leaving New York; Make It All Okay; I Wanted To Be Wrong.

    And I bet you end up doing another volume.

  4. You got in my two favorite R.E.M. songs JC – So. Central Rain and Don’t Go Back To Rockville. For these ears, if all R.E.M. had ever put out was Reckoning, it still would have been one of those essential album releases. They would come close again from Fables Of The Reconstruction through Document. For me this is their Imperial Period.

  5. I like to think of myself as a bit of an R.E.M. nerd, but I’d never heard their version of Munich, so thank you for that.

    I’m totally with you on Rockville – a record which means a lot to me personally, and a song which on the rare occasion they’ve played it live when I’ve been there, man, I thought my heart would just burst out of my chest with excitement.

    Oh, and King of Birds: a glorious ICA closer and no mistake.

  6. ‘And I bet you end up doing another volume.’

    You know me all too well. I’m getting predictable in my old age.

  7. Please don’t tweak anything just for that…..your series is just so essential in offering a fantastic appreciation of the band and I really want to get your take of the era around the recording of Munich.

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