THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 38)

I’ll be brutally honest – if I didn’t have the company of The Robster for this journey, I might well have been tempted to get off the train and simply give you a list of all the R.E.M. singles from 2001 onwards; but his knowledge of the band, and his willingness to be open and honest about what he considers to be a number of failings and disappointments throughout their lengthy and often stellar career, has been and will continue to be the reasons for sticking with us in the last few weeks…

The end of the 20th Century had been a strange time for long-time fans, to say the least. It had been difficult enough to embrace the electronica of Up, but it did contain a handful of songs, none of which were released as singles, to make it an occasionally interesting listen.  Three years later and the fingers, toes and every other possible part of the anatomy were crossed that the new album, Reveal, would re-ignite the passion.

As The Robster highlighted last week, the advance single, Imitation of Life, had been a hit.  My comrade-in-arms was a tad scathing last week in saying that the very familiarity of the song was a let-down as it felt like something from a bygone era when he had always thought of R.E.M. as a band which only looked forwards.

I actually quite like Imitation of Life.  I hoped that it would signal the new album being some sort of return to the poppier side of the band, one which they would take the charts by storm and have all the songs on heavy rotation on whatever radio stations the demographic now listened to. Turned out not to be the case…..

I’m going to use some words from the writer Garry Mulholland who, as part of an Uncut Magazine looking back at the career of R.E.M., had the task of doing the retrospective for Reveal:-

“Reveal reveals exactly where the band as a collective where in 2000-2001, and why they would stay together for another 10 years.  For the first time, R.E.M. do not sound like a group striving for something. They sound content.

Trumpeted, at the time, as a return to former glories…..it’s an elegant melding of the synthetic textures of Up and the quality songwriting style they had developed and gradually perfected over 20 years.

The guitars no longer jangled.  The rhythms refused to drive along the dusty roads of a semi-mystical southern Rockville. The temp was relentlessly slow.  Synthesisers and orchestras overwhelmed those primary drums-bass-guitar colours.  Here were three guys in their forties dealing with a calm after a storm, having come so close to destroying the band that had defined their adult lives.”

It’s a lot of words to describe an album that, quite frankly, is boring for the most part.  And in some places, simply terrible.  For the first ever time, R.E.M. were inessential.  The second single from the album kind of captures what I’m getting at:-

mp3: R.E.M. – All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)

It’s a song that is slow to get out of the blocks and the pace never picks up.  It was released in July 2001, a couple of months after the album, and it came in at #24. before plummeting to #48 and then #71 before its short stay in the charts was over.  Thank goodness for small mercies.

There were, again, three formats.  CD/cassette/DVD.

There were three tracks that made up the various b-sides, consisting of an instrumental, a cover and a live track.

mp3: R.E.M. – 165 Hillcrest
mp3: R.E.M. – Yellow River
mp3: R.E.M. – Imitation of Live (live)

For once, the instrumental has something to offer. It’s R.E.M as a surf-band and the whole thing is done and dusted in 95 seconds. Just time enough to appreciate it and before it becomes too repetitive. It’s one of those tracks that you’d likely need 20 or 30 goes (at least) before guessing who was behind the music.

The cover version is tragic. It’s R.E.M as a cabaret band on the bill at The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club. And it has Mike Mills on vocal.

The live version at least showed the band’s hearts were still in the right place as it was taken from a live free gig at Trafalgar Square, London on 29 April 2001, at which they were the main musical attraction at the South African Freedom Day, organised to mark the seventh anniversary of free elections. The star of the show, however, was Nelson Mandela…..

There was a third single lifted from Reveal. Feel free to pop-in next week to get The Robster’s thoughts on it.

JC

9 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 38)

  1. Fair play to the The Robster. This has been a fascinating look at (in this part) a period of the band that gets very little written about it. I’ve loved it.

  2. I haven’t listened to “Reveal” in years. It was such a disappointment that I can barely recall any of the tracks. As such, “All the Way to Reno” is just about the stand-out track. Not great, but at least distinctive and memorable. Comparatively.
    Congratulations to JC and TheRobster for managing to create interesting reading out of uninspiring material.

  3. As with DAM, I don’t mind ‘…Reno’ though as a single this was arguably begging for a radio edit… I prefer the live version of ‘Imitation Of Life’ simply because it’s got more, well, life. I’ve never particularly liked the original of ‘Yellow River’ so a Mike Mills-fronted cabaret version was never going to change my mind. First time I’ve heard ‘165 Hillcrest’ and – dare I say it? – the pick of the bunch. Great post, JC, and some compensation for losing an hour’s sleep last night due to daylight saving 🙂

  4. At the time I thought taken in isolation Reveal was okay. Compared with what had gone before it though it paled. I’ve not played it for ages which says a lot . I’m going to play it today prompted by the Sunday series and see what I think now

  5. This marks an awkward time in my relationship with R.E.M. I liken it to overhearing two people who accidentally meet, evidently close at one point and the parting words hang in the air “let’s keep in touch” … no email, tel. or social media info exchanged. Awkward? Maybe not?

    All The Way To Reno didn’t fire me up in any way that I can recall at the time of release. My relationship with R.E.M. by this time was casual as we had failed to ‘keep in touch’ in any significant way.

  6. When I first heard Imitation of Life it sounded like Reveal might be a good ‘un but I can’t remember much about it now and listening to today’s single reminds me of what they’d lost by 2001. I’ve spent a lot of the last week listening to Murmur and Reckoning and an IRS best of. Those records are full of magic and mystery (and it’s not just nostalgia saying that, it really isn’t). By this point R.E.M.’s songs are neither magical nor mysterious. Bands have to change and ‘grow’ and inevitably the songs written and recorded in youth will be different from the songs written and recorded 20 years later but still, there’s not much comparison to make between Sitting Still say and All the Way To Reno (nice enough tune though it is).

  7. @Adam: You’re so right. Even the best R.E.M. tracks post-Berry don’t compare to the early earlier period, but then I suppose that’s to be expected. I wouldn’t have wanted another Murmur or even another Document, but I did want something I could listen to more than once without boredom or despair.

    @Khayem: There were, in fact, two different radio edits of Reno, but neither were commercially issued, only available on promos.

    @all: Do stay with us. It does get worse, but fortunately it then gets better…

  8. When R.E.M. hit the scene they were great on so many levels. One of the many standout factors was Michael Stipe’s strong, flexible and instantly-recognizable voice. So, never having heard ‘Reno’ before today, I love it because it’s just great to hear Stipe singing. I don’t mind the song at all–kind of what like Beck was doing at the time. Maybe it’s because I stopped paying attention to the band when they left IRS, but I’ve been loving the songs featured in the most recent posts in this outstanding singles series.

  9. For me, The Robster’s & JC’s views, followed by the comments,
    on these more tepid R.E.M. eras are potentially even more
    interesting than when the series was documenting more
    celebrated releases.

    Definitely sticking with this series. It’s a real highlight each week.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.