Tuesday, October 26, 2010

R.E.M. -- Songs You Should Know

In honor of today's release of the DVD of R.E.M.'s performance on Austin City Limits, I've compiled a short list of my favorite, somewhat lesser-known, R.E.M. songs in chronological order from the early 80s to today.

(Carnival of Sorts) Boxcars
Sometimes it seems impossible to explain why one song just grabs you and doesn't let go some three decades later. There is nothing clearly revelatory about this song, it doesn't break new ground, except....there was something to the relentless, propulsive beat, the faintly muffled, often incomprehensible lyrics, the folky harmonies, and the lyrical, famously jangly Peter Buck guitar. I wish I understood music better to know what it is about the drumbeat in the "cages under cage" part at 2:01 that is so...cool.

Perfect Circle
One of the many things I love about R.E.M. is that their lyrics are vague enough to be open to your own interpretation, yet meaningful enough to engender strong reactions.  I don't know for a fact what the band intended this song to mean, but it is, for me, an intensely emotional song.  Perfect Circle is off of their first full length album, Murmur.   If you don't have it, click on the link and buy it.  Now.  Rolling Stone ranked it as one of the top 100 albums of the last 20 years and they're probably not as biased as I am.

I love the mood and tone of this song, the lilting melody.  The vision it creates of that perfect circle "of acquaintances and friends" is so romantic and warm and inviting.  The song has been attributed to the band's drummer, Bill Berry, who left the group suddenly in 1997 after suffering a life-threatening brain hemorrhage.  He probably wrote the music, while the confusing, seemingly random lyrics seem pure Stipe.

"There's a splinter in your eye, it reads react" is probably my favorite song lyric not written by John Lennon. This from a band who as of yet didn't want their lyrics to be understood.  From the album, Reckoning, Harborcoat is the quintessential R.E.M. song -- layered guitars, fast percussion, the Southern feel in both the lyrics and the melody, and a counter-song sung as "harmony." I can't even begin to point out the little nuggets in the song. Just the "chh chh" sounds before the last chorus kill me.

Driver 8
This is simply a perfect song.  It almost defies description.  It certainly doesn't need me setting the stage or putting it in any context.  It's from the album Fables of the Reconstruction which is another of those rare albums that is as good today as it was when it came out and each song on it is a treasure.  This song is so atmospherically dense that you can feel yourself transported to the South from wherever you are.  The images the song evokes are so vivid, I can't tell you why every line sticks with me so many years after I first heard them - Powerlines have floaters so the airplanes won't get snagged.  He piloted this song in a plane like that one.  We can reach our destination, but we're still a ways away. 

Welcome to the Occupation
With Document, R.E.M.'s fifth album, they brought their political beliefs much more into the forefront. A band that at first did not seem to care whether people could understand their lyrics were now plaintively wailing "listen to me." The song takes the idea of a wall of sound and makes it a wall of Stipe. It's layer upon layer of his voice, all ranges, providing his own harmonies. Supported, as always, by the rough, solid bass and drum lines, counterbalanced by the almost lazy, fluid guitar. It was that mixture that made them hard to label, the drums and bass say rock, the vocals and the guitar are more folk yet together it was something different altogether.

Country Feedback
Such longing, such sadness. I had to include an extra version.  The top video is from the Bridge Schoo Benefit that Neil Young runs and he made a wonderful contribution to the song.  The second video is from REM's second MTV Unplugged show.  Stipe's voice, a little rough around the edges, a little weary, conveys such feelings of pain and loss. Everyone who's ever been in a failed relationship can relate to this song. This is also a good chance to give a nod toward Peter Buck, who gets so little attention for his guitar playing, and Mike Mills on the keyboard whose beautiful piano melody carries the song on the album.  And, parenthetically, how beautiful is Stipe? "It's crazy what you could have had." Yikes.

The entire Automatic for the People album is a must-have for any music fan. But, in the interest of brevity, I'll only pick two songs from this amazing compilation. The first is an old fashioned rock song. Loud, angry, it has some of my favorite lyrics including the line "I know that this is vitriol, no solution, spleen-venting, but I feel better having screamed, don't you?" We all have felt that way, politically speaking, and though Stipe is coming from the Left while I hang out along the right side of the spectrum, I respect his right to complain.  Especially when he does it so powerfully.

Find the River
Hard to imagine these two songs share space on the same album, but that's what makes R.E.M. the greatest rock band ever. This song could not have more heart, more yearning, more hope if it was a Hallmark Channel movie of the week. Every instrument, including the most powerful one, Stipe's voice, serves this song to tell its story.  This is the definitive song for when you are about to embark on some life-changing endeavor.  The song sounds like a river, slow, gentle, flowing.  The line "I have got to leave to find my way" could not be any more poignant, or true. 

So Fast, So Numb
This one you have to hear on the album. It's on New Adventures in Hi Fi and it is simply one of the most amazing songs ever written.  His voice on the record is so pained, so raw, and the piano provides such comfort and support.  Unfortunately, this is one of the few songs of theirs that I do not like live all that much. There's too much shouting in the live version. I hate the way he sings "motel BOY." Yes, even Stipe is fallible (Stand, Underneath the Bunker, Shiny Happy People, the evidence is out there, people), but it is unfortunate that I can't find a live version that does justice to this song. On the album, it's a more delicate song. Click here for the original song.  The chorus is so beautiful, it's almost hidden in the over-the-top loudness of the live venue. At least at the end, when the instruments cut out, you get a sense of the real power of the song. It just grabs me so fast, so numb, that I can't even feel.

With Mike Mills' lovely piano playing backing Michael Stipe's singing and lines like "you might eclipse the moon tonight" it is somewhat of a love song, if only directed to Hollywood and the last century. Living in LA and knowing Stipe wrote it after living here and experiencing one of our earthquakes, makes it just a little bit more special to me.

Walk Unafraid
I love the vulnerability of the lyrics. This live version of the song from their album Up only amplifies how exposed he is as he opens up to us about his struggles in life. I'm reminded of the Hulk, as he tears open his clothes to release his pent-up rage.  Here he is willing to share with the listener the real person underneath the facade and encourage us to do the same. But, aside from the empowering lyrics, you have another example of R.E.M.'s subtle musical brilliance. That combination from earlier -- percussive and forceful, gentle and comforting -- is a hallmark of the R.E.M. sound. Celebrate the contradiction.

I'll Take the Rain
From the album Reveal, this is an anthemic song that I have tried not to love. It seems a little manipulative, but if it is, then I've fallen for it. I'm a sucker -- for his voice, for the piano, for the lyrics.  I love the way the song builds, it just keeps adding layers till the big finish, "as birds take wing, they sing through life, so why can't we?"

And a little extra, out of order chronologically, is this song. My favorite cover of theirs.  It's by another Athens, Georgia based alternative rock band from the early, early 80s, Pylon.  I love how Peter Buck sounds like he's playing dueling guitars.  The guy is very underrated; maybe if he ever broke out in a sweat people would realize that he's pretty damn good.

If you don't own any of the albums from which these songs originate, the highlighted titles are links to buy them.  You'll be glad you did.


  1. All hail the Skydog King who takes the rain... was a huge REM fan in college. I remember riding around in my 72 VW Super Beetle with the sunroof rolled back listening to Mr. Stipe & company. Ahhh...memories!!

    Can I get a CJ question now?


  2. Ok...first song I listened to was Boxcars. I liked this song very much. Lyrics plus melody made me think of Hobo's on boxcars on trains, getting on and off in different towns and never really being home. "Boxcars are pulling a carnival of sorts"....hobos being the carnival. They can be very entertaining. Can't always understand what they're saying... cages under cage? Maybe the boxcar is one cage and the whole train is cages. Even before I heard the song when I read "Boxcars" that’s the first thing I thought of is Hobo's. And I was a hobo many times for halloween. So easy...grungy clothes, black soot on your face, a hobo type hat, a stick with a bandana tied at the end slung over your shoulder. Maybe it was inevitable that I would think of Hobo's when seeing the word "Boxcars".

    Next...Perfect Circle. What the what? Sounds like they were making it up as they went along (my opinion...I tried extra hard to like it because I know you love it, I could hear no romance in either either). The it made me think...what song did you think was extremely romantic in the 80's... and it was Mandolin Rain. Was that from the 80's? I always thought that was a very romantic song. This song just didn't move me. But you do....so....don’t worry.

    Harborcoat...what? First of all, Lil' A, any Christian who has done their share of studying the bible is going to hear "splinter in your eye, it reads react" is going to think of a verse in Mathew that is pointing out a hypocrite... "first take the plank out of your own eye and then you will see clearly the splinter in your friends eye" (or spec, or dust...whatever)...like the pot calling the kettle black sort of thing. This to me, although not jazz, reminds me of some jazz where it just sounds like the musicians are warming up but it's really a song. For me, there's just too much going on here. Too many layers... hurt my head. But, love you!

    Driver 8 ... Score! I liked this one and it made me think of me and (sorry) Casey. It's hard to get out of the Christian mindset - believing in God, you tend to give Him all the "leader" roles when working with metaphors or symbolism. Captain (God), Teacher (God), Conductor? God and ways of travel His journey for us. And I found the whole chorus... "Train Conductor says take a break Driver 8 (me, Casey), we've been on this shift too long (way of thinking, way life is going, how we're approaching things), and the train Conductor says, take a break Driver 8, driver 8 take a break, we can reach out destination but we're still a ways away (slow down, we'll get there, I'll get you there). Really makes me think of Casey - like he's got some insight into himself and his life and to what the conductor wants for him that we all can't understand. He's taking his break and he knows the conductor will get him there but he's still a ways away. Hate to bring Casey into the equation, but he popped into my mind.


  3. At this point in my lesson I started listening to the song first before I read your commentary so that I wouldn't be confused by your intentionally magic voodoo words.

    Welcome to the Occupation - No. no. no. First one I couldn't make it through. Again too much going on. I liked the melody - but again, too many layers piled on it and the lyrics I could barely understand and when I did catch a word here in there made no sense since I didn't understand the 10 before it. However, hearing these songs with so much going on makes me realize why I've always liked (even before Casey) straight, gnarly guitar solo's all my life. It's like music for dummies....LOL. It's just there...one instrument to listen to. I should write a book. Just read your commentary, isn't that interesting? I find it so interesting (in a wonderful way) that the things you love about this song are the things you dislike. Isn't it amazing to think everything we've ever been through in our lives, every one's that touched us or taught us, every experience, everything we've read and learned might have everything to do with what kind of music we like ? And as soon as I typed that I thought...wouldn't it be even MORE amazing if it's something more primal than that... that has absolutely nothing to do with any of that ...it just "is". Ok...gotta stop with all the thinking Marie. Next!

    Country Feedback - Now we're talking. My favorite so far. Loved the melody all the way through. Didn't always know what he was saying but was moved...even teared up. The one lyric that I could understand and did stick out (before I googled the lyrics) was "crazy what you could've had" (if that's what he was saying, made me think as everything does lately about all the regrets and missteps I have taken) and I liked Stipe's voice in this song, a lot. It sounded passionate and raw and I could feel it. For me that's not usually how I interpret his voice. But again, for me, too much going on under his voice...would have liked this a lot more stripped down - too much! But what have we here? An honest to goodness, straight up lead guitar solo packed with emotion and passion? LOVE IT! Now, I'll go read your commentary....I love doin' it this way...waiting to read what you wrote. Same line stuck out to us both. I did google the lyrics...had no idea the lyrics were about a breakup but could feel the lyrics were about loss. Now, THAT IS MUSIC.

    By the way....I'm closing my eyes... or looking down at my notepad. Don't want to watch him because that interferes with my listening. LOL. Just FYI.

    Ignoreland - UM, WHAT? I thought I would love this song because that is a great song title, but couldn't make it thru 1 full minute, couldn't understand a word he was saying and as usually too much going on (for me) but I thought it sounded even busier than normal because of the sound quality on this live performance so I thought I'd give it another chance so tried to find the studio version on youtube but I couldn’t. So, listened for some more and just heard gibberish. Look up the lyrics and it is gibberish. LOL. Sorry. This one is a no go for me. Gonna read your voodoo words... even the lyric you quoted sounds gibberish to me.


  4. Find the River - I want to love this one because I think some of the lyrics are beautiful, "I have to leave to find my way" says so much in just 8 words. But, for me, the melody and lyrics do not go together. And again, there's too much covering his voice...and the background singing..."aaahhhhh" too much, not needed. You're going to hate me, but sometimes for me I imagine Michael Stipe saying "okay, how can I make this sound quirky and different" not that IT IS quirky and different in an organic way but in a contrived way. That's always been my problem with REM. To be honest, I'm liking some of the songs more than I thought. I like the lyrics on this one but not the melody - they don't seem to mesh. Like 2 different songs. But I liked the pretty scenery in the video. Now, on to the voodoo.... We don't agree on much on this song, except that one line. I love it! People are so different!

    So fast, so numb - I like this one a lot. Can't understand a word he's saying until I can....and when I can I love it! No, this is hear, this is me, this is what I wanted you to see. Love this part where he's talking/singing.... this will sound a little strange but every now and then during this part he sounds like Bob Dylan. LOL. I know it's weird, but it sounded like Bob Dylan with energy. Now truly I could not understand anything he was saying until the talking/singing part - but again. what's with the background singing "ahhhhhhhawwwwww" it's just noise to me. It's not needed, it's like he wants the band to have something to sing...so let's all "ahhhhh". At least this was more straightforward than most songs and not so layered and messy. So, now I will look up the lyrics and read what I couldn't understand...what the what? Like the melody, again, that boy is all sorts of strange talented poetic. Now, your commentary...Oh, I wish I could hear the studio version. Maybe I'll even buy it from Itunes so I can hear it!

    Electrolite - Like the melody and the words. But, um, banjo? Banjo just ruined it for me...is that what I've been hearing in all these songs? And the tambourine seems out of place too. I have to admit I'm starting to get a headache and it's not from them so much as all the thinking I have to do during their songs cuz there's no many things going on at once and I'm trying to catch it all. He does sound a little bored during this song...no emotion...maybe this one should have been so bored, no banjo. LOL! Am glad I'm not reading your magic meant to confuse commentary beforehand anymore because I would have not typed my "banjo" comments. I know we have a big difference in our opinion of REM, but I still love the fact that people are so different.


  5. Walk Unafraid - Lyrics? A+ Love them.... melody (except for the first 4 lines he sang...when he went slow) was a weird again. And remember what I said earlier about sometimes jazz sounds like the musicians are just all warming up at the same time.... there's a lot of that in this song. I'm sure the things I dislike are the things that most professional musicians love about REM - that they have so many things going on at once, that melodies and lyrics are often so different, but I'm a simple girl. I loved the lyrics, honest and vulnerable. Please don't often share this side of themselves. It's there, hidden underneath for all of us. Clumsy. What a great word. I am clumsy even in my writing but it is honestly me. Can't wait till we meet and you'll see that I'm just as scattered in my speech. Voodoo - see I love it "celebrate the contradiction" - YOU LOVE that the melodies are layered and are so different than the lyrics. You are much more sophisticated than I am. Oh thank God, only 2 more....

    I'll Take the Rain - I love this. Lyrics and melody are both beautiful. It's not so busy. Pure and simple and he sounds sincere. I have nothing bad to say about this song (suddenly I feel like an american idol judge). I seem to always like songs with a rain theme or about rain in them....like Mandolin Rain. I'll take the rain, if being with you means I have to go through rain to get to the sun...I'll take the rain. Now...on to the commentary! I liked this one from the beginning, found it sincere and real and you found it manipulative. Is there ice running through those veins? LOL.

    Crazy - The guitar intro sounded quite similar to "this one goes out to the one I love...". Am not sure if I can form a proper opinion (my own) at this time for two reasons, well 3. It sound busy again, I've got a little headache and I'm very hungry and it keeps talking about being hungry. Not a fan of this song but I'll try again another day and see if it's just my hunger and the fact I've been at this for a couple hours that are affecting me.

    I would like to end that the opinions in the above and prior email in no way represent my love and affection for you, oh-wise-REM-lover. In fact, it just reaffirms how wonderful you are because I still like you despite your poor taste. OMG, I couldn't resist. I'm just teasing!!