Song of the Day, April 14: Detox Mansion by Warren Zevon

zevondetoxhygieneToday’s song finds a master storyteller making the most of his own life experience. Warren Zevon recorded only sporadically for much of his career, frequently derailed by substance abuse and stretches in rehab. After 1982’s solid offering, The Envoy, he disappeared for five years. When he returned, he did so with a vengeance. He hooked up with 3/4 of R.E.M. — guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Berry, and bassist Mike Mills — and put together one of his best albums. Sentimental Hygiene is full of wonderful moments, but the best may be a jab at the artist himself.

Detox Mansion is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the 80s frenzy of stars in rehab. Zevon opens with the wonderful, “Well I’m gone to Detox Mansion, way down on Last Breath Farm. I’ve been rakin’ leaves with Liza; me and Liz clean up the yard.” The R.E.M. boys join in the fun, providing a surging energy for Zevon’s dark but funny observations. It’s a great package, and a highlight of a long career.

Zevon has touched on his troubles on other tracks as well. On The Envoy, he sang about the compelling need to feel anything. Ain’t That Pretty At All finds him pondering throwing himself against the wall — literally — because “I’d rather feel bad than not feel anything at all.” Grim but witty, it’s a darker take on similar themes.

Enjoy the exploration of Detox Mansion and a look at things that Ain’t That Pretty At All today.

Song of the Day, October 27: Begin the Begin by R.E.M.

REMBeginToday’s song is Begin the Begin, the opening track from R.E.M.’s powerful fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant. It’s the perfect introduction to the album, a driving statement of purpose that announces the band’s growing musical diversity. After a near fanfare burst of guitar, singer Michael Stipe growls a welcome to the listeners, inviting them on a journey of discovery and active contemplation. Always a cohesive unit the players are tighter than ever. Begin the Begin is a stirring anthem to a group increasingly willing to share its opinions and a wonderful kickoff to one of their finest albums.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, May 9: Feeling Gravity’s Pull by R.E.M.

REMGravityToday’s song is Feeling Gravity’s Pull from R.E.M.’s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction. After two powerful jangle-pop, college rock discs, the band partnered with legendary folk rock producer Joe Boyd. The partnership made perfect sense, with the organic sounds of the band meshing nicely with Boyd’s mix of roots and rock experience. What listeners didn’t expect was such a potent statement of newfound vision. While the disc is a bit uneven, it expands the quartet’s sonic palette admirably, setting the stage for the musical — and commercial– force they were soon to become.

Nothing makes that more clear than the opening notes of the album, the haunting, chromatic chords of Peter Buck’s guitar that open this song. Eschewing the Byrdsian pop sounds he had become known for, Buck lays out a stark, jagged harmonic that provides a stirring framework for one of the band’s best songs. Michael Stipe’s lyrics — elliptical at the best of times — conjure up both a metaphorical and very real dream state as he explores the power of the subconscious. Also leapfrogging expectations, he sings in a near drone, allowing Buck’s guitar to provide the melody and emphasizing the dream state of the narrative voice. Mike Mills provides great harmonies on the stirring chorus as he and Bill Berry show off their chops as one of the most sympathetic rhythm sections of the 80s. The whole package is a stunning achievement with the bonus of one of the best images in 80s rock: “A Man Ray kind of sky.”

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Album of the Week, February 23: Lifes Rich Pageant by R.E.M.

REMLRPComing together in the university town of Athens, GA, R.E.M. would quickly symbolize the growing “college rock” genre. Vocalist Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck met in a local record store and bonded over common musical interests. They soon connected with bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, who had been playing together since high school. They quartet formed the band R.E.M. and quickly developed a local following. Within three years they had released a single and an EP, signed with I.R.S. records, and recorded Murmur. One of the finest debut albums of all time, it seamlessly blended their fondness for jangle-pop, folk, garage rock, and southern Gothic literature. Their organic playing, augmented by Stipe’s vague vocals — both in terms of meaning and enunciation — caught the critics by surprise. Rolling Stone declared it Album of the Year (beating out both Thriller and Synchronicity) and R.E.M. were on their way. Reckoning followed, a great album that pales only in comparison to its predecessor. Fables of the Reconstruction found the band experimenting with their sound, intentionally creating more murky soundscapes. A solid offering, it was reasonably well received.

Title Lifes Rich Pageant
Act R.E.M.
Label I.R.S. Release Date July 28, 1986
Producer Don Gehman
U.S. Chart  21 U.K. Chart  43
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. Begin the Begin
  2. These Days
  3. Fall On Me [#94]
  4. Cuyahoga
  5. Hyena
  6. Underneath the Bunker
  7. The Flowers of Guatemala
  8. I Believe
  9. What If We Give It Away?
  10. Just A Touch
  11. Swan Swan H
  12. Superman

Little in that trio of albums prepared listeners for the blast of sound on Lifes Rich Pageant. At its heart still a gothic jangle-pop gem, it brought the rhythm section forward and featured much clearer (if still often mysterious) vocals. The result is a rocking album that declared the diversity of the band, showing off their musical chops, political statements, and sheer joy in music.

Things kick off with Begin the Begin, a powerful mission statement for the album. Growling rather than mumbling, Stipe declares this to be an album of discovery. Its one of the band’s best early songs and shows off a tight group that had perfected their work together. These Days continues the declaration, offering warnings of an uprising to build a better world. Fall On Me is a song of environmental justice that somehow doubles as a sad love song. Another of the band’s best tracks, it was the disc’s only single. More overt, Cuyahoga celebrates the famous burning river with a perfect mix of the personal and political. Hyena hints at these themes of nature and environmental justice; it’s also great fun and harkens back to the garage gems the band loves. Side one wraps with the oddball Underneath the Bunker, a song of similar vein that works in context but offers the least in terms of the overall power of the album.

Nature returns in The Flowers of Guatemala, a haunting ballad that shows off the great harmonies that Stipe and Mills can create. I Believe is another mission statement, an oddly compelling list that captures the complexities of faith and inspiration. Lovely and optimistic, it buoys the album nicely; the opening banjo figure is a brilliant touch. What If We Give It Away? is a perfect follow-up, a quasi-socialist statement that ponders a world of selflessness and rejects materialism. Things liven up a gain musically with Just A Touch, a nice little rocker. Making sure to keep the southern gothic romanticism in the mix, Swan Swan H blends the naturalism of the album with a vaguely Civil War setting. It’s a beautiful, quirky song that aches with quiet power.

R.E.M. were noted for the wide variety of covers they performed live and included as B-sides and outtakes. Superman — originally by Texas garage popsters the Clique — is the first one to show up as a standard LP track. It’s a flawless song, featuring a rare lead vocal by Mike Mills. He tears it up gleefully, rounding out the disc with an overt nod to the band’s roots while leading the group through a reading that’s distinctly their own. R.E.M. would soon have a Top 10 album with a Top 10 single, followed by a lucrative (and productive) move to a major label. For this fourth disc, however, they declared themselves as concerned citizens, independent thinkers, and one truly great band.

FURTHER LISTENING: Over the course of 30 years and 15 original studio albums R.E.M. always had something interesting to offer. Even after making the difficult decision to carry on without Bill Berry — which admittedly diminished their power somewhat — they consistently turned out quality albums with at least a few real gems. Critics and fans debate the best of their output, with almost every disc showing up on somebody’s five-best-of-R.E.M. list. For me, the highlights (besides Murmur) are

  • New Adventures In Hi-Fi — overlooked and underrated, a complex, mature set of wonderful songs
  • Out of Time — their most commercial and in some ways most fun album
  • Accelerate — a fitting near farewell that showed they never lost their real spirit

As always, your mileage may vary.

Song of the Day, November 14: Shaking Through by R.E.M.

REMShakingToday’s song is Shaking Through by R.E.M., another standout track from their stellar debut, Murmur. As with most of the album, it features a murky vocal and mysterious lyrics from Michael Stipe, who serves as a fourth instrument as much as a vocalist. In this case, however, lines surge forward with the music to create a sense of determination. Opening with the compelling (and quite clear) question

Could it be that one small voice doesn’t count in the world?

the band make it clear that they want their voice to count. With 30 years of hindsight, the song serves as a  something of a blueprint for an illustrious career in music and activism.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, August 12: I Believe by R.E.M.

REMIBelieveToday’s song is I Believe by R.E.M. It appears on their powerful fourth album, the transitional Lifes Rich Pageant. The album rocks harder overall, with this song providing a folky but energetic exception. It also serves as something of a manifesto for the themes of nature, faith, and personal accountability that run throughout the disc.

Singer Michael Stipe is as mysterious as ever, but his vocals are much clearer than on previous albums, allowing listeners to make out the words more easily and interpret them as they see fit. The band provide a lovely backdrop, creating a sort of down-home anthem.

Trust in your calling, make sure your calling’s true
Think of others, the others think of you
Silly rule golden words make, practice, practice makes perfect,
Perfect is a fault, and fault lines change

I believe my humor’s wearing thin
And change is what I believe in

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, July 12: Diminished by R.E.M.

REMDiminishedToday’s song is Diminished by R.E.M. When drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, the remaining trio was left with a tough decision. They were still interested in working together, but had long maintained that R.E.M. was only the original foursome. Eventually they made peace with their new status and recorded the album Up, using session drummers and drum machines. The album begins the band’s experimentation with more electronic sounds. It’s a mixed bag, hovering at adequate, but with some strong moments that show the group’s evolution. One of the true highlights is Diminished, a quiet song about  responsibility and loss.

It’s reminiscent of the previous album’s New Test Leper, but more personal and — overall — more optimistic. Michael Stipe sings in a high, clear voice nothing like his original trademark mumble and his bandmates provide a stark, powerful backdrop for his musings.

I watched you fall
I think I pushed
Maybe I’m crazy
Maybe diminished
Maybe I’m innocent
Maybe I’m finished
Maybe I blacked out
How do I play this?

As the song fades out, Stipe adds a short acoustic fragment, the brittle I’m Not Over You, emphasizing the more melancholy aspect of the song.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, April 15: Talk About the Passion by R.E.M.

R.E.M._-_Talk_About_the_PassionToday’s song is Talk About the Passion by R.E.M. One of the finest songs on their stunning debut, Murmur, it serves as a perfect blueprint for the band’s early sound. Peter Buck’s blend of lovely acoustic work and chiming electric guitars serve as the framework for Michael Stipe’s ethereal vocals; Mike Mills provides clean bass lines and backing vocals as Bill Berry supplies some of the most subtle but significant drum work around.

The song is as mysterious as early Stipe lyrics get, but with a clear core around the line

Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.

This and the other lyrics, a mix of English and French, are repeated in a dreamy, folky swirl, building a sense of all the ways that passion can be experienced. Enjoy this delightful landmark in early “alternative” rock today.

Song of the Day, January 11: Crazy by R.E.M.

rem-crazy-irs-3Today’s song is Crazy. The original version was written and performed by Pylon, one of the founding bands of the jangle-pop sound of Southern alternative rock in the early 80s. Pylon were enormously influential and locally popular but never achieved national recognition. When Rolling Stone named R.E.M. “America’s Best Band” in 1987, drummer Bill Berry refuted the honor, saying it belonged to Pylon.

R.E.M. honored Pylon with a cover of Crazy in their live shows. It was a perfect fit, bridging the distinctive styles of both bands. The song appeared as the B-side of R.E.M.’s single Driver 8 and was included in their outtakes and oddities album, Dead Letter Office. Michael Stipe makes the most of the jittery lyrics and his bandmates are in perfect form.

You take a walk and you try to understand
Nothing can hurt you
Unless you want it to
There are no answers
Many reasons to be strong

Pylon’s version is strong, but I’m partial to R.E.M.’s take on the song. It’s a great example of a tribute rising to its own magnificent level. Enjoy this stunning live cover today.

Song of the Day, October 29: Perfect Circle by R.E.M.

Today’s song is Perfect Circle by R.E.M. It appears at the center of their brilliant debut, Murmur. With its foundation on Mike Mills’ quiet piano figure, it provides a nice contrast to the guitar-based sound of most of the album. It invokes the same feelings of detached nostalgia and timeless yearning but comes at it from a different angle. As with most early R.E.M. songs, the lyrics are obscure and elliptical, delivered in a subdued mumble that leaves them open to interpretation at every level. The atmosphere is clear, however, and Michael Stipe’s invocation of a “perfect circle of acquaintances and friends” is at once intimate and distant. Enjoy this lovely live rendering of this perfectly crafted song today.

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