Superman

October 31, 2007

“Superman” doesn’t quite qualify as a bonus track, but it’s not exactly the proper conclusion of Lifes Rich Pageant. Coming on after a brief period of silence after the somber “Swan Swan H,” the cheery tune serves as an encore of sorts for the record. Though R.E.M. made a habit of significantly altering the tone of many of the songs they covered in the ’80s, “Superman” is rather faithful to the original studio recording by the Clique. This is most likely due to the incredible obscurity of the source material, but also probably because there’s really not a lot to fix. The song is perfectly formed, and any shift in tone would disrupt the irony of a perky song about a creepy guy who wishes that he had the powers of Superman so that he could more effectively stalk a girl. Though Michael Stipe appears on the track, Mike Mills’ voice dominates the recording, and he sells both the meekness and the sinister edge of the song’s character without tipping too far in either direction.

Dark Globe

July 30, 2007

“Dark Globe” is the most emotionally devastating song of Syd Barrett‘s short and often brilliant career, in part because it’s the one that most perfectly encapsulates his frail, somewhat child-like expression of both joy and sadness. In the late ’80s, the song became a staple of R.E.M.’s live shows, most often appearing in the second or third encore, just before the end of the night. The band’s version was more streamlined than Barrett’s, translating its peculiar rhythms to a simple, sentimental piano arrangement and a vocal performance by Michael Stipe that was mostly sweet, and occasionally off-key. The studio version sounds a bit dashed off, but nails its emotional tone, particularly in the way Stipe sings the words as though he is the saddest little boy in all of the world. “Won’t you miss me? Wouldn’t you miss me at all?” It’s a bit cartoonish and lacks the context and weight of the Barrett recording, but it’s heartbreaking all the same.

King Of The Road

May 27, 2007

It may be a bit more fair to categorize R.E.M.’s version of Roger Miller‘s “King of the Road” as an improvisation rather than a straight cover. The band seem to only have a passing familiarity with Miller’s 1965 country and western hit — Michael Stipe only sings its first verse and flubs some of the lines, and Mike Mills shouts out the chord changes as they go along. It’s a mess, for sure, but the laid back, tossed off performance allows the listener a rare opportunity to hear R.E.M. goof off in a rehearsal. If only the band allowed themselves to sound so loose and informal more often — Michael’s voice is especially gorgeous on the chorus, and the recording has a lovely, ramshackle charm that suits the no-frills character of the song.

Crazy

May 17, 2007

This is kind of an understatement, but back in the 1980s, R.E.M. played a lot of covers. Many of them were one-off deals and piss-takes, but as the decade progressed, an elite number of these songs were performed with such regularity that it seemed as though the band had adopted them as their own. The group gave most of those tunes dramatic make-overs that nudged the distinct style of artists like Iggy Pop or Suicide closer to their own aesthetic, but in the case of Pylon’s “Crazy,” the song was already so similar to the band’s established sound that their version seems as though it could be an R.E.M. original.

The similarities were not at all accidental. R.E.M. were always open about their admiration for Pylon, and it’s rather clear that they had gained a great deal of inspiration from their murky arpeggios, shifting beats, and nonlinear, deliberately esoteric lyrics. Pylon also hailed from Athens, Georgia, but were wrapping up their original run just around the time R.E.M. were working on Murmur, an album that would popularize a strain of post-punk particular to the American south that they had directly influenced.

R.E.M.’s version of “Crazy” is very faithful to Pylon’s original, but as they are wont to do, the group tightened up its structure just enough to make the song a bit more accessible and intuitive. The band’s studio recording was first released as the b-side to the “Driver 8” single, but found a greater audience when it became the opening track of the rarities collection Dead Letter Office in 1987.

It’s safe to assume that most people (including myself) were introduced to the song (as well as Pylon) via R.E.M., and that without that crucial bit of exposure, the group would’ve disappeared into history entirely. They remain very obscure, but it’s doubtful most anyone outside of Athens would think of them today were it not for R.E.M.’s relentless advocacy of their music.