Cuyahoga

July 2, 2007

1) Ideally, the post for “Cuyahoga” would be a field trip. I’d gather you all up and we’d go someplace beautiful on the most gorgeous day of the year. The sky would be a perfect baby blue, and it would seem enormous above us. Puffs of white clouds would hang in the air, so perfect and vivid that it would almost seem unreal. We’d be surrounded by green leaves, and water, and plants and birds and rocks and things. Anyway, we’d be there, and not here with our computers, nowhere near each other or the natural world.

2) From my review of R.E.M.’s show at Madison Square Garden on the day after George W Bush was elected to a second term:

Stipe introduced “Cuyahoga” as a song taking place in Ohio, which resulted in loud booing from all over the arena. Still, there was loud applause every time he sang the line “let’s put our heads together and start a new country up,” which was more reassuring. On my way out of the arena, I overheard two guys who looked like ex-frat dudes talk about how great it was that Michael didn’t talk much because they can’t stand “liberal whining.” Sigh. A few minutes later, I saw a cute girl in a bright orange t-shirt with homemade lettering which read “I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my Orange Crush,” which kinda sorta cancelled out those goons.

3) “Cuyahoga” may be a lament, but it’s also one of the most optimistic politically themed songs in the R.E.M. songbook. Even better, its optimism is not cheap and facile. The lyrics make a point of acknowledging the fact that we need to collaborate and work hard for change, because without that effort and emphasis on community, we stand to lose so much. This song was released in 1986. Think about how much we’ve lost — in America, around the world — since then, and how much worse it could be in another 21 years if nothing really changes.

“What If We Give It Away?” is a re-written version of a song called “Get On Their Way” that dates back to 1980. I know this only because I’ve read this several times in the past — I have never actually heard “Get On Their Way,” and so aside from obviously having very different lyrics, I don’t know how much the song changed between the time it was originally penned and when it was reworked for Lifes Rich Pageant. It’s a fine, catchy song with an airy, sunny arrangement, but as much as I enjoy it, it’s hard for me not to think of it as being a filler track. Perhaps that’s the wrong word to use — “filler” implies that it’s just taking up space and weighing the album down, but that’s not really the case. The song fits perfectly into the sequence of Lifes Rich Pageant: The music maintains the record’s breezy, early summer vibe and its words nod in the general direction of the set’s political themes. There’s very little to complain about in “What If We Give It Away?,” but it just can’t help but seem a bit minor in comparison to most of its neighboring tracks.

Hyena

May 16, 2007

About one third of Lifes Rich Pageant is comprised of tracks that were either adapted from previously scrapped songs or worked out in the studio to make up for a lack of new material. “Hyena” was originally written back in 1984, and was a concert staple on the tours for Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction before it was finally fleshed out in the studio with producer Don Gehman. They were wise to keep it under wraps for so long. The original demo, which can be heard on the bonus disc of the recent And I Feel Fine hits compilation, is more than a little undercooked. The beat is not brisk enough, the guitar tone is muddy, and the dual lead vocal is far too messy. Gehman got it exactly right — the final studio recording feels extraordinarily sunny, breezy, and streamlined. Mike Mills’ vocals are pushed into the background enough so that he barely registers until the chorus, and though the track loses a bit of its original novelty, Stipe’s superior melody and lyrics are allowed enough room to flourish.

Lyrically, “Hyena” makes much more sense in the context of Lifes Rich Pageant than it would have on either of that record’s predecessors. The song is essentially an allegory comparing the way powerful nations assert their dominance over small, impoverished regions to the ruthlessness of the food chain, which ties in nicely with the album’s general theme of connecting human politics to the natural world. However, despite the fact that it’s a rather clever satire of American foreign policy, its words may be a bit too vague and esoteric to be rhetorically effective.

Swan Swan H

April 17, 2007

A large number of R.E.M. songs from the mid-80s play around with the iconography of the American south, but “Swan Swan H” is the one tune that shows up decked out in the full regalia of a Civil War reenactment.  Whereas most other R.E.M.  tracks from the era dropped lyrical hints and nudged the listener in the direction of obscure regional language and historical references, “Swan Swan H” is rather bold and literal. Essentially, it’s a self-conscious attempt to write an straight forward folk ballad. The lyrics stick to period references (ironically, the one song actually about life during the Reconstruction does not appear on the album Fables of the Reconstruction), but they are unmistakably Stipe-ish in the way the verses side-step a clear narrative in favor of snippets of evocative imagery and odd turns of phrase. “Swan Swan H” is a fine composition with a strong, memorable melody, but if it were not, its old-timey affectations would be almost unbearably annoying and pretentious. It’s very successful as an experiment in songwriting, but the band have been wise not to revisit this aesthetic territory in the time since.

That said, this one has got to be Colin Meloy‘s favorite R.E.M. song, right?

Just A Touch

April 2, 2007

Somewhere on this planet (most likely in Missouri), there is a video cassette titled It Takes a Nation of Midgets to Hold Us Back. I filmed the majority of its contents on a camcorder in 1996, and it was intended to be a gift for an acquaintance of my friend Todd, who filmed everything else, and appears in most of the scenes. The idea was to show her around the Hudson Valley and (hopefully) to make her laugh. It’s a weird tape, full of goofy tangents and jokes that were probably only really funny to the two of us at that moment in time. She never actually received the tape. I held on to it for the longest time, and now Todd has it. He and I are not currently in touch, and I’ll probably never watch it again.

I mention all of this because “Just A Touch” is very prominently featured at the beginning of the tape. We kick off the movie in the same way that we began all our little adventures — riding in Todd’s Suzuki Swift down Main Street in my home town. Normally, this part of Cold Spring is very quaint and bustling with tourists from the city shopping for antiques and whatnot, but on this particular winter day, the town looks miserable, grey, empty, and nearly inhabitable. “Just A Touch” plays over the car stereo — my selection, my tape — and the contrast between its wild, cheerful tone and the bleak imagery is (unintentionally) hilarious.

“Just A Touch” is one of the rowdiest, most joyful numbers in the entire R.E.M. discography, and though it appears on 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, it actually dates back to their pre-Chronic Town period as a party band in Athens, Georgia. If I recall correctly, it’s got something to do with Michael Stipe’s confused recollection of the day Elvis Presley died, but the lyrics are besides the point — it’s all about the spirit of the performance, and the reckless enthusiasm expressed in every moment of the recording. Stipe sounds especially unhinged, particularly toward the end when he’s totally flipping out before seeming to fall over with his final shout: “I’m so goddamn young!!!” Few songs sound as fully alive as “Just A Touch,” and if the Presley thing is true, the King couldn’t have asked for a more fitting tribute.