You know that oft-quoted Brian Eno line about how the Velvet Underground‘s first album sold about a thousand copies when it was released, but everyone that heard it went out and started a band? R.E.M. are not one of those bands, but rather the progeny of that first wave of Velvet Underground acolytes. I’m pretty sure that the band, and most especially Peter Buck, were acutely aware of this lineage, and it comes through in all of the band’s VU covers.  Like a majority of R.E.M.’s cover versions in the ’80s, their arrangements for Velvet Underground tunes seemed intent on reverse-engineering them in order to uncover their connections to the mainstream pop of the 50s and early 60s, kinda like a form of musical genealogy. This is especially true of their take on “There She Goes Again” from the Velvets’ debut album — stripped of Lou Reed’s tough guy/poet affectations, the song is neat and streamlined into pure bubblegum.

“Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale” are a slightly different matter. For both songs, the arrangements are reasonably close approximations of the Velvet Underground versions, but Michael Stipe’s approach to the vocals is rather sentimental and straight-forward compared to the original performances by Reed and Nico, respectively. I actually heard R.E.M.’s version of “Femme Fatale” before I’d encountered the VU recording, and I’ve got to tell you, I was pretty surprised when I realized that Stipe’s performance was a lot more traditionally feminine than Nico’s aloof Teutonic intonation. Stipe’s versions eliminate the more subversive qualities of the songs, but I have to be honest — I’ve always found his take on both songs to be far more emotionally affecting.

It’s a shame that R.E.M.’s best and most interesting Velvet Underground cover was never tracked in a studio. “After Hours,” a gem from the Velvets’ self-titled album, is a lonely, melancholy song about fantasizing about the fun and glamor in other peoples’ lives, but as covered by R.E.M., it’s all goof and fluff. It’s a rare case of a band gutting the most emotionally affecting aspects of a song, investing it with a completely different meaning, and making it work. In R.E.M.’s context, “After Hours” was their cheeky farewell song, the thing they played at the end of a majority of their concerts in the late 80s. They recast the tune as a music hall/cabaret showstopper, and often allowed the song to collapse upon itself in multiple fake-out endings. I can’t imagine how fun it must have been to see the band end their shows in this way — silly, giddy, humble, weird, and a tiny bit sad. Seeing in that it’s probably never going to be performed by the band ever again, I can only hope to experience it vicariously via the ending of the Tourfilm video.


June 17, 2008

“Photograph” was written for Automatic For The People, but for whatever reason, it was abandoned and completed later on with Natalie Merchant for inclusion on the pro-choice benefit album Born To Choose. (This was a pretty nice record, by the way — it also featured a spirited live recording of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” by Matthew Sweet, and “Greenlander,” one of Pavement’s all-time best non-album tracks.) Stylistically, it’s more or less exactly what a somewhat cynical person might expect of R.E.M. in the early ’90s: Mid-tempo yet perky, and almost a bit too tasteful in its arrangement. The song is very well crafted and incredibly ingratiating, but it’s not hard to understand why it was cast aside — it’s a bit too neutral in tone for Automatic For The People, and it’s perhaps one step too far into inoffensive, toothless coffee shop pop.

Despite only contributing some backing vocals and co-writing the lyrics, Natalie Merchant has a rather overpowering presence on the track, to the point that its general aesthetic edges closer to that of her band the 10,000 Maniacs than R.E.M. This is most apparent in the lyrics, which speculate on the life of some smiling stranger in a photograph found by chance. It’s a nice, albeit extremely precious concept, but many of the lines fall flat due to Merchant’s penchant for a plain-spoken obviousness. Her approach is accessible and pleasant, but it’s not particularly poetic or charming, and the end product comes out seeming a bit flat and overly twee, especially in comparison to the majority of Stipe’s output in that period.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” has a utility in R.E.M.’s live repertoire, and it’s been the same since very, very early on in their career: You are getting rained on, and they are playing the song because they kinda feel bad for you. It’s a bit funny, it’s a bit jerky. Earlier this evening I happened to be at an R.E.M. show that was delayed by a severe, torrential rain storm. Inevitably, they started the show with the song, and then it kept raining and it didn’t stop until the final notes of the last song of the night. In case you were wondering: Yes, I most definitely saw the rain.


May 28, 2008

You probably don’t know “Harpers.” It’s not an R.E.M. song, but Michael Stipe co-wrote it with the band Hugo Largo, and it appeared on that band’s Stipe-produced debut EP Drum. That’s not the reason why the song is included on this site, though. Between Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe, there are quite a few random collaborations that ought to be considered non-canonical; “Harpers” gets the nod because Stipe performed the song a cappella at the overwhelming majority of R.E.M. concerts between 1986 and 1990. The tune normally popped up at some point in the encores — this was back in the day when R.E.M. could be expected to play as many as four sets of encores on any given night — and was relatively brief, rarely cracking the two minute mark. It’s a gorgeous song, but not quite within Michael’s range, and it forced him to reach up to the tippy top of his highest register, usually with mildly embarrassing results. Weirdly enough, this was something Stipe seemed to enjoy doing during this period — you can hear him do the same thing on “Dark Globe” and “After Hours,” and he’d toss it into his own songs here and there. It’s kinda adorable, but also a bit annoying.

Thanks to Kirsten.

The Great Beyond

May 22, 2008

“The Great Beyond” is the closest thing to a sequel in the R.E.M. discography. The song was composed for the soundtrack of Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon, and its thematic and musical continuity with the band’s hit of the same name does not seem like an accident. Whereas “Man On The Moon” grounds the spiritual quest of its agnostic protagonist in folksy chords and country affectations,  the mild psychedelia of “The Great Beyond” seems to launch its character deep into the cosmos. It’s still the same journey, but “The Great Beyond” is just further along — Kaufman remains a sort of patron saint, but this time around,  he’s not called out by name. Instead, by being less specific, we get to the heart of why Kaufman was invoked in the first place: Michael Stipe is essentially characterizing the artist — any artist, but he chose comedians, probably because they are seldom taken seriously — as a person whose job it is to interpret the world, and attempt to suss out its meaning. “Man On The Moon” is loose enough to be universal; it could be anyone’s search for truth and reason, but “The Great Beyond” emphasizes the notion that any sort of understanding must spring from intuition, creativity, and courage.


April 27, 2008

Though I will always remain baffled by the band’s decision to leave “It’s A Free World, Baby” in non-album limbo, it’s not all that hard to understand why “Fretless” was discarded despite its obvious quality. The problem of “Fretless” is that while it is exceptionally good at evoking this potent, heartbreaking melodrama, it just seems so maudlin in the context of other R.E.M. songs, particularly those on Out Of Time. If it was going to work anywhere, it’d be Automatic For The People, but as far as songs about familial dissolution go, “Sweetness Follows” is far more successful, in part because it doesn’t seem to be actively tugging on the listener’s heart strings. Interestingly, “Fretless” may be the saddest song to ever feature a vocal performance by Kate Pierson — she sounds atypically cold and distant, but she ought to given that she’s standing in for the voice of the mother in this broken family.

All The Right Friends

April 22, 2008

I can’t be fair with “All The Right Friends.” It’s a competent but unremarkable bit of R.E.M. juvenilia that has been totally poisoned for me by its context. First, the song was resurrected from obscurity for the soundtrack of  the utterly dire Tom Cruise vehicle Vanilla Sky. Okay, fine, whatever, it’s not as if the movie really reflects on the quality of the song either way. It was probably a favor, who cares, move on. But then, FOR SOME REASON, the band decided to include it as a track on In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003, which is a very problematic thing if you happen to take greatest hits records even a little bit seriously. First, it makes a lie of that album’s title twice over — most obviously, it’s entirely anachronistic. Not only does the song predate Murmur, its very presence among songs written much later in the band’s career is extremely jarring. Secondly, the song is plainly not the best of anything! Several excellent, highly worthy hits from the 1988-2003 period — “Bang and Blame,” “Pop Song 89,” “Turn You Inside-Out,” “Get Up,” “Drive,” the enormously popular “Shiny Happy People” — were omitted from In Time in order to make room for this totally mediocre tune that wasn’t good enough for the IRS records the first time around. It’s just ridiculous. The only real justification for pushing this song at that point in the band’s career was to make an appeal to old school fans desperate for another taste of the band back in their salad days.  Otherwise, it makes no sense at all.


April 3, 2008

“Animal” is a rare and precious thing: A hard rocking R.E.M. song written and recorded after the departure of Bill Berry in 1997, and before the Accelerate sessions in 2007.  Of course, it’s not exactly a conventional rocker — though it gets nice and crunchy on the chorus, most of the song is a cosmic haze carried by a lead guitar hook that somewhat resembles the piano part from “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream.” Lyrically and musically, it’s the closest the band have come to straight-up sci-fi — as  Michael Stipe ponders the future, messages from alien visitors, and the 4th dimension,  the band evoke the feeling of hurtling through time and space, and vibrating at the speed of light. It’s a strange, delirious tune that seems to delight in its own awe and confusion. It’s pretty funny, too — when faced with the promise of truth and salvation via divine/alien intervention, Stipe simply utters a deadpan, Keanu-esque “…whoa!”


February 20, 2008

If “Losing My Religion” can be understood as a portrait of a person who has been driven into paranoia by an infatuation they believe to be rather hopeless, “Romance” is like the sensation of a perky, confident crush that leaves the brain a bit scrambled, albeit in a totally pleasant sort of way. All the feeling is in the sound of the music and the voices; the lyrics are cryptic to the point of seeming nonsensical. Nevertheless, there are some great images that don’t quite connect on a literal level — I particularly enjoy the line about putting heads down on desks, it takes me back to elementary school– but they all flow together like jump-cut, re-arranged scenes from some lost ’80s romantic comedy.

It’s rather fitting that this one was indeed recorded for a soundtrack back in the ’80s, but the film is so obscure that I doubt anyone but the most obsessive R.E.M. enthusiasts have viewed it in the past twenty-odd years. (I sure as hell haven’t seen it.) I’m not up on the movie’s plot, but I like to think that it’s about a pair of mis-matched adjunct professors who fall in love in some sleepy college town, and get caught up in some far-flung screwball adventure.

Permanent Vacation

February 18, 2008

“Permanent Vacation” dates back to R.E.M.’s earliest days as a local party band. There’s a lot of other songs from that period that will not be covered on this site, but “Permanent Vacation” makes the cut mainly because for some reason, the band chose to rescue it from obscurity, and made it a setlist staple on their last two tours. Well, I can guess at the reason — it’s a carefree rave-up and it’s probably fun to play, it’s a way of reconnecting with their roots, and it’s a treat for the geeks who’ve got all the old bootleg tapes.  It’s cute. But if we’re being very honest about this, it’s not much of a song. At best, it’s a fun bit of juvenelia, and at worst, it’s just a party rocker by numbers. There’s nothing in particular to dislike about it, and it zooms by awfully quickly, but I’d be lying to you if I told you that I didn’t resent that I’ve seen the band play this song, but I’ve never seen them perform a single track from Murmur.

It’s A Free World, Baby

November 24, 2007

I don’t know why “It’s A Free World, Baby” is not on Out Of Time. It just doesn’t make sense. The song is distinct, fully formed, and superior to all but maybe four of the tracks that actually appear on the record, but something compelled R.E.M. to cast it aside. I suppose that it could be an issue of thematic consistency — though the arrangement most certainly fits the chamber pop aesthetic of Out Of Time, its oblique, infantilized lyrics stray far from the album’s theme of love and romance. Still, it’s very hard to fathom that they would be so willing to resign such a beautifully composed piece of music to obscurity. The string arrangement matches the tunefulness of “Shiny Happy People,” but the structure of the piece is odd and quirky, skipping between moments of bubblegum pop and mysterious passages that emphasize a playful tension in the rhythm section. Mike Mills dominates the track — his fluid bass lines carry the piece in every section, and his call and response in the chorus reinforces that hook, and plays up the song’s aloof yet goofy quality.

See No Evil

October 31, 2007

Make no mistake — Television’s “See No Evil” is a classic, and the original recording on Marquee Moon is probably the most perfect that band ever recorded aside from that album’s epic title track. Nevertheless, the song is so perfectly suited to R.E.M. that when they performed it, it sounded as though the song was written specifically for them. Though they certainly lose the subtle disco-ish rhythm of the Television recording, R.E.M. fully integrated the song into their ’80s style, with Peter Buck adapting the melodic guitar parts into this jangly aesthetic, and Mike Mills and Michael Stipe transferring the vocal interplay of the original into something that sounds like it could easily be one of their mid-80s originals. As great as it is, they couldn’t quite capture the magic of Television’s original “See No Evil,” but they certainly did a wonderful job of making it their own.


September 18, 2007

For obvious reasons, I recently spent a bit of time looking at the “missed connections” ads on Craigslist. It’s kinda depressing, honestly. For one thing, a lot of them aren’t proper “missed connections” ads — many of the posts I’ve seen are cryptic messages to people who they seem to already know, which, uh, seems like cheating, maybe? Most that I’ve read over the weekend were just creepy, lecherous, and deeply unnecessary public records of people ogling each other without putting forth any effort to communicate. These aren’t “missed connections” so much as refused, deferred, or abandoned connections, you know? The best ads come close to the ideal presented in “Chance,” an R.E.M. outtake that stretches a single idea — Michael Stipe reads (presumably fictional) “missed connection” ads in a deadpan monotone over a repetitive groove that sounds a bit like a cheery version of Suicide — into an amiable, albeit mildly annoying song. Stipe’s line readings are mostly quite funny, and the words do well to capture the most beautiful and appealing element of the ads — simple language, vivid concrete details, and the mundane sadness and quiet desperation that informs every single one of them.

I’d kind of love to know the reason why R.E.M. abandoned this song back in the mid-80s.  I mean, it’s not an obviously brilliant piece of music, but there’s clearly some potential. What could have been the deal breaker, the thing that made the group collectively give up on it, especially in the midst of recording Lifes Rich Pageant, an album that reinvented several older songs in order to fill out its running order? While it’s true that the somewhat murky tone of “…Two Steps Onward” would have been out of place along with the generally sunny, upbeat numbers on that record, but a reworked version could have made sense on Document. That said, the song does sort of sleepwalk from one part to another, and though its prominent bass line has a distinct charm, Peter Buck’s guitar chords aren’t particularly inspired. Without Michael Stipe’s vocals, the song might just sound like a random, anonymous indie band, and I can see why that would be reason enough to toss it aside.

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.

Bad Day

June 6, 2007

Pro: “Bad Day” is a catchy little rock and roll song that is basically a dry run for “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” one of the band’s most enduring and well-loved hits. If they had completed in 1986, it would have been a worthy addition to Lifes Rich Pageant, though certainly not one of the best tracks on that album.

Con: It was shelved for well over a decade and reworked as a single in support of In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003, a rather dreadful compilation that somehow drops the ball on the no-brainer task of putting together a hits record drawing on the band’s most commercially successful period. The inclusion of “Bad Day” (as well as the early ’80s rarity “All The Right Friends”) directly contradicts the title of the collection, and its presence on the record takes up space for songs that ought to be on an R.E.M. greatest hits record — “Pop Song 89,” “Drive,” “Bang and Blame,” and “Shiny Happy People,” which is one of the band’s most iconic and highest charting singles.

The problem of In Time is the problem of far too many “hits” records to come out in recent years — it allows the artist to omit songs that embarrass them, and it is designed to draw in hardcore fans with unreleased material rather than simply offer the most popular songs in one package for casual listeners. A good hits album should be a primer for new fans, a trophy cabinet showing off the artist’s deep catalog of quality singles, and something that works well in a jukebox at a bar. In Time is a miserable failure, but Eponymous and And I Feel Fine get it exactly right. (I mean, think about it — “All The Right Friends” and “Bad Day” aren’t good enough to fit in on either of those collections, so why the hell should they be anachronisms on the later compilation?)

Pro: The “broadcast me a joyful noise…” lead-up to the chorus is a thrill every time, and “the auctioneer is such a creep” line is a fun nod to longtime fans.

Con: There’s something kinda sad and depressing about the fact that the band chose to finish up this song out of everything lying around in their back catalog. It seems like they were totally desperate for a hit, and decided “hey, well, we have this song that’s kinda like “It’s The End Of The World…” and that’s about it. It’s one part cheap nostalgia, and two parts them working out a way to pander to old school fans while also saying “hey, this is an old song, we don’t write tunes like this anymore.” It’s too wishy washy.

Pro: Even if it’s technically an old song, it’s good to hear Mike Mills offering so much in terms of backing vocals. I can’t understand why he’s backed out of that role in recent years when vocal harmony is so central to the appeal of the band.

Con: Ugh, that harmonica solo is kinda gross.

“Tired Of Singing Trouble” is one of R.E.M.’s more curious oddities. It was recorded during the Lifes Rich Pageant sessions, presumably as a piss-take — it’s essentially a minute of Michael Stipe singing in a quasi-gospel style over a walking bass line and seemingly improvised percussion. As far as goofy pastiches go, it’s rather high quality. The band must have thought so too since it was commonly played as an intro to “I Believe” throughout the late 80s. The song marks the beginning of Michael’s rather fruitful experimentation with gospel and soul inflections in the second half of the 80s. You can hear a bit of it on Lifes Rich Pageant and Document, but the affectation is apparent on nearly every track on Green, which I consider to be Stipe’s best album in terms of vocal performance.


April 10, 2007

Even though “Revolution” was played every night on the Monster tour, it’s easy to understand why it didn’t make it to New Adventures In Hi-Fi. It’s a fine song, but its topical lyrics strayed from the general themes of the album and were already a bit dated halfway through the tour. Also, “Revolution” would seem a bit redundant alongside “Departure,” which sounds somewhat similar, but is superior in most respects.

The hard thing to understand is why the band opted to record a sloppy, half-assed version of the song and banish it to the Batman & Robin soundtrack. Okay, fine, surely they were given a good chunk of money for that, and it probably made some people at their record label very happy. Whatever. The weird thing is that four cd EPs were released for the singles from Hi-Fi, and though the band definitely had several live recordings of the song in the can, not one of those EPs included a version of “Revolution.” The only alternative recording that has been officially released is on the (rather fantastic) concert film Road Movie, begging the question: Are R.E.M. embarrassed by this song? I don’t disagree that its best possible home was the Monster tour in specific and 1995 in general, but surely it deserved a slightly better fate.