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.

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Photograph

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.

Harpers

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.

Fretless

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.