Country Feedback

June 16, 2008

A lot of the time, when we think back on traumatic events, our memory holds on to the odd, seemingly trivial fragments. “Country Feedback” is partially comprised of these sort of random, evocative images; some of them come across like flashes of painful memories, the rest are the bits of scenery you may get a fix on when you can’t bear to look someone in the eye. On the printed page, they seem like non-sequiturs, but in song, they resonate, and not simply because they are stunning bits of language. (I’m particularly fond of “a paper weight, a junk garage, a winter rain, a honey pot.”) We can intuit the personal meaning, and project what we need on to these bits to make the song our own.

The remainder of the song’s lyrics are disarmingly straight-forward. Out Of Time is an album of love songs, and “Country Feedback” is love’s bitter end. Blame is passed back and forth, guilt and confusion do the singer’s head in, and he’s left battered and broken, simultaneously lamenting a million mistakes and clinging to the past. He says that he needs the relationship, but it’s plain as day: What he wants and what he needs has been confused. 

The arrangement for “Country Feedback” is more or less exactly what the title suggests: It’s a country dirge paired with a mournful electric guitar part by Peter Buck that recalls Neil Young at his most despondent. In live performance, Buck’s solo at the conclusion is extended significantly, drawing out the pain until it fades into resignation. Otherwise, the music is rather static, leaving Michael Stipe to provide the key dynamic shifts. 

A goofy note: 

Matthew Perpetua: I’m doing a big one today — “Country Feedback”

marathonpacks: Whoa

Matthew Perpetua: Or wait…
is it “Country Feedbag”?

marathonpacks: I think it’s “Country Feedbag”

Matthew Perpetua: I am pretty sure that Michael Stipe wrote it about the closing of a beloved all-you-can-eat country buffet
“it’s crazy what you could’ve had — ribs, chicken, greens!”

Shiny Happy People

May 26, 2008

Ah, yes. The most unfairly maligned song in the R.E.M. discography.

Actually, that’s not quite true: It’s actually one of the band’s biggest hits, though they’ve gone out of their way to distance themselves from it by never performing it in concert, and omitting it from their second greatest-hits collection in favor of several songs that were not even close to being popular.

Though I can understand why the song would not work well in concert — the string accompaniment is crucial, and perhaps the single best thing about the composition — it’s a bit sad that the band are not proud of it, or at least enough to acknowledge that it is one of their most successful and best-known singles. It’s a lovely song, and it takes the band’s long-established penchant for chiming, jangly chords and sunny harmonies to a logical conclusion: Full-on retro bubblegum, complete with a guest vocal from the high priestess of camp, Kate Pierson.

Clearly the trouble with “Shiny Happy People” is not the song so much as the lyrics. Frankly, it’s always a bit tricky to work out to what degree the song is meant to be ironic. There’s certainly a touch of irony in it — I mean, c’mon — but I think what puts some people off is that it’s mostly quite sincere. In the middle of an album of love songs and/or songs about love, “Shiny Happy People” takes it all to a radical extreme: It’s this relentlessly cheery vision of utopia where everyone is in love, all of the time. Whether you laugh at it, cringe, swoon, cry, or sing along, it’s revealing something about your outlook on life. It’s kinda like a Rorschach test that way.

Half A World Away

December 24, 2007

I did not own a cd player until the Christmas of 1994. When I received a small stereo from my parents that year, I also was given a number of cds, and among those was Out Of Time, which I’d previously only had as a dubbed cassette. (If I recall correctly, this is also how I came to own Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and a good portion of the Beatles catalog.) For some reason, out of all the songs on Out Of Time, only “Endgame” and “Half A World Away” have been tied in to this memory of Christmas, or more specifically, its immediate aftermath. In regards to “Half A World Away,” I reckon that it has something to do with the specific qualities of the mandolin and harpsichord — I consistently associate treble with winter and Christmas, and the gentle melancholy of the piece is not far removed from many religious carols of the season.

Really, “Half A World Away” is not far removed from a lot of traditional folk music in terms of style, instrumentation or subject matter. Michael Stipe doesn’t quite shake off his penchant for mildly inscrutable poetry, but no matter how you look at it, it’s a lonesome ballad about being far away from someone you love. The words are mostly quite straightforward, but the song’s most gorgeous moments come when Stipe’s words lean heavy on images: “This storm it came up strong / it shook the trees / and blew away our fear,” “Blackbirds, backwards, forward and fall.” 

Me In Honey

October 29, 2007

Let’s just let Michael Stipe explain his motivation for this one himself, okay? This is taken from Marcus Gray’s It Crawled From The South:

Of “Me In Honey,” Michael admits, “Specifically, that song to me is an answer song to 10,000 Maniacs’ “Eat For Two.” It’s a male perspective on pregnancy, which I don’t think has been dealt with. There’s a real push-me-pull-me issue, saying, “I had nothing to do with it,” yet on the other hand saying, “Wait, I have feelings about this.”

Exactly one line in “Me In Honey” gives away the pregnancy angle — “baby’s got a baby with me” — and it’s kinda tossed off in the final verse, so it’s pretty easy to ignore that bit if you’d rather just hear it as song about a guy trying to save face with an angry lover. However, this song works far better just the way Stipe intended, with his protagonist expressing a mix of emotions that has him unsure whether he’s more freaked out by the onset of overwhelming responsibility, or the part of him that wants to escape from the situation.

There’s no doubt that the guy is going to do the right thing. The song overflows with love and goodwill, and despite its confusion, “Me In Honey” is among the most jubilant pieces of music R.E.M. have ever written, with Peter Buck’s circular rhythms driving the song towards percussive fills that push the tune towards its most ecstatic moments. Appropriately enough, the studio recording features backing vocals by the B-52’s Kate Pierson, who not only supplies the track with a wordless female counterpoint, but significantly boosts the tune’s dosage of soulful bliss.

Near Wild Heaven

August 23, 2007

“Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana” offer the audience a glimpse into what R.E.M. might have been if Mike Mills had been the band’s frontman all along. They aren’t exactly peaks into a grim alternate universe, but the songs make something very clear — compared to Michael Stipe, Mills comes up very short on charisma and mystique, and though his songs are exceptionally sweet and amiable, they aren’t very unique. “Near Wild Heaven” nails its cheery chord progression and breezy Beach Boys harmonies, but when it comes down to it, it’s not a lot more than a highly competent tribute to the sunshine pop of the ’60s. The song doesn’t exactly need to be weighty or weird, but the general lack of tension and subtext sets it apart from most any R.E.M. featuring Stipe as lead vocalist and primary lyricist.

Belong

August 2, 2007

“Belong” can be considered a sequel of sorts of “Disturbance at the Heron House,” at least in the sense that one can interpret the insurrection of the “creatures” as being the animal uprising suggested at the end of “Heron House.” The continuity isn’t all that important — we don’t learn much about that situation, other than the sudden instability is the backdrop for the minor yet potent drama of the song, which finds a mother attempting to face an uncertain future without breaking down in front of her child. The action of the lyrics is essentially bracketed by ellipses, hinting at neither the way “her world collapsed on a Sunday morning,” or what might happen, rather than emphasizing the conflicted emotion of the moment when you know that your world, or maybe the entire world, has changed. Michael Stipe sounds calm and collected in his spoken verses, but the gorgeous harmony carried by Mike Mills on the chorus is the wordless emotional center of the piece in the way it conveys a heartstring-tugging blend of fear, bravery, and sentimentality.

Endgame

June 29, 2007

“Ba da la da da da da da, hi hi hi. Ba da la da da da da da, hi hi.”

“Endgame” has no real lyrics, but it is anything but an instrumental. Michael Stipe’s gentle, mellow vocal refrain is the crux of the song, and it twists around Peter Buck’s winding acoustic guitar figure, dropping out only to be replaced by woodwind instruments that carry the same tune. It’s a quiet, minor piece, but its arrangement is one of the band’s most elegant and refined. Every moment of the composition is calculated to maximize its pensive beauty, from the swell of the strings to the gentle ahhhs of Mike Mills’ backing vocals. The song’s melodies and textures vividly convey a sense of comfortable melancholy with incredible grace, and in all likelihood, words would have only gotten in the way.