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What I’m listening to this week: R.E.M.

June 3, 2009

Murmur, 1983

I’ve been a huge R.E.M. fan since high school when New Adventures in Hi-Fi came out and soothed my melancholic teenage angst.  This is their first entry on my blog and as such, I decided to start at the beginning with their very first album, the classic Murmur.  I hear many of these songs on a regular basis in my iTunes rotation, but it’s been a long while since I listened to the whole thing at once.

The most striking thing about Murmur is how ahead of its time it was.  It was released in 1983, a year when Genesis, Duran Duran, and Huey Lewis ate up radio play, and “Flashdance” was a number 1 hit.  The term “alternative rock” hadn’t been invented yet and R.E.M. was a popular college band in Georgia.  And, from the onset of “Radio Free Europe”, it’s clear that they aimed for a different audience.  One of their most popular songs ever, it’s vaguely new-wave, with completely indiscernible lyrics, save for the melodic and catchy, chantable chorus.  It also sounds like it could be on the radio now (or on the band’s 2008 release, Accelerate).

“Pilgrimage” probably sounds the most like the late 90s R.E.M. in terms of mood and lyrics, but the clangy drumming and hollow bass beats at the beginning are more indie then alternative.  “Laughing” also has the hints of later R.E.M., with Peter Buck’s finger-picked guitar riff and the harmonizing background vocals.  “Talk About The Passion” is about as classic “alternative” as you can get, not surprising considering R.E.M.’s status as one of the innovators of the sound, but here you can hear how it was copied by endless numbers of bands.  It’s classic R.E.M. – Michael Stipe’s obscure, provocative songwriting invoking religious imagery and Buck’s signature jangly folk-rock guitar.

“Perfect Circle” is a early example of R.E.M. greatness.  Michael Stipe knows almost better than anyone else in his genre how to create a deeply bittersweet mood, and this song does it so well – his mournful voice (although as always, the lyrics are a toss-up), the simple piano and light drumming.  But Murmur also demonstrates the band’s keen ability to have bring some lightness to their records; “Catapult”, “Shaking Through”, and especially “We Walk” have the pop sensibilities that would eventually garner the band mainstream success.

If there are songs on Murmur that don’t necessarily translate today, they begin with “Moral Kiosk” and “West Of The Fields”, that feature straight up 80s riffs, and “9-9” with it’s synth-style interludes and somewhat jarring musical composition.

Murmur, as with most R.E.M. albums, is pretty dense and it definitely takes several listens to really appreciate the album.  But once you commit to it, it’s gratifying and quite remarkable to hear a band in what would turn out to be it’s infancy, and to process that the sound they created came nearly out of nowhere to help foster a completely new genre of American music.

P.S. – Check out this interview on the making of Murmur!

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