Tag Archives: Automatic for the People

25 Years of R.E.M.’s Out of Time

Let’s break up the drum posts with something different. I’ll be back next week with more underrated drum tracks.

Spin CDs send me an email every day, a little round-up of new and upcoming stock. Their algorithms have done their job well; there is, for instance, a Grateful Dead live album in almost every email (amazingly, a different one nearly every day). Right now they’re hawking the new 25th-anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Out of Time.

We’ll skip past the 25-years stuff, as no one needs another one of my wistful gee-how-did-I-get-to-be-in-my-mid-thirties disquisitions; it’s probably only been half a dozen posts since the last one. But I will say this, Out of Time is a pretty formative album for me.

I bought it with paper-round money in, I think, early 1995, when the record was about four years old. I’d liked every song I’d ever heard by R.E.M. and while I knew more songs from Automatic for the People (Drive, Man on the Moon, Everybody Hurts and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite were all big enough hits in the UK for me to have heard them on the radio), I wanted a copy of Losing My Religion, which I knew, but not well; I guess I’d started listening more to the radio in the time between the releases of OOT and AFTP and had started to pay more attention to finding out which artists responsible for songs I liked.

Buying an album for £12.99 when you earned a tenner a week* was a big deal, so every time I bought a record, I played it to death, and didn’t purchase anything without a lot of forethought. I came to be familiar with every note of Out of Time, and it had a huge and lasting impact on my sense of what an album could be.

Out of Time stretched in all kinds of directions. It took the listener on a journey, one with unexpected digressions and tangents. The bassist sang two of its songs (one of which – Near Wild Heaven – had the temerity to be a single), while Endgame was a quasi-instrumental with a lyricless Michael Stipe vocal. Opening track Radio Song had an unlikely guest appearance from KRS One (it’s not widely loved, but I’ve always liked how they sound like they’re enjoying themselves). Low was stark, minimal and tense – not much more than Stipe’s voice, some muted guitar chords and Bill Berry’s congas. Shiny Happy People was, well, you know what it was (and I like to think it was on some level a parody). Losing my Religion was one of the great singles. Half a World Away and Country Feedback were the album’s sad, confused heart. Out of Time was by turns goofy and dark, happy and sad; up and down, high and low.

I didn’t understand when hearing it as a 13-year-old that few albums actually worked like this, that most strive for a streamlined consistency in which all the songs are good in essentially the same way. I imagined that R.E.M. were working to a formula other bands also followed. Not so. Twenty-five years later, I hear Out of Time‘s uniqueness, and love it all the more.

There’s a two-part documentary on BBC 6 Music at the moment (thanks to Sara for alerting me to it), narrated by long-time friend of the band Billy Bragg, with contributions from Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe and producer Scott Litt. Well worth a listen if you’re a fan.

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*I was a teenage guitarist in a band, so I needed to pay for my share of rehearsal-room hire costs and buy new strings, cables, etc. We practised more or less weekly (not that you’d have been able to tell), so typically I could afford a new record once a month.

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Monty Got a Raw Deal – R.E.M.

I was listening to Natalie Merchant’s River earlier, a song that is still absolutely killing me whenever I hear it, when I started thinking about R.E.M.’s Monty Got a Raw Deal, from Automatic for the People – another song lamenting the fall of a Hollywood icon, albeit one that’s more of a meditation than a heartbroken outburst of personal grief like River.

Automatic is of course a death-obsessed record, so much so that many critics, hearing the songs and noting Michael Stipe’s gaunt appearance, assumed he was ill or dying. For whatever reason, Stipe was in a somber mood in 1992 and his lyrics were less playful than they’d been on any previous record, with only The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite sounding like the work of a man who’d written Stand, Shiny Happy People and It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

But while Automatic is Stipe mainly in a monochrome mode, he is on superb lyrical form throughout, and Monty Got a Raw Deal, a tribute of sorts to Montgomery Clift, 25 years dead by the time Stipe wrote about him, is, in its cryptic way, Stipe at his best: humane, empathetic, poetic and provocative.

The music, too, has always hit me hard. As a neophyte guitarist, I collected songbooks for the albums I knew best, and Monty Got a Raw Deal was as a result the first song I ever learned that required me to substantially retune my guitar.Now, my acoustic guitar has almost never been up at concert pitch in the last 15 years, so to say that learning how to play this song was a big deal for me would be the understatement indeed. It was a gateway into an entirely different way of thinking about the instrument. Peter Buck is a guitarist I grew out of fairly early – once I’d been playing a couple of years, I’d learned pretty much all I could from him – but you have to give the credit where it’s due, and I learned about alternate tunings from Buck, not Nick Drake, Bert Jansch or John Martyn.

Since Buck’s riff is intricate, Bill Berry and Mike Mills make the smart decision to go the other way: Berry plays big smacking quarters on his hat and two and four on kick and snare, with big tom build-ups going back into each verse. Mills plays quarters too, a little stepwise line that keeps the track, dominated by Buck’s almost mandolin-sounding guitar part*, firmly anchored. The whole thing has a loose, spontaneous feel and provides an important contrasting flavour in an otherwise very controlled, carefully thought-out album. As such Monty Got a Raw Deal – not a famous song, not particularly a fan favourite, not a track that was frequently played live by the band – has always felt like a key track on Automatic for the People to me.

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*The guitar is capoed at the third fret so the track sounds a minor third higher, in G minor.

 

Merrimack River – Mandy Moore

I wanted to make a really quintessential southern California pop record from the 70s. We made it in our buddy’s basement in Boston on all vintage equipment.

Mandy Moore on her 2009 album, Amanda Leigh

Negotiating the jump from child star to adult artist is difficult. Many have been unable to pull it off. The better known you have been, the harder it is. It’s perhaps lucky for Mandy Moore that she wasn’t a Britney-sized success in the early noughties. In fact, Moore’s debut album, So Real, was received by older commentators, and tacitly by its intended audience, as a rather pathetic attempt by Epic Records to get product out into a marketplace redefined by Britney and Christina. The album peaked at a mere number 31 in the US. In the pop landscape of 1999, where promotional blitzes ensured that albums peaked high in the first week and then dropped away quickly, that was pretty close to being embarrassing. Moore was a second-division teen-pop star at best.

Flash forward 10 years to 2009. Moore released Amanda Leigh, her fifth album and second since her reinvention as a singer-songwriter inspired by the usual giants of the early 1970s: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Todd Rundgren, and so on. By now she was engaged to Ryan Adams and there was an audible country tinge to her work, too, albeit filtered through a chamber-pop aesthetic that sometimes recalled nothing so much as R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (she had duetted with Michael Stipe on a cover of God Only Knows for a film soundtrack a couple of years previously, so perhaps the resemblance was intended). Moore declared – perhaps only semi jokingly – that she’d be willing to give a refund to anyone who’d bought either of her first two records.

So is Moore’s story is a journey from ephemeral teen pop to ephemeral NPR rock? That’s a long way from the whole story. There’s a lot to like on Amanda Leigh. The production is a little too glossy – the compression a touch too obvious, the vocal and instrument sounds a touch too hyped and brittle in the upper ranges – to really make the album sound quite the way I imagine Moore wanted it to, but there’s two or three absolutely lovely ballads on this record. Everblue (co-written with Lori McKenna) is built on subdued, melancholy electric piano, a floor-tom drum part and warm bass guitar that carries the song with fat, sustained root notes. The guitar part on Song About Home explicitly quotes Joni Mitchell’s Woman of Heart and Mind, and the woodwind has a distinctly For the Roses vibe too. Moore and her co-writer and producer Mike Viola have done their homework; when Moore first dabbled with seventies singer-songwriterhood on her 2003 covers album, her song choices (Help Me, Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters, I Feel the Earth Move, Moonshadow) didn’t suggest deep knowledge of the style. But someone who’s dug deep enough into this thing to be quoting Tom Scott bass clarinet lines is someone I can do business with.

Still, Merrimack River is the obvious highlight. I first came across it on a live video linked to from the AV Club (the Onion‘s film, TV and music review site). It was just Viola and Moore: one guitar, two voices, lacking the elegantly pensive string arrangement that decorates the studio version. Nonetheless the song was obviously a stunner, with a lovely chorus and enough chewy chord changes in the verse to reward repeat listening. The recorded version is a strange mix – the continuous background hum of the amplified acoustic guitar is an oddly lo-fi touch; the vocals have been rather obviously primped and possibly tuned, and the deep breaths and catches in Moore’s voice are a sometimes-distracting hangover from her pop days – but there is so much audible delight being taken by Moore in the wideness of this song’s emotional territory that it’s quite disarming.

I’m less struck on the Rundgren-/Nilsson-esque single I Could Break Your Heart Any Day, where the double-tracked Moore vocal is annoyingly chipmunk-like, but still, there’s a decent hit rate here. Inevitably, though, the record didn’t get the audience it deserved. ‘Serious’ music fans were sceptical of an adult-alternative move by a former pop star turned (part-time) singer-songwriter (and it’s not as if AAA is a genre that gets automatic critical respect), and Moore didn’t really have that many old fans to pull along with her into her new venture. But it’s worth noting that Mr Mandy Moore – the aforementioned David Ryan Adams – hasn’t written a song this good in a decade.

mandy moore live

The author’s own 1970s-style singer-songwriter doings:

R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 2

Previously — our author hears What’s the Frequency Kenneth by R.E.M., wonders what the hell it all means

R.E.M., it’s safe to say, had not gone collectively mad. Several things had happened since Automatic for the People. The band had decided that, if they were going to tour, it might be good to have some bigger, louder, more arena-ready material to take with them. Bill Berry in particular had been keen to make a louder record after Out of Time, but all their strongest material was acoustic, so they recorded that instead and didn’t tour behind the album. This time round, though, he was insisting the band plug back in and turn it up. Finally, and here we’re into the realms of speculation, the emergence of Nirvana et al. over 1991 and 1992 had created a very different environment to the one in which R.E.M. had last been a working ‘rock’ band; this one was more sympathetic to them, indeed looked to them as inspiration, and they likely felt eager to align themselves with it. That Cobain died in the middle of the Monster sessions doubtless put a crimp on this, but it seems reasonable to guess it was part of their thinking when they began.

Monster‘s basic tracks were cut by Scott Litt and David Colvin on a soundstage in Atlanta, with overdubs added at Criteria in Florida, Ocean Way in LA, and Kingsway in New Orleans. This was a big-budget, protracted process, and the finished album suggests a degree of overthinking. A natural response to the idea of a making a road-ready rock album would have been to cut the album essentially live, add just the minimum of overdubs, and mix it so that the vocals were perhaps a touch sunken in, with the bass and drums forward and the guitars (maybe one each side to reflect the fact that the band would tour with a second guitarist) left to glue everything together.

That’s not quite what Monster is. The guitars, on the louder tracks, are thrust to the very front of the mix, making the rhythm section sound tiny in comparison, and leaving Stipe near inaudible. The latter is not a big deal; R.E.M. had made a lot of records at the start of their career where Stipe’s vocal was low in the mix and there’s plenty of precedent for low-mixed vocals in rock, from prime-era Stones onwards. But a rock album where the bass and drums aren’t providing the tracks’ energy and ‘push’ is not likely to be wholly satisfying. Now, whether Litt and the band decided to spotlight Buck rather than Berry because the latter’s drum tracks didn’t quite come up to snuff or (more likely) because they ‘big guitars’ was the fashionable thing to do, who can say. Litt, in any case, is not a producer noted for his work with heavy bands. But it’s noticeable how much more depth and power the drums have at the start of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (track 4) than they do on the previous three songs, simply because they’re not competing with a big wall o’Buck.

So the sound of Monster isn’t that of a straightforward rock album. But neither are the songs straightforward rock songs, in either form or content. Many critics of R.E.M. have noted that their songs often lacked really strong choruses, a strange quality given that this band was once arguably the biggest in the world. This observation is overstated on the whole, and it misses the point that R.E.M. songs work by the accretion of one small hook after another, rather than by having one big killer chorus (although they’ve done that too on occasion). But Monster does have a few songs that seem to deflate a bit they get to the chorus; Star 69 and Bang and Blame are the biggest offenders, the latter really suffering because of how promising the verse is.

That’s not true of all of its tracks, though. If Monster is, Kenneth apart, better in its softer moments (I Don’t Sleep, I Dream; Strange Currencies; and Tongue, a falsetto soul ballad that succeeds in spite of the fact that Stipe is not Al Green), its last third is its strongest. I Took Your Name, with Stipe’s arch Iggy Pop-as-corporate-drone vocal, takes the sawing tremolo guitar from Crush With Eyeliner but puts it to more intriguing use, without Thurston Moore stunt casting; Let Me In – the band’s Kurt Cobain tribute – has a beautiful, incandescent distorted guitar sound and Stipe’s most plaintive and emotionally direct vocal on the record; Circus Envy thins out the guitars and lets Bill Berry push the song on, which challenge he responds to; and album closer, You, combines a thumping floor-tom rhythm with a throbbing D-minor guitar drone and an eastern-tinged riff, finishing the album on an ominous, ambiguous note.

Monster functions as a conceptual unity, too, with song after song about the nature and fluidity of identity and sexuality, Stipe’s lyrics often seeming to run counter to the music, so that one seems to be a commentary on the other. It’s worth bearing in mind the difficulty of the task Stipe was faced with in writing lyrics for a rock album after two widely praised but often sombre and meditative records. The band may have been able to take a cue here and there from their contemporaries, but Stipe couldn’t have borrowed another writer’s idiom (whether that writer had been Eddie Vedder, Thurston Moore, Cobain, Jerry Cantrell, or anyone) without it being utterly crass and inappropriate. He had to define his own themes and style for this record, and he more or less completely succeeded. That was no small achievement.

Yet Monster will forever be known as the record that second-hand shops won’t touch; the record that 4 million people bought and 4 million people sold back. It wasn’t the triumph that Automatic was, and it’s not as various as New Adventures in Hi-Fi (on which, as a bonus, the band does sound more like a band), but it deserves a way better rep than it currently has. There probably won’t be too many ‘Monster at 20′ retrospectives this year, but if there are, let’s hope they give an undervalued and brave record a fair shake.

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This is a picture of Michael Stipe and Cher – does there have to be a reason?

R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 1

I’m old enough that I can remember the original releases of albums that are now marking their 20-year anniversaries. Some of you reading this will no doubt be thinking, ‘Cry me a river, Mr So Deep’. And sure, we all hit that point eventually, but it doesn’t make it any more welcome.

I remember Monster coming out. I remember What’s the Frequency, Kenneth, too. I’d liked everything I’d heard by R.E.M. up to that point (the singles off Automatic for the People and Out of Time, plus, I later surmised, Stand, Orange Crush and The One I Love, since I recognised those songs when I first heard Document and Green in their entireties), so I was expecting more of that nice big-hearted acoustic rock music, music that was sometimes whimsical, sometimes solemn, but that pulled off the trick of being emotionally generous without being drippy, and tuneful without being trite.

Instead I got a shaven-headed Michael Stipe bouncing around while gabbling a – to me – incomprehensible lyric centred around a repeating question that I couldn’t answer (being 12 and British, I hadn’t heard the Dan Rather story, or of Dan Rather himself) over heavily distorted guitar chords.

Had R.E.M. gone collectively mad? It seemed a legitimate question to ask.

At 12, I hadn’t heard much alternative rock music, and Kenneth seemed harsh and impenetrable. What rock music I’d heard was, I guess, older 1970s stuff (Queen, maybe) or glossy 1980s LA metal. The former tended not to feature great big walls of rhythm guitar, out of which details struggled to make themselves known; the latter kept its distorted guitar tracks under control and never let them tread on the vocals. So Kenneth was initially an alienating and — later, for the same reasons — fascinating artefact to me. It was still recognisably a pop song, with little hooks that got into me and wouldn’t go away (the ‘uh huh’s; Peter Buck’s extreme tremolo guitars in the choruses), but it took time to reveal itself to me; there are still lyrics I’m unsure of. A month later, Oasis’s Cigarettes and Alcohol came out, shortly after that I heard my brother’s copy of Nevermind for the first time and suddenly distorted guitars seemed to be everywhere in my life.

This is the result of having been a bit too young when Smells Like Teen Spirit came out – the real era of the loud guitar had been and gone already. My first exposure to the music of Nirvana came when they played a clip from Unplugged on Top of the Pops the week Cobain killed himself, so I hadn’t initially associated Nirvana with heavy rock music. Really.

I started playing guitar — rather, I started saving up to buy a guitar — after a friend of mine showed me how to play the Teen Spirit chords. At that point I became a self-defined fan of US rock above and beyond any other kind of music. But earning £11 a week from a paper round, records also had to be saved up for (or scavenged from the library) so what I chose to purchase had to be something I was confident I’d really like. The works of Nirvana first, those of R.E.M. second. I felt I could trust these guys not to let me down.

Monster would have been the third R.E.M. album I got my hands on, after Out of Time (for Losing My Religion) and Automatic. Piecing together what biographical info I could, I surmised that the band had been around 10 years or so already and had influenced bands like Nirvana, who in turn seemed to have influenced Monster. Nonetheless, the jump from Find the River to Kenneth seemed big. Monster was an album that took a long time for me to work out.

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R.E.M. in 1994. New looks for Mike Mills and Michael Stipe; Bill Berry the same as ever; Peter Buck with worse hair and more beer

Laughing – R.E.M.; or, Bill Berry takes Peter Buck to the disco without Peter even realising it*

There’s so much I could say about one of my favourite tracks off one of my favourite albums of all time (Laughing, from Murmur, R.E.M.’s 1983 debut record), but as with Roxy Music’s More Than This a few weeks back, I’m just going to talk about the drum track.

There’s a line that Peter Buck’s spun off in a few interviews down the years, when talking about the bad advice R.E.M.’s members were given by well-meaning but clueless folks who thought they were being helpful. According to Buck, they’d tell the band they should get some disco drums on their records (and girls in bikinis in their videos, and so on). To which Buck would add as commentary something like, ‘Disco drums? On Murmur? Really?’ (A variation on this now well-worn Buckian riff is at the end of this interview here: http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/rem-find-a-return-to-their-religion/story-e6freomx-1226015997695)

I always wonder what Bill Berry makes of this, if indeed he’s aware of it. For, like so many other drummers in the rock underground in the early 1980s, Berry spent half his time playing disco drums.

OK, for Buck’s benefit, and maybe some readers’, the standard rock drum part divides the bar into eight semi-quavers (8th notes), which are typically played on the hi-hats or ride cymbal. The bass drum is played on the one and the three (the on beats), the snare drum on the two and the four (the backbeats). Sometimes the bass drum is played on both one and one and a half, giving a distinctive ‘boom-boom tssch, boom-boom tssch result’ (which nowadays I can’t help but think of as the ‘Neil Young beat’).

If you switch to playing the kick on every crotchet, so you’re playing four bass drums to the bar (‘four to the floor’ as it’s often known), now you’re playing disco. You’re playing Billie Jean, Boogie Wonderland and Stayin’ Alive. That’s the rhythmic basis of all disco music. It might sound even more like disco if you play 16th notes on the hi-hats (alternating left and right hands) – now you’re playing Chic’s I Want Your Love and Odyssey’s Native New Yorker.

Bill Berry plays disco figures on three out of five of the songs on the Chronic Town EP (Wolves Lower, 1,000,000 and Stumble), on five of the songs on Murmur (Radio Free Europe, Laughing, Moral Kiosk, 9-9 and West of the Fields), on four of Reckoning‘s songs (Harborcoat, Pretty Persuasion (before the final verse), Letter Never Sent and Little America), and on two on Fables of the Reconstruction (Life and How to Live It and Can’t Get There From Here, although he gets surprisingly close, too, on on the ruminative, banjo-fied Wendell Gee). After 1985, disco figures almost entirely disappear from Berry’s drumming repertoire and R.E.M. became notably less light on their feet.

Berry used his disco licks cleverly. His favourite trick was to play disco during the verse and then get propulsively ‘rock’ for choruses. I don’t know whether he picked this up from bands like Wire and Gang of Four or whether it just came naturally to him, but it’s the defining rhythmic quirk of R.E.M.’s early work, much of which ranks as their best (my pick of the later records would be Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-fi, but really my heart belongs to Murmur and Fables.

Laughing deploys all of these tricks. The intro figure vaguely recalls Stewart Copeland (as do some of the reggaeish fills at the start of each verse) before settling into classic disco, with cymbal hits along with the snare drum on the two, giving displaced emphasis to the chord changes. A notable feature is how much space the three players give each other. Mike Mills – often doubling his bass part on single-note piano – defines the song’s chord structure while Buck plays double tracked arpeggios and Mills sustains his root note. It’s all very spare. Buck only starts stumming once Berry switches to a straight rock feel in the pre-choruses. Mills stays relatively sparse (once again) for the first pre-chorus, but second time around brings in a great walking pattern, to lead into the ascending line of the choruses (which again is doubled on piano, a recurring trick on Murmur).

After the middle eight, there’s a half-chorus, where Berry plays his ace: he sticks with four-to-the-floor disco, giving the chorus a whole different kind of movement than it had before. But his final move – and it’s a triumphant one – is to switch to the ride cymbal (from the hats) for the last line of the final chorus, lifting the song to its peak. It’s a masterclass in how to arrange a drum part and shows how well considered the rhythm tracks were on early R.E.M. records, compensating for Buck’s – at this stage – slightly limited guitar work.

As Buck became a more resourceful and more accomplished player, the rhythm section had to work less hard and their standout moments became fewer and further in between, although I remain very fond of Berry’s muscular drumming on These Days and The One I Love, Mills’s bass playing on Losing My Religion, the rhythm-section arrangement on Drive and the all-time career highlight How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us, from New Adventures. If you’re only familiar with R.E.M.’s later records and have always focused mainly on the contributions of Michael Stipe’s vocals and Peter Buck’s guitar, give their early records a listen and join me in doffing your cap to R.E.M.’s covert Mr Disco, Bill Berry.

 

*I’m being somewhat glib. Peter Buck is, above everything else, a music fan. I’m sure he recognised a disco figure when he heard one. It’s just strange that, in the light of Berry’s heavy reliance on such techniques, Buck considered the suggestion that R.E.M. incorporate disco drums to be bad advice.

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?