Tag Archives: Michael Stipe

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.

Automatic

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

 

River – Natalie Merchant

Last week I took my mum to see Natalie Merchant at the Royal Albert Hall as a birthday present for her. Mum’s a bit of a Merchant fan, whereas I knew very little about her (other than her connections to artists of whom I’m a fan).

As is sometimes the way of these things, I was just hoping I enjoyed it enough that my mum’s own enjoyment of the show wasn’t affected by a lack of enthusiasm from me.

Instead I was enthralled, pretty much all the way through the show. Merchant is touring behind an album called Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. Tigerlily, released in 1995, was Merchant’s first solo album – her biggest commercial success and still her fans’ favourite. She’s re-recorded the whole album with new arrangements and is performing the whole of the album on this tour, using the new arrangements put together for Paradise is There. The band she had at the Albert Hall (drummer, double bassist, pianist, guitarist and string quartet) sounded wonderful and those new arrangements – based heavily around the strings – are gorgeous.

Merchant was the singer in a 1980s college rock band called 10,000 Maniacs, a New York-based chimey-jangle guitar group with a pronounced R.E.M. influence. After leaving the band, Merchant’s music became more layered, downplaying the rock and incorporating influences from jazz, soul, folk and classical music. Even as her music moved away from straight indie, though, Michael Stipe (a close friend of Merchant’s) remained a key influence on her writing, and particularly her vocal phrasing.*

River was the song that hit me hardest at the gig, not that I knew what it was called or what it was about. I was first hooked by the line “Let the youth of America mourn” (such a striking statement, especially when my lack of familiarity with the song left me unsure why they should be mourning), but was left reeling by the grain of Merchant’s voice as it rose to meet the line “And it’s nothing but a tragedy”. It’s a powerful moment on the recording; in the auditorium it was just devastating.

The history of rock artists re-recording their old material is a chequered one. Most often, it’s been for cheap cash-in compilations to avoid licencing costs, or to allow the artist to profit more highly from recordings made under an unfavourable contract. Other times artists have re-recorded works because they can’t leave well enough alone (David Sylvian, John Martyn) and aren’t really aware of what it is their fans liked about their recordings in the first place. Sometimes it’s been to show how much the artist’s voice or style has changed (Joni Mitchell, for instance, who insisted that she’d become a more interesting singer as her voice became a cigarette-coarsened husk of its former self). There’s a little bit of the last two at play in Merchant’s new version of Tigerlily, but in this case it succeeds for two reasons: the new arrangements are beautiful, and Merchant’s mature voice is a hell of a vessel for communicating emotion.

The young Merchant was a fine singer, with an appealing voice and an emotionally open vocal persona. On the original recording, Merchant sings the whole of that pivotal second verse in the same high register: indignant, but questioning and unsure of anything but her sadness. On the new version, she withholds that high register, instead building to that final line, emphasising the asymmetry of the lines, hitting some words hard and underplaying others, before finally letting go with a cry from the soul. Her vocal is fiercer, wiser; compassion for the departed balanced by contempt for those who speak and judge without understanding.

The sadness, and the contempt, was well earned. The subject of River is, of course, the late actor River Phoenix, whom Merchant knew; when Merchant sings simple, “With candles, with flowers, he was one of ours”, she is not singing of an imagined connection. Phoenix died in 1993 outside the Viper Room from a drug overdose, while Jonny Depp’s band, P (which featured Phoenix’s friends Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes) were on stage. The song that they were playing at the moment Phoenix’s heart gave out was called, by cruel irony, “Michael Stipe”. He was 23.

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* My mother, it’s fair to say, is unclear as to what I find appealing about Stipe’s singing voice, and initially seemed to dismiss my comments about the musical similarity. It’s as clear as day, though, especially on River. She said to me when the first song of the second set was over that, now I’d pointed it out, the Stipe influence was plainly audible.

Give some to the bass player, part 4 – How the West was Won and Where it Got Us by R.E.M.

Bill Berry: My favourite song is probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Mike Mills: Do I have a favourite song? […] It’s probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Scott Litt: There’s one called How the West was Won… they’ve probably talked about this.

Peter Buck: At this point in my life, How the West was Won and Where it Got Us is probably my favourite song, because we just wrote it a week ago.

These quotes are from a documentary made at the time of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Michael Stipe was unavailable for comment, presumably. I assume the question was “What’s your favourite song on the New Adventures in Hi-Fi?”, rather than a more general one about the band’s whole back catalogue, but it’s pretty clear that band and producer knew what they had with How the West was Won and Where it Got Us as soon as they’d finished it.

Mike Mills had always been crucial to the arrangements on R.E.M.’s records, particularly in their first few years (between, say, 1982-85), as he was probably the group’s most accomplished musician early on. His bass lines – whether driving (eg Carnival of Sorts) or melodic (eg Radio Free Europe) – frequently carried whole songs. He also decorated the songs with piano (Shaking Through) and was almost as recognisable a vocal presence on the songs as Stipe himself.

But it’s easier to gauge his importance in those terms than by saying which songs he wrote, as R.E.M. have never revealed too much about that. Their credits were always split equally between band members (one of the reasons they lasted 30 years as a group). Specifics of composition seldom got talked about in public. Of course, we know that Losing my Religion began with a Peter Buck mandolin riff. It was often said, and has been confirmed by Mills, that Berry was responsible for the bulk of Perfect Circle and Everybody Hurts. But who would have assumed the guitar-heavy What’s the Frequency Kenneth was written by Mills rather than Buck? Yet it was so.

But to return to How the West was Won and Where it Got Us, it’s a pretty great example of the importance of Mike Mills to the band’s sound, since he wrote and performed the main piano riff and the discordant piano solo, as well as playing bass guitar and synth on the track.

It’s a muted opener for a big record, and New Adventures was a big record. The group had just signed an $80m record contract. There’s a certain sod-you quality to leading off with something off-kilter and brooding with a piano solo inspired by Thelonius Monk, something that doesn’t sound like the average fan’s idea of what an R.E.M. record should be. This can only be applauded.

The song’s bass line is determinedly minimal, with a verse part built on just five notes, phrased to basically follow the piano and leave wide open spaces for Berry’s drum groove. Very astute. The chorus is recognisably more Millsian – it’s more legato, with more notes, almost straight eights, in fact (possibly the verse is Buck on bass; he’s miming the bass in the video).

There are other things that make it one of the finest R.E.M. tracks. The “ennio whistle” played by Berry. The intricate drum pattern (again, Berry – one of his finest moments, too). Michael Stipe’s ear-grabbing interjections at the end of each chorus – a more singerly singer might have ruined these, afraid to be so naked. Stipe just puts them out there: part shout, part cry, part whimper, and not a little bit out of tune. Yet they are crucial to the song’s success, releasing all the tension built up by the coiled music. Not so much a case of Give some to the bass player, then, as Give some to everyone.

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R.E.M. circa New Adventures; l-r Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe

I Came in from the Mountain – Roddy Woomble

The extent to which Roddy Woomble’s voice has changed over the last 18 years is always pretty shocking to this casual Idlewild fan when I revisit the band’s early work. The sneering, American-accented vocals of Woomble’s youth are long gone. Eighteen years after the release of his band Idlewild’s debut, Captain, Woomble now has a voice of deep, rich mahogany. He has matured into a terrific singer, and a very fine songwriter, too.

I saw him play last night with Mel and her friend Louise at Kings Place (sic) in London for the first night of the Caledonian Chronicles season. 90 minutes in the company of his band and his solo-career songbook fully convinced me on both fronts. He did play a couple of Idlewild songs (one I knew – an excellent version of You Held the World in Your Arms that for me outdid the original – and one I didn’t know; Mel told me it was Quiet Crown, an old Idlewild tune, after I’d said to her that the band could have segued from that into American English), but he had little need to fall back on his band’s repertoire to keep the audience rapt. I couldn’t help but think, as I looked around, that probably a lot of the people there wouldn’t have known When I Argue I See Shapes anyway, as perversely enjoyable as it might have been to see Woomble in high-energy yelping mode in an austere concert hall.

He had a great band (featuring Sorren Maclean on guitar, Luciano Rossi on piano and Hannah Fisher on fiddle – all three sang harmony vocals), which helps, but quiet, sit-down shows in concert halls live or die on the strength of the material being played. No song demonstrates the quality of Woomble’s mature writing better than I Came In From the Mountain, from his first (now deleted, he revealed last night) solo album, My Secret is My Silence.

It’s built on the simplest chords (I, IV, vi, V) that are shuffled around in progressions that every songwriter has used at least a few times, and the verse melody is fragmentary, a few syllables at a time, as if the thoughts that the singer is searching for aren’t quite coming together. On first listen, by the end of the first verse, you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t much of a song, however nice the line “because we affect each other endlessly” may be.

It’s the chorus where it comes together. It’s a simple tune, though with more movement and a wider range than the verse melody, harmonised on the second and third repeats by Kate Rusby, sometime labelmate on Pure Records. Their voices sound great together. This is the intriguing space that Woomble the solo artist inhabits. Headlining the opening night of a folk festival called Caledonian Chronicles, sitting on stage with a fiddle player, accompanied on record by uilleann pipes, duetting with Britfolk royalty, but nonetheless thinking, writing and arranging his songs like a rock/pop songwriter. Comparisons of Idlewild to R.E.M. were overstated back in 2002 when The Remote Part came out, I think. Nevertheless, there is no songwriter whose phrasing of a melody (and way of matching lyric and tune in surprising ways, so that the line contains unexpected caesuras and enjambements) more frequently reminds me of Michael Stipe.

He ruefully acknowledged once or twice yesterday that his solo career isn’t setting the world alight. Perhaps it’s because you can’t fit him neatly into either the folk box or the indie box anymore. But it’s a shame that he can’t quite fill a 500-seat hall as a solo act, as at this point it’d surprise me if Idlewild are making more vital music than he is on his own.

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A man of the mountains – Roddy Woomble

My recent EP, Little Differences. Available to stream or download

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:

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?