Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chronic Town - R.E.M.

Chronic Town
I.R.S. SP 70502

Discovering college radio was a big deal for me.  Even in the relatively hip San Francisco Bay Area, the commercial radio stations were not playing a lot of New Wave music.  You'd hear an occasional track by the Clash or Blondie, but you'd have to hear a bunch of songs by the likes of the Eagles or the Doobie Brothers too.  College radio stations not only played cutting edge New Wave stuff but well-curated oldies as well, you'd hear the 13th Floor Elevators or the Chocolate Watchband just as much as the Damned or the Ramones on some stations.  I heard a lot of new music this way, that hasn't changed - I still mostly listen to college radio stations even though I'm long out of college.  It was through a college radio station that I discovered R.E.M., my favorite 1980s band.  I heard "Wolves, Lower" and it floored me.  It sounded like the perfect song, the jangly guitar, the relentless hooks, the evocative yet mysterious vocals, the driving beat.  I loved it, but I missed who the artist was.  I heard it again a few weeks later and again I missed who it was or maybe I just didn't understand the name - what kind of band names themselves R.E.M.?  The song stuck with me and I would look through new records looking for a song called "I'm Sailing Over" which is how I misheard "House in order" from the song's chorus.  A few months later I heard "Radio Free Europe" which blew me away and this time I heard that the artist was R.E.M..  I bought "Murmur" the next time I went to the record store and loved it.  I kept buying the I.R.S. albums as they came out but ignored the funny EP with the gargoyle on the cover because I didn't buy EPs or singles, I just wanted full length albums.  Finally I broke down and bought it when I saw a used copy.  I put it on the turntable and was flabbergasted to hear that great song I never forgot about.  "Wolves, Lower" thrilled me then and it thrills me now.  I still consider it my favorite R.E.M. song.  Spinning the rest of the EP I realized that I had heard "Gardening at Night" and "1,000,000" before on the radio as well.  After that I lost my prejudice about EPs.  The early R.E.M. were often criticized for their inscrutable or incomprehensible lyrics not to mention Michael Stipe's disinterest in enunciation, but I considered that a virtue.  Among the five tracks on this record, there is not a single song that I really know the meaning of, heck there isn't even one I can understand without a lyric sheet.  There are no love songs, there are no obvious statements of any sort.  I just pick up stray sentences and phrases, all of which I find striking and compelling.  As befits the band's name, I view the end result as dreamlike and poetic.  There are thousands of pop albums full of silly love songs, it is nice to have one that is different.  Just looking at the titles of the early R.E.M. songs is more like looking at a filmography for an experimental filmmaker than a discography.  How many other records before 1982 would have titles like "Wolves, Lower" or "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)."  I can only imagine what your typical AOR radio station programmer of that era would say if someone asked him to start playing a song called "Gardening at Night."  I greatly admire Stipe's unusual vision and use of language.  I play this record all the time and I never get tired of it.  All five songs are terrific.  I consider R.E.M.'s period of time at I.R.S. records to represent one of the most significant bodies of work in the history of American rock and this is an essential part of it.  It is the sound that launched countless other college rock bands - the chiming guitars, obscure lyrics, moaned vocals, straight ahead rhythms, and lack of solos and other rock star posturing - they basically invented a whole school of alternative rock.  Recommended for Byrds fans who dig surrealism.

1 comment:

  1. When I first heard "Carnival of Sorts" on Boston's WBCN in 1982, I immediately loved it -- still one of my favorite R.E.M. songs to this day.