Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Library Book Sale CD Trove VI

Still reviewing my CD finds from half-price day at the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale.

R.E.M.: Up.

A lot of people become deeply invested in a musical act during their college years. I liked a lot of bands, but R.E.M. was always chief among my favorites. They were my first brand-name rock show and later my first large-venue show, and me and my buddies spent much time sprawled on the filthy carpets of student housing parsing out Michael Stipe's esoteric, low-in-the-mix lyrics.

Nowadays, I get irritated when bands put out an album every year, because I don't have time to listen to the "new one" before there's a new "new one" already. Back then, though, I would annoy the too-cool-for-me clerks at the record store down the street with redundant inquiries about release dates and times. Even after Out of Time and Automatic for the People, albums that I never entirely warmed up to, I still found myself up at midnight to buy the first possible copy of 1994's Monster.

That's pretty much the end of the story. I disliked Monster (except for, um, that one song) and before you know it fifteen years have gone by with me vaguely aware that R.E.M. is still putting out records, but not ever listening to them. Indeed, I haven't heard a "new" R.E.M. song in all that time, and before this purchase couldn't even have named one.

Finally hearing the album Up eleven years later, I am not distressed by what I've been missing. The bulk of the record consists of slow to mid-tempo songs that could kindly be called "moody" or unkindly be called "bland." Certainly, there is none of the jangling, slightly folky rock that was central to the band's 1980s sound. What you get instead is a keyboard-heavy arrangement that is vague, mushy, and, for me, kind of off-putting. It's not until the fourth track ("Hope") that Up achieves any kind of momentum at all, and only one song ("Daysleeper") has the kind of hit appeal that makes you want to listen to a rock album a second time. The quiet closer ("Falls to Climb") would be a reasonably cool finish for a record that had given us a hard-rocking workout, but as is it just seems like somewhat more anthemic mush.

Prognosis: I don't think I was missing much.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 10

Marc Chagall, Nativity. Lithograph, 1950.


DrSchnell said...

From what I hear, the most recent album of theirs is supposed to be a return to form of sorts, away from the tedium of the last three or so albums. Of course, "return to form" could mean uninspired revampings of old patterns, or could be really good. Let me know if you hear it.

I've got to disagree with you on Automatic for the People, though - I find it to be one of my favorites of theirs - kinda dark and death-soaked, and a really solid album (though I could do without "Everybody Hurts").

Michael5000 said...

Out of curiosity, and general respect for DrSchnell's taste in The Rock Music, I'm rivisting the track list for Automatic. I think I'll stick with my lukewarm assessment. I can't even recall several of the songs ("Drive", "Monty Got a Raw Deal", "Ignoreland", "Star Me Kitten", "Find the River") actively dislike one ("Everybody Hurts"), and remember that two are pretty bluntly filler material ("New Orleans Instrumental No.1", "Sweetness Follows"). That leaves me with a pretty good four-song EP ("Try Not to Breathe", "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite", "Man on the Moon", "Nightswimming"), but I wouldn't trade it for Chronic Town. Matter of Taste, of course.

Dug said...

"Up" was their first album without a drummer as I recall and I really liked the experimental nature of it when it first came out. However, I listened to it again about 6 months ago and thought "man, this album sucks! Why did I like it?" There are maybe four songs on it that I really like and the rest izzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.......

"Automatic" is by far their best album (of the ones I've actually listened to) since the 1980's but still not among their best efforts. I have not heard the most recent album so no comment there.

The music lost something when you no longer needed to parse the esoteric lyrics.

Michael5000 said...

I think it did. Part of the strength of the first five records was the fragmentary images and bits of meaning you caught as the music went by, like glimpses of landscape seen from a moving train. It was as if an obscure document had been smudged or torn so that only bits and pieces were still legible, and was thus rendered into a kind of found poem. But, like, with rock guitar.

La Gringissima?

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I've seen that painting. It's called A Donkey Tries to Head Butt Plastic Man While Jesus and Marry Check It Out.

mhwitt said...

I agree with your assessment of Up. I find it dull. Maybe I'll make the time to listen again some time soon, but probably not. I'm pretty sure I feel the same about Reveal and Around the Sun but they are all so forgettable I cold not tell you if they are really all in the same style or not.

Happily, their most recent studio album, Accelerate, is actually pretty good. I heard an interview with Michael Stipe in which he talked about the virtue of working in the studio with a single actual human being drummer for the first time in many years. He said it gave Accelerate more "muscle" than their previous couple of albums. Boy is that every right!

And their most recent album Live At the Olympia is -- much to my surprise -- an ass kicker! It's heavy on the 80s stuff, most of it the songs that only former slavish fans like you and me would sing along with. It has only a few things from the last 10 years that mean essentially nothing to me. I'd love to listen to Live at the Olympia with you some day on some filthy carpets of student housing.