New Year New Music – REM

Hey, there’s this unknown band hailing from Athens, Georgia, who’ve got an album out soon that everyone, but everyone, is going to be raving about. They’re called REM and…

*phone rings in background*

“What? Everyone’s heard of them? They are one of the biggest-selling artists of all time? Really? I’ve written about them before, you say? Really? Gosh. Maybe I shouldn’t put them in my New Year New Music articles then? Really? You don’t think anyone gives a toss? Fair enough.”

Tortured introductions aside, REM have a record out soon-ish. It’s called “Collapse Into Now” and they’ve been busy giving out MP3’s and doing videos and blog posts and all sorts over at their website here. Me, being me, have totally missed all this. But I haven’t missed this new track, “Oh My Heart”, which gives every impression of being an actual, proper, quite good REM song. Yes, wonders will never cease. They haven’t exactly been great, the last few records, so let’s hope that they have got their mojo back and do something as good as “Automatic For The People”. Go on, chaps.

Oh My Heart by REM:

Speaking of their mojo, they’ve clearly got the Bonkers Mogwai Song Naming Mojo1 thing going by calling their songs “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”, “Mine Smell Like Honey” and “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”. There’s more information on NPR here.

Oh, and it’s Michael Stipe’s birthday today, which he shares with my mate Bill. Happy birthday fellas.

Pre-order the album here.

1 See
here for more. “George Square Thatcher Death Party” is my favourite so far.

The Pitchfork 500 Alt Rock 101 Part 2 – Replacements to REM

So here’s the second part of the Alt-Rock 101 article I started last week. We’ve had Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü and The Meat Puppets, now it’s time for these three:

The Replacements – I Will Dare
Minutemen – History Lesson (Part II)
R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)

The Replacements, like Hüsker Dü before them and The Hold Steady after them, hail from Minneapolis. There’s a reason I mention The Hold Steady. In this great article, Craig Finn talks of how they saved his life. As an awkward, slightly geeky teenager, he found The Replacements and they set him onto the path he’s still on today. There’s a great story in which his dad takes him to the local record store to buy “Let It Be”, from which this song stems, and the guy behind the counter turns down the sound on the stereo, points at his dad and him in turn, and says “Cool dad. Cool kid”. You know what? You don’t get that kind of thing downloading MP3’s from iTunes or BitTorrent.

So, after hearing so much about them from bands like The Hold Steady, would the real thing stand up to scrutiny? To repeat a phrase I used in part One, hell yes. It’s not quite as bad as the feeling you get when you read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book and realise that Salman Rushdie and Louis De Bernieres are plagiaristic hacks, but this more than stands up to some of the best bands around today. And it kicks the ass of the landfill indie currently clogging up the airwaves in the UK.

This is one great, great song. It fairly grooves along, mixing Squeeze and Bruce Springsteen, with a devastatingly catchy chorus in which the singer appears to be trying to get a younger lady to do something inadvisable. Better still, it features a fantastic guitar solo before going off onto a REM-esque jangly bit. No shock there, given that the band’s Peter Buck plays it.

I like it so much I’ve played it about 25 times in the past few weeks. It’s fantastic. It’s power-pop heaven. It’s the best bar-room rock you’ve ever heard. Listen to it now and see if you disagree; I’m sure you won’t. And it’s the same with this next song, by The Minutemen.

Now, I always assumed The Minutemen were a bunch of shouty shouty earnest US hardcore punks, but this came as a massive shock. Over a lovely, jazzy guitar line, singer D. Boon chats laconically about the history of the band, starting with the immortal line “Our band can be your life”. Indeed, for many people they were; part of the hardcore scene that exploded in the early ’80’s, The Minutemen would show up in your town, play, drink and sleep on your floor. Understanding that there was a huge number of disaffected teens in an uncountable number of towns round the US, The Minutemen spoke directly to them, and went out of their way to reach out to them.

And even with 25 years between recording and now, it’s fresh as a daisy. Like all great songs it speaks directly to you, and even though my “fucking corndog” pogoing days are long, long gone, I’m taken straight back to jumping around like a fool to the bands of my teenage years1, and the friends I had then. Tragically, D. Boon would be killed in a van crash a year after recording this. What a waste of a great talent.

And going back to The Hold Steady, here’s their own tribute:

Up against these two songs, REM’s “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” really doesn’t stand up well. It’s that mid-tempo jangly alt-rock with opaque lyrics sung in a slightly irritating way that REM would release from 1983’s Murmur, right through to the present day. Whilst you simply can’t argue with the presence of “Radio Free Europe” on the list, I can’t think of a decent reason why this is on here. Maybe American alt-rock fans of a certain age look back on this song fondly, but for me, a number of their later songs would fit far more comfortably on this list than this song. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good song, but one of the top 500? Nah.

That’s the Alt-Rock 101. These bands are influential beyond measure and there’s not a guitar band around today who doesn’t owe something to at least one of them.

On a personal level, I’ve gone from not knowing three of these songs, and not knowing anything by two of the bands, to absolutely loving the three songs I didn’t know. If I could go back in time, a thirteen year-old me would get a visit from a taller, slightly overweight, and rather older version of me, clutching vinyl copies of “Let It Be”, “Double Nickels on the Dime”, and “Zen Arcade”, along with a note reading “Play these. Play them every day, get a better guitar and practice it every day, and start that band.”. I dearly hope the thirteen year old would listen. This is music that can change your life, as the song says.

And now I’m off to Amazon to buy the CD’s for the adult me. I suggest you do too.

1 Dinosaur Jnr and The Pixies, since you ask. “Freak Scene” would get me out of a coma.

MP3: I Will Dare by The Replacements

MP3: History Lesson – Part II by The Minutemen

MP3: So. Central Rain by REM

The whole Pitchfork 500 series of articles can be found here.

Buy The Replacements “Let It Be” (CD)

Buy Minutemen “Double Nickels on the Dime” (CD)

Buy REM’s “Reckoning (Deluxe Edition)” (CD/MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 Geek Rock – The Feelies to Mission Of Burma

The last set of songs on the Pitchfork 500 list for 1980-1982 takes us back to the States, with music that was in many ways similar to that discussed in my last couple of posts. Shambolic, rumbunctuous, with a definite amateur feel to them, and three of these four bands won’t be known to your average man on the street1. The other would go on to be one of the biggest bands in the world, selling some 35 million records. Not The Feelies, obviously.

The Feelies – The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness
R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe
Violent Femmes – Blister in the Sun
Mission of Burma – That’s When I Reach for My Revolver

The Feelies are another of those somewhat obscure US bands that obviously some Pitchfork writers are fond of, leaving the rest of us going, “Er, who?” and “What’s so special about this then?”. There’s a definite Joy Division meets Television thang going on (that drumbeat is taken straight from “Interzone”), with a bit of added jangle, not unlike Orange Juice. But unlike Orange Juice there isn’t that special buzz, or tune, or charm, that sucks you in. Can’t say this has grown on me much. If at all.

REM were once described as a art-rock band with a bar-room rhythm section. Certainly that’s partly in evidence in “Radio Free Europe” 2. There’s the combination of that lovely Byrdsian jangle mixed with some slashing chords; Michael Stipe’s opaque lyrics (“Calling on in transit, calling on in transit/Radio Free Europe” – you what, Mikey?); underneath it all is the thumping drums and a nicely flowing bassline.

REM pretty much defined “College Rock”, in the same way that The Smiths would do a year later in the UK to define “Indie Rock”. Cerebral, not scared of a good tune, with enough character and mystery in the lyrics to keep it all interesting. And in this song, REM showed exactly how to do it right.

Many people would have first heard Violent Femmes “Blister In The Sun” as the theme tune to the movie Grosse Point Blank (and Reality Bites, too). And what a great little tune it is too, perfect for a movie about a neurotic hitman. Even if it is about what might be termed “Gentleman’s Pursuits”. “Blister In The Sun” was recently used in the UK, after being changed just enough to remove the meaning of the song, to advertise Fosters beer. Really, I ask you, Fosters. In the US, it’s been used to sell hamburgers.

For all its commercial uses let’s not ignore the fact that it’s a fantastic song, with a hint of the unexpected, the whispered middle eight boiling back into the chorus, making it a great way to pass a few minutes of your time. And to live out your fantasies of being a hitman driving round in an open-top car.

And last in the list is Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”. Mission of Burma can be described as grumpy blokes yelling at no-one; they’re the archetypal unknown band who do their thing in obscurity, and are only discovered after they stop doing what they do so well. Look at the covers of this song you can find on YouTube: Graham Coxon and Moby. How much more diverse do you want to get?

To me, it sounds like REM fronted by Henry Rollins listening to early Joy Division. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. I actually rather like this song, you know, though I’m not entirely clear what exactly they are so grumpy about, as the lyrics are somewhat abstract. Not selling it very well, am I? Go on, go and buy it and make some now middle-aged chaps happy. Or very slightly less miserable, at the least.

So, there we go, a few songs of shambolic US rock and the beginnings of the rather more professional college music scene. It’s been a fun couple of years; somewhat less thrilling than the post-punk years, but with some real gems all the same. Like Orange Juice. And The Beat, Motorhead, Human League and Dead Kennedys. And The Pretenders. It’s been fun.

Next time, it’s just one song. But what a very special song it is.

MP3: Radio Free Europe by REM

MP3: Blister In The Sun by Violent Femmes

MP3: That’s When I Reach For My Revolver by Mission of Burma

Buy The Feelies “Crazy Rhythms” (Ok, it’s not currently available)

Buy REM’s “Murmur” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Permanent Record – The Very Best of The Violent Femmes” (CD)

Buy Mission Of Burma’s “Signals, Calls and Marches: Definitive Edition” (CD)

See the whole list Pitchfork 500 here.

1 I refer you to my earlier John Lydon quote (right at the bottom).

2 First of two entries in the P500, though “Losing My Religion” is bafflingly absent. Cliche? Yep, but it’s their best song, along with “Man On The Moon”. You know I’m right.

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