Posts Tagged ‘Radio Free Europe’

4 Perfect Songs

March 22, 2013

I must be getting old. I’m up early in the morning, not because I especially want to, but because that’s the way it is now.  My body knows no different.  I contemplated staying in bed, but then I realized that the AM is also the only time when I can write or be remotely productive.  I wonder if I’ll be getting up at 5 AM in a few more years to write, like truly dedicated, “real” writers.  I’m not sure, but one thing I asked myself this morning was if this was going going to be the end of late night, slightly slurred song writing?  Again, I’m not sure.  I do know that at the end of my teaching day I feel like slipping into a coma.  Despite the mythology, songs very rarely just come to you.  Yes, it happens, and usually more than once, but the rest of the time it’s work.  It might be whimsical, it might be pondering, it might be mildly tedious, or it might be head-bashingly frustrating, but it is work nonetheless.

I’ve found, not a work-around, but at least a slightly helpful method, which is that I am constantly writing in my head, even if it is for the same song or lines for weeks on end.  It’s not a replacement for sitting down with your guitar in front of pen & paper, typewriter (remember those?), or computer keyboard, but it’s a slight help.  It also makes committing the songs to memory rather easy.  But, I digress….

Our aqua green Toyota Tarago recently kicked the bucket after over three years of loyal, untiring service.  We drove the poor bugger hard, and it wasn’t in great shape when I got it, (I got seriously ripped off).  I’ve been waiting for it to go for over 18 months, after we had a severe scare on the road, and I told myself when it was time to say goodbye that I would do so with little fanfare and no regrets or complaints.  A lo, it came to pass that as soon as it shat itself I already had the next van picked out, this one a much finer upgrade.  The only problem is that it has the factory CD player, so no more rocking the iPod on the road, at least until we splurge on a new stereo (read: never).

So….it’s back to our CD collections we go.  On the drive home after opening with Bonjah Matt & I listened to a few of our favourite albums, ones that we had dubbed “perfect”, each in their own way.  Art is great like that.  There is no objective ideal of perfect, but each thing can be its own perfect self.  Ten Silver Drops by the Secret Machines has long been a marvel, along with Elliot Smith’s Either/Or.  After our last jaunt down to Sydney, I did the driving while my co-pilot mostly slept soundly, which meant I was the DJ, for better or worse.  I put on the usual mix of brooding alt-rock throwbacks & throwaways, and by the time I got home I had managed to get to R.E.M.’s Murmur.

Amongst indie rock cognoscenti this LP is a bit of a trophy of sorts, especially amongst the fading denim of Atlanta & Athens where I grew up.  Listening back from such a distance, it is indeed a triumph, but in a way that marks most of their early records.  When they got it right, they really got it right, and the rest of the time it didn’t suck.  That’s not bad actually, considered how many full albums we’ve all probably bought over the years that had one decent song and the rest shyte.

I was reminded of a brief period of my life when I was fascinated by the EP format.  Ignorant of its vinyl origins (EPs were on 10-inch discs, LP were on 12, while singles were 7), I simply thought of an EP as 4-7 tracks of compressed expression, a format that had been sorely underused.  Radiohead’s Airbag/How Am I Driving EP completely floored me, and I soon embarked on a personal quest to turn every great album into an even better EP.  It’s rather reductive reasoning that soon taps itself out, but it tuned and turned my ear on a different slant for a while, and since I don’t have an aversion to the LP format no harms seems to have been done.

I guess all of this is a roundabout introduction to saying that the first 4 tracks on Murmur are perfect in their own way.  I’ll not explain why, but am posting them here in hopes that you’ll enjoy them.  R.E.M. has often been tagged as “Southern Gothic”, mostly because they are a) from the South, and b) writers needed a term to describe them that made both the band and the writer’s seem “arty”.  It doesn’t always fly, but every once in a while it makes sense.  There is a murkiness that pervades much of their work, and the collision of 4-on-the-floor new-wave anglo-jangle with shimmering guitars and brooding lyrics does suggest something darker and more serious than let’s get drunk let’s fuck fuck you.  You can pogo to these tunes, if it moves you, but I can’t say that I’ve ever felt compelled to do the same.  Maybe it’s because I first heard these songs 20 years past their introduction, and my reaction was to go completely still and absorb it all rather than revel in it’s beauty and energy.  That is one of the blessings, and curses, of time and distance.  We can experience things not as they were, but then, we don’t get to experience things as they were.

It’s worth reading the original press that was turned out when this record was released, of only to get a sense of not only how high the odds were stacked against R.E.M., but of how hungry the music press was for a band exactly like them.  When everyone gets all giddy/angry about the 90s revolution, what they’re reaping is the seeds that were sown long before.  Here’s 4 of the finest.

Radio Free Europe: I’ve opted to kick things off with a live version rather than the crappy video.  (It would be a long while until their videos managed to catch up to their sonic output).  I never knew R.E.M. when they were young (mostly because I was in nappies), so it was rather endearing to see them so young and full of zip.  Bassist Mike Mills has long been my secret favourite in the band, and watching him jump around with his baby face puts paid to those who think of R.E.M. and automatically assume that it was all “Shiny Happy People” or “Everybody Hurts”.  Sure, they’d lose in a fight with a tougher band, but they’d go down swinging, with pride intact.  As Anthony Kiedis intoned on Pea: so fucking what?

Pilgrimage: Why doesn’t anyone talk about this song?  Oh yeah, coz they put it right next to all the other great songs.  That’s either brilliant or the absolute pits of tracklisting.

Laughing: This is the gem that gets all the rock nerds in a frenzy, and it’s easy to see why.  Ambiguity, thy name is “Laughing”.  I’ll be honest, I don’t know what Stipey is singing half the time, and I don’t want to know.  I have always rolled around in the sound and melody of this song, and for every word I understand (or think I decipher), I consider it a victory of patience.  This song has never had a meaning for me, up until last week….I was driving and had a literal head-smacking moment.  Whether I’ve gotten it wrong or gotten it right, it only matters to me.

Talk About The Passion: The last of my personal quartet of perfection, “Talk About The Passion” has always been one of their more accessible songs, but one that I never love, love, loved.  I doubt I’ve ever pressed skip over it, but it never gripped my like it has these past two weeks.  For whatever reason, the lines

not everyone/can carry the weight of the world

have never seemed more true than now.  I usually don’t like or hang onto songs for such literal reasons, but having someone say it for you….I needed that. Perhaps this means that I’m moving towards a future where I’ll listen to “Everybody Hurts” when I’m…you know…hurtin’.

And that’s that.  I could say more about the entire album, but I’d rather not.  I’ve said too much already, and you get the drift.  I’ve been listening to these 4 songs in my car for the last 2 weeks and as I pulled in last night I realized that it was over.  It wasn’t too much of a good thing, but the special magic that these 4 songs have held over me has just slightly faded, and that is as good as gone.  I’m not going to burn the CD, mind you, I’m simply going to put something else on.

My tea has gone cold and it’s time for me to put the laundry out to dry.  Give these tracks a spin if you’re bored and in the mood for dreaming.