Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Buy The Sky And Sell The Sky

Let's begin the begin (clever, eh?) with REM's LIFES RICH PAGEANT (1986), their 4th full-length LP. It was released on the IRS label, and was their 1st album to achieve Gold status. The musical line-up was Bill Berry (drums, vocals), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass, vocals), and Michael Stipe (vocals).

Before we get too far, let's address the missing apostrophe in "Lifes". Apparently, it's deliberate. Next, let's talk about the running order of the songs. The back of my album cover lists the tracks as follows:
01 Begin the Begin
02 Hyena
03 Just a Touch
04 I Believe
05 These Days
06 The Flowers of Guatemala
07 Cuyahoga
08 What If We Give It Away?
09 Fall On Me
10 Swan Swan H

However, the actual running order is
Dinner Side

01 Begin the Begin – 3:24
02 These Days – 3:21
03 Fall on Me – 2:49
04 Cuyahoga – 4:17
05 Hyena – 2:48
06 Underneath the Bunker – 1:24
Supper Side
07 The Flowers of Guatemala – 3:53
08 I Believe – 3:32
09 What If We Give It Away? – 3:31
10 Just a Touch – 2:56
11 Swan Swan H – 2:39
12 Superman (Zekley/Bottler) – 2:50
[All songs written by Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe, except where noted.]

So what is the meaning of the missing apostrophe, the missing/out of order song titles, etc.? I have no idea. That's the great thing about developing a reputation for being "deep". You can do stupid little shit and it causes scores of people to scramble to find the "hidden meaning". It's a regular DaVinci Code, I'm sure. But, I'm moving on to the music now. Well, after one quick note about the "Dinner Side/Supper Side" thing. As one who has lived in both larger metropolitan areas and sparsely populated rural areas, I have made note of this phenomenon: "city folk" tend to eat "breakfast, lunch, and dinner" while "country folk" tend to eat "breakfast, dinner, and supper". It might also be a North/South thing, but I'm not sure about that. In the Midwest, it's a city/small town thing. Michael Stipe was born in Georgia, but I know he went to high school in the St.Louis suburb of Collinsville, Illinois. A lady I used to work with showed me her yearbook. He looked about the same as in the early REM photos. Moving on.

This is the album where Stipe decided we might want to understand more of the words, and eliminated most of the mumbling. Don't get me wrong, I like the earlier, mumbly stuff too. But, here, he sounds even better to me. I've always gone for "distinctive" over "trained" when it comes to vocals. Stipe's voice is nothing if not distinctive. To me, it's powerful and expresses a complexity of emotion that is quite extraordinary. But, it certainly isn't that super-smooth, Dean Martin type of shit (just in case that's your bag).

Not since the Stones began Tattoo You with "Start Me Up" had there been a more appropriate opening song title than "Begin the Begin". Peter Buck had some fairly heavy distortion mixed in with his melodic guitar runs, a great blend of smooth and distorted at the same time ("Let's begin again, begin the begin/Let's begin again like Martin Luther Zen").

"These Days" keeps the pace moving fairly quickly. The guitar has a nice semi-squeal going...very nice. The line "We are young despite the years" has a Dylanesque ring to it. "Fall On Me" was one of the two singles released from this LP. What an amazingly catchy tune, probably among their very catchiest ever. Plus, it's about air pollution. This is where Stipe decided he could take a stand on some issues, which flew somewhat in the face of the mum's the word/ignorance is bliss attitude of the Reagan era. Good move, even though there are those among us who would seem to consider such activity too humorless.

Check out the ultra-cool bass line in "Cuyahoga"!!! This one's about water pollution, referencing the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which was so polluted that it actually caught fire in 1969. Stunning. "Hyena" and "Underneath the Bunker" close out the Dinner Side. The former is a peppy, poppy number that seems to say something about the arms race (I think?), and the latter is basically a '60s-surf-music-sounding tune.

The Supper Side opens with a real hidden gem, "The Flowers of Guatemala." This is an achingly, hauntingly gentle/sad tune ("There's something that I've never seen before/The flowers often bloom at night/Amanita is the name they cover over everything"). What is "Amanita," you ask? According to Wikipedia, "There are about 600 species of agarics in the genus Amanita (family Amanitaceae), which contains some of the most toxic known mushrooms. This genus is responsible for 95% of the fatalities resulting from mushroom poisoning..." So, the melancholy mood of the tune fits the subject matter.

"I Believe" that a banjo in the intro?! Lines such as "I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract" give us more to puzzle over, if we so choose. No doubt, these guys could write a great pop tune at will. Amazingly, this was considered unusual for the times, as most of "rock" was mired in synthed-up bullshit. Hence, REM were the Beatles of the "college music" ('80s speak for "alternative") scene. The Replacements were the Rolling Stones. I'm not sure who the Violent Femmes, Aztec Camera, and Camper Van Beethoven's a hard analogy to sustain.

"What If We Give It Away?" develops into yet another catchy song. Nice distortion intro for "Just a Touch", which is fast-paced and sort of heavy/funky. Nice wailing vocals too. "I can't see where to worship Popeye, love Al Green/I can't see, I'm so young, I'm so god damn young" pushes us past the official number of references to being "young" to qualify as an obsession of sorts on this album.

"Swan Swan H" is a masterpiece of musical simplicity, lyrical ambiguity/imagery, and Stipe really staking out his ground vocally, fully developing the delivery he was about to make way, way more famous.

The album ends with the second single, "Superman". This is a cover version of a little-known '60s B-side by The Clique. It has ultra-simple, straightforward lyrics, sung by bassist Mike Mills. This one is so catchy it's ridiculous. Just a cool, upbeat (dare I say, "good-humored"?) way to end a damned fine album.

Great call, Keith!


Blogger Beth said...

What a wonderful post! I especially love your R.E.M. are The Beatles/The Replacements are the Stones analogy.

Now I have to go pull out Lifes Rich Pageant ... dance a while ... and relive those days.

7:26 PM, June 21, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

Thanks for the comment.

I'll have to fess up to getting the REM=Beatles, Replacements=Stones analogy from someone in the late '80s. I'm pretty sure it was something that was written somewhere. Unfortunately, I don't have a source to credit. [RabidT, anything ringing a bell? You might've even been my source. If so, please take credit.]

Do pull out this album. I hadn't listened to it since my college days (which ended in '92)!!! "The Flowers of Guatemala" gave me gossebumps, and I don't even CARE who thinks that makes me a wuss!

5:46 AM, June 22, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

"goosebumps"...not "gossebumps"...sorry

5:49 AM, June 22, 2006  
Blogger Keith Kennedy said...

Thanks for the good review. I love this LP. It was for hipsters only back in the day - but it has certainly aged well.

3:09 PM, June 23, 2006  

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