The 10 Best R.E.M. Deep Cuts [Deep Cuts Week]
November 4, 2010 2 Comments
illustration by Christina Ung
It’s easy to forget now, more than ten years after drummer Bill Berry retired, that R.E.M. was for a time the greatest rock band in the world.
Their work in the 1980s on indie label I.R.S. virtually created the alternative rock genre in the United States, and their genius albums like Document were a huge inspiration to an entire generation of American rock bands.
After making the switch to Warner Brothers in 1988, R.E.M. achieved great success artistically and commercially, culminating in their massive hit “Losing My Religion” and late-stage masterpiece Automatic for the People. No less an authority than Kurt Cobain said, “I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.”
To be fair, the band unraveled creatively after Berry’s departure, which followed an aneurysm and near-death experience on the Monster tour in 1997. While singer Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck have continued recording and touring, their music hasn’t had nearly the same vitality over the past decade.
However, that should in no way obscure the greatness of R.E.M.’s first nine (arguably ten) records, the extent of their impact upon American music, and the awesomeness of their back catalog.
Perhaps the most convincing tribute to R.E.M. was delivered by Pavement in the song “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” which sings the praises of the band and runs down the track list of their brilliant second album, Reckoning. I think this video created by Youtube user SeeYouNextFall is pretty sweet, even if he does get Buck and Mills mixed up.
SongMeanings user SummerBabe provides an entertaining analysis of Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics:
“The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence” gives a highly important homage, a passing of torches of sorts, to [Pavement’s] predecessors in the lineage of “alternative music,” Athens, GA’s R.E.M.
Pavement were *so* alternative, they up and shattered and re-collaged a whole quasi-genre, with songs like this one, which appeared (folding irony onto itself to achieve a kind of earnestness which pure irony cannot seek to deliver) on the 1993 AIDS benefit compilation, “No Alternative.”
Ten years after “Chronic Town” changed a new wave landscape into an alternative vista, Pavement takes their indie-rock ancestors through a historiophilic tilt-a-whirl, comparing their impact on music history to General William Sherman’s historic march through Georgia, to the Atlantic Ocean, nearly 130 years before.
So you don’t have to take my word for it on the greatness of R.E.M. — You really think you have what it takes to trifle with Cobain and Malkmus?
We Assume You’ve Heard: “The One I Love,” “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “Can’t Get There From Here,” “Stand,” “Orange Crush,” “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” “Man on the Moon,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Drive,” “Nightswimming,” “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
Other Singles and Greatest Hits You Should Be Familiar With (this list is a lot better than the previous one, frankly): “Radio Free Europe,” “Talk About the Passion,” “Gardening At Night,” “Pretty Persuasion,” “Don’t Go Back To Rockville,” “So. Central Rain,” “7 Chinese Bros.,” “Driver 8,” “Begin the Begin,” “Fall On Me,” “Cuyahoga,” “Life and How to Live It,” “Finest Worksong,” “Pop Song 89,” “Near Wild Heaven,” “Radio Song,” “Bang and Blame,” “Star 69,” “E-Bow the Letter,” and the entirety of Automatic for the People.
#10. “Romance” from Eponymous
Pitchfork led off its review of And I Feel Fine, the superb I.R.S. Records compilation of R.E.M.’s early classics, by noting that “The first thing you need to know is that neither of the two sets has “Romance” on it. So you’ll want to hang on to the now out-of-time Eponymous, or at least burn the song before you sell the disc.”
This song, from the soundtrack to 80s flick “Made In Heaven,” was the first track that the band recorded with producer Scott Litt, sparking a creative partnership that would carry them to their greatest artistic heights. The vitality of this track makes it an absolute keeper, featuring typically superb backing vocals from Mike Mills. Never released on an album, “Romance” made R.E.M.’s first greatest-hits set Eponymous a must-own, and it remains one of the band’s best deep cuts.
Embedded version from a Murmur session outtake.
#9.”Get Up” from Green
“Get Up,” from the sessions of R.E.M.’s first major-label release, was inspired by Michael Stipe’s frustration at Mike Mills’ habit of sleeping in and delaying the recording sessions. That said, when Mills finally did wake up he laid down some great vocals to go along with magnificent bass work. Peter Buck’s guitar drives the song forward, while Bill Berry is as solid as ever on the drums. I have always loved Stipe’s lyric, “Dreams, they complicate my life.”
#8. “Letter Never Sent” from Reckoning
Reckoning is pretty much genius front-to-back. This album cut captures Stipe’s angst at the band’s success and the rapidly increasing pace of his life, touring and “moving too fast.” The interplay between guitar, bass and drums is excellent — all three musicians play so effectively without needing to resort to flashy histrionics. R.E.M.’s sound was really original and kickass: on most of their records, Buck’s guitar playing and Berry’s drumming provide a steady groove over which Mills’ bass moves melodically. When you consider what most of popular music was like in the early 80s, you can see how revolutionary this fusion of The Byrds and The Smiths really was.
#7. “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” from Monster
Most of R.E.M.’s better work on their Warner Brothers albums doesn’t really qualify as “deep cuts,” because at this point in their careers, the band was the highest-paid and best-respected musical act in the world.
Still, I think Monster is an underappreciated album that shows the impressive creative level at which R.E.M. might have continued if Bill Berry had stuck around. He encouraged his bandmates to rock on this album, and they certainly did so. This song, however, has a different feel from rockers like “Star 69” and really showcases the talents of Michael Stipe in the full force of his powers. A timid frontman at the band’s outset, Stipe gradually grew in confidence over the years until he was one of the best in the game. This sly song of seduction contains the brilliant line, “I’ll settle for a cup of coffee, but you know what I really need.”
#6. “Pilgrimage” from Murmur
Critics often referred to this album as “Mumble” due to the muddled nature of Stipe’s vocals (remember, this is when Van Halen ruled the charts), but to my mind, these “introverted” vocal performances are a hell of a lot more meaningful than some big haired front man yowling “Oh yeahhhhhh!”
I like the drumming a lot on this one, as well as the bass and backup vocals (to be fair, I like those on pretty much every single R.E.M. song). This is one of the best songs on R.E.M’s full-length debut, and I cranked it way up the last time I heard it while driving in my car.
#5. “Texarkana” from Out of Time
As good a time as any to cement my praise of Mike Mills, who takes lead vocals on this track. I freakin’ love this guy. He’s an insanely good bassist, and while he might not have a gorgeous voice, his vocal style fits perfectly with R.E.M.’s sound and his singing on every record is money. This track is a great example. I also love the playing of Buck (he was on fire on this record) and Berry, propelling a driving beat with a country twang. Such a killer song.
Another great Mills lead vocal from Out of Time is “Near Wild Heaven,” but that was released as a single, so I ruled it out.
#4. “Green Grow the Rushes” from Fables of the Reconstruction
Fables is kind of a random R.E.M. record — they recorded it in London with Joe Boyd, the guy who discovered and produced Nick Drake. While I’ve read that the group was pretty miserable while making this album and hated it as a result, it still turned out really well in my opinion, and marked the point at which the band started to develop some pretty superb singles along with their typically great album cuts.
“Rushes” is definitely among the latter, but it’s exemplary of an album on which Stipe draws on the themes of Southern mythology with evocative lyrics. Peter Buck’s guitar is really solid on this one, and (shocker) the rhythm section is completely locked in. I loved this song the first time I heard it, and it still totally gets it done for me.
Live version from 1985 embedded.
#3. “Disturbance at the Heron House” from Document
I’ve seen competing theories about whether this song is about Animal Farm-inspired themes or about an incident in Athens, GA where wannabes scrambled to get the attention of visiting media drawn by R.E.M.’s success, but frankly both theories work for me. R.E.M. was never taken in by the aura of authority, success, fame, or the establishment — they constantly worked outside the mainstream, maintained their roots in Georgia (when Berry retired, it was to an Athens hay farm, not a Malibu mansion), and actively supported progressive political causes during the Reagan administration. For at least two decades, the band was totally and completely legit in every way.
I could go on about how the vocals (lead and backing) are sweet, the bass is ingenious, the guitar is inspired and the drums are rockin’, but I think you have probably gotten the message by now.
#2. “Harborcoat” from Reckoning
This song is classic early R.E.M. — very evocative of The Smiths, but with an original style from the American South. I love how the lead and backing vocals intertwine just as the guitar and bass do the same. It has an unpolished, indie sound, crafted in part by producer Mitch Easter, that helped create a template for an entire genre. Most of all, it’s a really great song, and it’s a credit to R.E.M.’s longevity and vitality that the opener on one of their best albums could even be considered a deep cut.
#1. “These Days” from Life’s Rich Pageant
This one came as a surprise to me. When I delved into R.E.M.’s catalogue to identify the top ten tracks for this article, “These Days” was not even on my agenda. But I gave it a dozen more listens after I saw that it was Bill Berry’s pick for the second disc of “And I Feel Fine.” Now, I realize that this is a consummate and essential R.E.M. track.
“These Days” delivers on all counts. A great, urgent vocal from Stipe with superb turns of phrase in the lyrics. A brilliant backing vocal from Mills (joined by, I believe, Berry) that interlocks with and plays off of the lead vocal perfectly. Sharp and propulsive drumming, rhythmic and chiming guitar, and melodic, driving Rickenbacker bass bring that classic R.E.M. sound. The song explodes into being and closes with authority.
Drivers, beware! This deep cut will earn you a speeding ticket if you aren’t careful.
Here’s a highlight from R.E.M.’s memorable appearance on The Simpsons, in the episode “Homer the Moe.”
Okay, I know that “Shiny Happy People” is R.E.M’s least favorite R.E.M. song, and I know that it’s considered pretty cheesy and lame. But I saw this video when I was a kid and ate it up, and it’s part of what got me into R.E.M. to begin with, along with a homemade cassette tape of “R.E.M.’s Greatest Hits” that I scored a copy of from an older, cooler neighbor.
Therefore, with no further ado, I present “Furry Happy Monsters.”
(Trivia bonus! Stephanie D’Abruzzo of Avenue Q fame stands in for Kate Pierson on this one.)
|DEEP CUTS INDEX|