Friday Flashback: Murmur by R.E.M.

Yesterday–April 12, 2018–was the 35th anniversary of the release of R.E.M.’s debut LP. I wrote a review of it for Amazon.com on December 11, 2005. Here it is. [As with all of my Friday Flashbacks, it has been edited for spelling, grammar, punctuation, factual accuracy etc., but the content is unchanged.]

Murmur is arguably the most important American record of the 1980s. It is seen by many as the birth of alternative rock. I can’t quite agree with this assessment, but R.E.M.’s debut was literally music to the ears of music fans who couldn’t quite relate to post-punk, new wave, and the MTV pop of the early 80s. Seemingly out of nowhere came a record with a rustic, acoustic feel, at a time when electric guitars were wiry and robotic, and synthesizers were on the verge of becoming a lead instrument. One might say that Murmur was to the early 80s was The Band’s first LP was to the late 60s. And the fact that Murmur reached #36 on the Billboard Top 200 is a testament to the size of the market that R.E.M. was able to tap (not that that was their intention).

Image result for r.e.m. 1983

Photo by Chris Walter

At the risk of making a potentially politically incorrect statement–a concern that I am sensitive to–I would say that R.E.M. were the founders of alternative rock in the same way that Columbus was the one who discovered America. While Murmur certainly sounded different than anything released in well over a decade, I still cannot help but give The Feelies’ debut Crazy Rhythms [click for my Amazon.com review] the distinction of being the first alternative record. To me, Crazy Rhythms sounds different enough than what came before it, but enough like what came after it to merit this distinction. In other words, alternative rock was already there, but not many people knew about it. This is where R.E.M. comes in. As I said before, although Murmur had no apparent target audience and practically no commercial viability, it still reached the Top 40. Hence, the importance of Murmur–like that of Christopher Columbus–is immeasurable.

Image result for crazy rhythms

Murmur is a fascinating listen. It sounds like something unearthed from a spot where such a thing has no earthly business being. R.E.M. was influenced by artists from across the punk (The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Television) and pop (The Byrds, Big Star, The Soft Boys) spectrums, but managed to avoid sounding too much like any of them. This is a case of so many influences perfecting the sound. Like the best albums by the bands they loved, Murmur marks a point when music starts to sound different. Perhaps the most obvious case of this is that after this album, lyrics could be not only be cryptic, but the vocals themselves unintelligible. The songs on Murmur–like the songs on Crazy Rhythms–do not seem to be about anything. “Perfect Circle,” for example, is a fine case of how R.E.M.’s lyrics are more significant in terms of how they are said rather than what the actual words are (e.g., “Standing too soon/Shoulders high in the room”). And while R.E.M. was a minimalist band at heart, producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon [click for the 2017 interview that I did with him and Marti Jones] succeeded in adorning the songs without swallowing them whole, such as in the waltz-like feel of “We Walk.”

The disparate styles and sounds that merge to create the mural that Murmur is reflects the disparate backgrounds of the the band’s members. Stipe was born in Decatur, GA, but formed his first band while in high school in St. Louis. Meanwhile, Peter Buck was born in northern California, Mike Mills in southern California, and Bill Berry in Deluth, Minnesota. Yet somehow, they were all able to come together at a party in Athens, GA, and henceforth be forever shrouded in the mythology of the American South. And of course, the irony is never lost on critics that the band’s name refers to the state of sleep in which dreaming occurs, and thus their music and lyrics would forever be compared to the opaque, symbolic, non-linear images of dreamland.

Musically, Murmur delivers on the promise of the Chronic Town EP, with many of their trademarks firmly in place on the first single, “Radio Free Europe.” Michael Stipe’s voice isn’t quite a drawl, but it has a nasally twang about it that gives it its edge. The arpeggios are invincibly crisp on “Talk About the Passion,” and equally slinky on the rocking “Catapult” and “Sitting Still.” On “9-9,” the guitar richochets in between verses of Velvet Underground-like narration. And the rhythm section is nothing to sneeze at, either. Witness the thumping bass lines on “Laughing,” and the footstomping beats of “Pilgrimage” and “Moral Kiosk.” Then there is “Shaking Through,” which is just beautiful, and “West of the Fields,” a forceful closer to an almost flawless record.

R.E.M.’s debut LP was enough to convince skeptics and believers alike that there was probably nothing that the band couldn’t do. Within five years, Rolling Stone would deem them “America’s Best Rock ‘n Roll Band,” and few who were in the know would dispute the claim. Five years after that, R.E.M. would be America’s biggest rock ‘n roll band. Whether this was poetic justice or a travesty depends on your point of view. Either way, the band would always have its first half-dozen or so records to justify their worshipping audience and critical raves. With Murmur, they hit the ground running, and have kept moving, albeit a bit more slowly, for over 20 years since.

Advertisements

Friday Flashback: Something Else by The Kinks

Before I had the honor of writing about music and nonfiction for actual publications, I posted reviews of my favorite albums on Amazon.com. I have reposted some of them on this sadly negelected blog in the categories of Amazon Flashback and Amazon Reviews. Inspired by Pitchfork’s Sunday review feature, I have decided to begin reposting my Amazon reviews on a regular basis. Since Pitchfork’s selection was Something Else by The Kinks this past Sunday, I figured that I would make it mine today. (Save for edits for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and factual accuracy, the pieces will appear exactly as they originally did.)

Kinks_SE

Britpop Ground Zero

In late 1960s, rock ‘n roll began to outgrow “Satisfaction,” “Love Me Do,” and “You Really Got Me.” Not only did bands become more socially and politically aware, they became more ambitious and eager to experiment. For their trouble, many of the great bands from this era–such as The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, and The Beach Boys–were rewarded with not only a secure musical legacy, but healthy financial benefits as well. The Kinks, who were banned from the US between the crucial years of 1965 and 1969, received neither. They had a handful of successful singles, but their LPs went almost completely unnoticed by record buyers.

untitled.jpguntitled.jpguntitled.jpgKinks_by-Dezo-Hoffman

Fortunately, the pendulum has swung, and The Kinks are now recognized as a major influence on subsequent generations of British rockers. To quote Mick Jones of The Clash, “As far as The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who are concerned, we don’t really hear that much about The Kinks. But they’re just as important, you know.”

While the influence of The Beatles and The Stones spreads across the entire spectrum of popular music, that of The Kinks and The Who is most obvious in the punk (British and American) of the late 70s and the Britpop of the early 90s. Like Newton and Leibniz’s independent but nearly simultaneous invention of calculus, the fuzzy power chords of these bands’ 1964-5 singles laid the groundwork for punk, while assertions like Pete Townshend’s “hope I die before I get old” and Ray Davies’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”–a B-side that appeared 10 years before The Ramones’ debut–were philosophical proto-punk manifestos.

In the late 60s and early 70s, both bands turned toward catchy, melodic pop songs whose influence would be heard in everyone from The Jam and XTC to Blur and Pulp. And the career trajectory similarities don’t stop there: The Kinks and The Who could also be credited–or, if you prefer, blamed–for inventing the rock opera/concept album with their 1969 releases Arthur and Tommy (although The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow was released a year earlier than both). In the late 70s and early 90s, British groups would be inspired to sound like these British bands who had influenced them, rather than like the American artists who had influenced the British bands of the 60s.

Something Else by The Kinks was arguably the first full-length instance of what would be called Britpop a quarter-century later. (Or maybe it was Face To Face. Take your pick.) The proto-punk and American R&B elements of their first records were less salient on this record, having been replaced by a “distinctly British” blend of marching drums, slow to mid-tempo rockers and ballads, and primarily acoustic–but nonetheless rocking– guitars. Furthermore, the themes moved beyond boy loves girl to musical snapshots of schoolyard jealousy, sibling rivalry, disappointed in-laws, bittersweet solitude and, of course, underachieving circus folk.

It is one thing for a record to culminate in a one-two punch or trio of great songs, but quite another for it to start off with a right, left, and uppercut. That is what we get on Something Else. With the Stonesy thump of “David Watts” (later covered in a faithful if perfunctory manner by The Jam), the quirky, melancholy folk of “Death of a Clown,” and the thinly veiled allegory “Two Sisters,” this record wastes no time getting started. And it is hardly on cruise control before closing with “Waterloo Sunset,” a feather in the cap–if not jewel in the crown–of 60s British pop.

After the 1-2-3 punch that opens the record, things slow down a bit with “No Return,” which, like the similarly hazy and dreamlike “Lazy Old Sun,” shows that while the Kinks were not a psychedelic band or a bunch of hippies, they were clearly not impervious to the atmosphere of Swinging London. The same can be said of the hilarious “Harry Rag,” which humorously mocks the idea that anything is bearable if you’ve got the right stuff to take your mind off of it. “End of the Season,” sung by Ray in a mock lounge singer voice, is another highlight, and the music hall ditties “Tin Soldier Man” and “Situation Vacant” contribute significant personality to the record.

Then there are Dave Davies’ songs. I am a great fan of underdogs and unsung heroes, and I think that it can be said that Dave wrote at least one great song for every dozen or so that Ray did (see Dave’s The Album That Never Was for examples). The absurd folk of “Death of a Clown,” which reached #3 in the UK, is proof enough: “The trainer of insects is crouched on his knees/And frantically looking for runaway fleas.”

But Dave also contributes the steady rockers “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” and “Funny Face.” Hence, Something Else was for Dave what Revolver was for George Harrison. (The weakest track on the record is probably Ray’s “Afternoon Tea.” While its subject is quintessentially English, it hardly makes for compelling listening in this case.) And it would be a travesty to not give props to Nicky Hopkins for his superb piano and harpsichord work.

The bonus tracks on the 2000 reissue are far from the throwaways meant to entice completists that such tracks often are. First of all, Dave rears his underrated head with “Lincoln County” and the excellent “Susannah’s Still Alive,” which was a hit single in its own right. And Ray’s songs–especially “Autumn Almanac,” “Wonderboy,” “Polly,” and “There’s No Life Without Love”–are as good as anything to be found on this or any other Kinks record of the era.

It may be a bit unfortunate that this rerelease is in mono, for it is tempting to say that the stereo version packs more punch. But that is ultimately a matter of taste, and the fact is that this is a fascinating collection of songs, sounding very much like a product of its time–perhaps somewhat charmingly dated–and yet still unlike albums by the band’s peers. These elements combine to create a precious gem of the British Invasion, one which would itself spawn the gems of future British Invasions.