Monday, November 07, 2005

A Pistol Hot Cup of Rhyme

Lifes Rich Pageant
IRS Records, 1986

This review of a record nearly 20 years old is written in response to SBG's thoughts on the Hindu Love Gods album at the Four Hoarsemen blog. Plus, this is infinitely more interesting to me right now than reviewing the Gold Glove winners, commenting on the trade rumors in Sid's column, or dignifying the "Vegas-resident Reggie Jackson would like to buy the Twins" story with any response here.

R.E.M. broke out of Athens, Georgia, in 1982 and charmed college radio listeners with the Chronic Town EP, followed the next year by the full-length Murmur. At a time when the commercial airwaves were ruled by wacky, New Wave pop acts from New York and England, or else bands like Journey and REO Speedwagon, R.E.M. came on like the shy, sensitive offspring of the Byrds and the Velvet Underground. These first couple records had an ethereal, ghostly vibe. Gothic and murky, with Michael Stipe's mumbling vocals layered low in the mix, interweaving with Mike Mills' vocal countermelodies, the music sounded very much outside of its time. Reckoning in 1984 had a brighter sound featuring Peter Buck's chiming guitar arpeggios which accentuated the Byrds influence and spawned a lasting genre of jangle-pop imitators. Still, what Stipe was apparently singing to himself, or what his cryptic lyrics were really about, often might be anyone's guess.

The next year the band travelled to England to record with Joe Boyd, producer of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. By all accounts, the sessions were tense, the weather was dark and rainy, and the resulting music generally reflects that atmosphere. Addressing topics of Southern folklore and certain figures who had inspired Stipe, Fables of the Reconstruction often conveys a menacing sense of foreboding. While expanding the band's sound in some ways, the record perversely has the claustrophobic, even paranoid feeling of a group trapped inside, isolated in an alien land, and going stir crazy. To move forward, they would need to let in the light and get some air.

The band reconvened for the next record back in America with producer Don Gehman, who had been working with John Mellencamp on his American Fool and Scarecrow albums, and did them the favor of encouraging Stipe to project his voice, helping produce crisper arrangements, and unleashing the band to rock out.

Peter Buck opens Lifes Rich Pageant by playing a trademark jangly arpeggio, setting up the listener to expect the familiar comforts of R.E.M. only to be knocked back by the crack of drum, squaling feedback, and Stipe's burr of a voice growling, Birrrrdie in the hand/ For life's rich demands/ The insurgency began/ And you missed it.... It's an instant rush of adrenaline not unlike Honey Bunny jumping up on the table and threatening to execute every motherfucking last one of ya! just before Tarantino freezes the screen and wings a jolt of Dick Dale right upside your head. Throughout the record, from the get-go, the band sounds loose, confident, and thrilled to be having fun.

It's tempting to say that R.E.M. went back into the garage for this record--they even close with a rave-up cover tune with bassist Mike Mills on vocals--but this isn't the sound of a band regressing. The record still shows off Mills' melodic bass playing and some of the band's trademark of Mills singing a plaintive countermelody line behind Stipe's lead on the chorus--as in the single "Fall On Me." Mills plays some organ, accordian and piano on the album, Buck picks at his banjo and acoustic guitar, Stipe sings through a bullhorn on one track, and the final cut starts with a Godzilla toy warning the citizens of Tokyo of their imminent demise. ("...He is heading towards the city! AAAAARRRGGGHHH!") So they were in a mood to experiment and expand themselves.

Stipe is at the top of his lyrical game, often dealing with topical subjects with less cryptic imagery than before but still just evocative enough to only suggest at his intended meanings. Back in the day, I spent many an evening trying to decipher the codes of this record or else just smiling at the poetic sounds in the way Stipe strung words together. In later years, I wondered what the Michael Stipe of 1986 would have made of the lyricist who wrote "Everybody Hurts." Recoiled in horror, I would like to think.

The band on Lifes Rich Pageant seems incapable of anything so self-conscious and banal. Following their ordeal in England and possibly on the verge of breaking up, R.E.M. in '86 cut loose and went for broke. The group has cut several great records over the years, which may succeed on different levels, but none surpassing this one. If you care to go back to find R.E.M. at their hardest-rocking and most fun, start here.


At 11/08/2005 4:29 AM, Anonymous Kristi said...

Recoiled in horror, without a doubt.

Life's Rich Pageant remains my favorite R.E.M. record.

I still have the in-depth concert review you wrote for me in longhand after their show in Pullman.

At 11/08/2005 11:48 AM, Blogger amr said...

Is that Devendra Banhart's picture?

At 11/08/2005 6:12 PM, Blogger frightwig said...

Nope, that's me this time.

At 11/08/2005 7:07 PM, Blogger frightwig said...

Kristi, an historic artifact, to be sure! :)

R.E.M. records ranked by me:

1. Lifes Rich Pageant
2. Murmur
3. Dead Letter Office/ Chronic Town
4. Reckoning
5. Fables of the Reconstruction
6. Document
7. Green
8. Monster
9. New Adventures in Hi-Fi
10. Up
11. Automatic for the People
12. Out of Time

I won't rate Reveal and Around the Sun. I used to enjoy Out of Time more, but one day I realized that when I played it in juxtaposition to any of their IRS albums then I suddenly wanted to chuck it out the window.

New Adventures & Up are underrated records, but they probably should have stopped and gone their separate ways from there.

At 11/11/2005 12:30 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

Another sign that I'm a lot older than I think I am--you reviewed an album from twenty years ago, and it's still too new for me to know what you're talking about.

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