::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Beautiful Obscure: 12 Great Lesser Known R.E.M. Songs
I was a Van Halen-AC/DC kind of guy in high school; the type who decorated his locker and notebooks with the Van Halen logo and would often air guitar “Highway to Hell” in front of a mirror.

Yeah, I know.

That all changed in an underground record store in Burlington, Vermont, in 1983. I was a college freshman and browsing through the racks when I came upon R.E.M.’s “Murmur.” I vaguely recalled a Rolling Stone article naming it the best album of the year. The cover was peculiar – a moss-covered and vine-laden railroad trestle.

This was… different.

I must have been feeling daring because I bought it. Back in my dormitory room, I unwrapped the cellophane and put the album on my record player (yes, a record player – this was long before CDs and digital music). Coincidentally, I think I was wearing a Van Halen concert t-shirt.

I music quietly, but with authority, blew me away. Here was an intensely personal form of music filled with mystery, depth, and ambiance. It avoided the rush and crush of hard rock; preferring depth and style instead. Michael Stipes’ haunting lyrics cascaded along with the bluesy, yet pop-infused guitars of Peter Buck. There was richness here: an artistic sensibility – mixed with a rattling guitar that echoed the early rock music of the sixties.

The album opened musical doors for me. From R.E.M., I learned that music could be much more complex that guitar solos and lyrics about hot women and cold beer. The album was perfectly named. Stipes’ enigmatic lyrics were “murmured” rather than sung and his words drifted into the music from a faraway place (there were stories that Stipe, intensely shy, would sometimes sing with his back to the audience). It gave the music a soulful sensibility.

The lyrics were cryptic and filled with hidden meanings and symbolism. So much so that the songs became intensely personal to each listener – who often had widely diverging takes on the meanings of the Stipes words. Take this snippet from “Pilgrimage”:

“Speakin' in tongues, it's worth a broken lip
Your hate c
lipped and distant, your luck
Rest assured this will not last, take a turn for the worst
Your hate clipped and distant, your luck two-headed
The pilgrimage has gained momentum
Take a turn, take a turn

Take our fortune, take our fortune”

If you can translate those lyrics – then please get thee to a poetry seminar on e.e. cummings. But the lyrics and music hooked me and R.E.M. became one of my favorite bands through the 1980s and into the 1990s. The band was a driving force in the alternative sound and heavily influenced many bands of the time.

DaRK PaRTY gives you the 12 best R.E.M. songs you may not have heard of:

Wolves, Lower
Album: Chronic Town (EP)
Year: 1981
Why It Rocks: This is classic R.E.M. – a song that sets the tone for the band’s unique, contrasting sound – the jangling guitar, the haunting distant vocals (with bizarre nonsensical lyrics) and the heavy drum and base line. “Wolves, Lower” has a pop urgency with the sensibilities of a lyric poem.
Cool Lyric Snippet: “Wilder lower wolves. Here's a house to put wolves out the door.”

Perfect Circle
Album: Murmur
Year: 1983
Why It Rocks:Perfect Circle” feels like a love song – it has the gentle intensity of romance pervading it, but, of course, it’s not (R.E.M. generally shunned love songs). But it is as close as it gets for R.E.M. and the guitar work by Buck is magical and moody.
Cool Lyric Snippet: “Pull your dress on and stay real close/ Who might leave you where I left off?”

7 Chinese Bros.
Album: Reckoning
Year: 1984
Why It Rocks: One of the most underrated R.E.M. songs. This is a fable, a fairy tale of a song. The upbeat tempo seems to defy the intense, dark lyrics. “7 Chinese Bros.” really showcases Stipes singing and his ability to use his voice as an instrument.
Cool Lyric Snippet: “Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean/ Seven thousand years to sleep away the pain”

Pretty Persuasion
Album: Reckoning
Year: 1984
Why It Rocks: Another R.E.M. song that sounds like it could be a love song – but it’s about our consumer driven society. “Pretty Persuasion” is another classic R.E.M. song – with all the classic elements clanking together into a smooth pop number.
Cool Lyric Snippet: “He's got a pretty persuasion/ She's got pretty persuasion/ God damn, pure confusion”

Driver 8
Album: Fables of the Reconstruction
Year: 1985
Why It Rocks: It’s a song about trains – and it’s a hard driving, blues-infused rocking number. One of R.E.M.’s best – hands down. “Driver 8” is infectious and hard to listen to only once.
Cool Lyric Snippet: “And the train conductor says/ "Take a break Driver 8, Driver 8 take a break”

Album: Lifes Rich Pageant
Year: 1986
Why It Rocks: “Cuyahoga” has a country twang to it, but with an infusion of the R.E.M. sound that makes it lift off. It’s another tune where Stipes voice seems to be one of the instruments.
Cool Lyric Snippet: “This is where we walked, this is where we swam/
Take a picture here, take a souvenir”

Disturbance at the Heron House
Album: Document
Year: 1987
Why It Rocks: This song could have been the theme song for the movie “12 Monkeys.” It’s got an end of the world, we’re all doomed and going to die message – but the music has bop to it. In other words – dance while you die!
Cool Lyric Snippet: "The followers of chaos out of control/ They're numbering the monkeys /The monkeys and the monkeys"

World Leader Pretend
Album: Green
Year: 1988
Why It Rocks: A fantasy about being the leader of the world. The lyrics are nuts, but more straight forward than most of Stipes cryptic efforts, but the pretentiousness isn’t enough to knock this one down. The hard pumping feel to the music makes it work.
Cool Lyric Snippet: “This is my mistake. Let me make it good/ I raised the wall, and I will be the one to knock it down”

Album: Out of Time
Year: 1991
Why It Rocks: After a three year hiatus from making music, R.E.M. returned with one of their best and most popular albums in “Out of Time.” Stipes’ reflective and personal lyrics are accompanied by the upbeat R.E.M. jangle to create another underrated classic.
Cool Lyric Snippet: “20,000 miles to an oasis/ 20,000 years will I burn/ 20,000 chances I wasted/ Waiting for the moment to turn”

Me In Honey
Album: Out of Time
Year: 1991
Why It Rocks: The title is dirty, but the song isn’t. In fact, it may be one of the few R.E.M. love songs. Maybe. Not quite sure. But let’s just say it is.
Cool Lyric Snippet: “I sat there looking ugly /Looking ugly and mean”

Album: Automatic for the People
Year: 1992
Why It Rocks: An angry protest song, which was unusual for R.E.M. No one would ever accuse the band of being happy and shiny (ahem), but angry? Nah. Yet, the song works and may be one of the hardest rocking R.E.M. songs.
Cool Lyric Snippet: "These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years/ Wrecking all things virtuous and true.”

I Don’t Sleep, I Dream
Album: Monster
Year: 1994
Why It Rocks: A haunting ballad about dreams and sleep that feels like a mystical journey. Another song where Stipes voice shines.
Cool Lyric Snippet: "You looking to dig my dreams/ Be prepared for anything"

Listen to an iMix of our "Beautiful Obscure" songs at iTunes

Read our article about 18 Bands That Should Go Away -- Forever

Read our interview with Billy Conway, the drummer of Morphine and Treat Her Right

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Blogger Unknown said...
I had the same experience. I was puttering around in my college dorm room in fall 1983. From my boom box started to come "Murmur". I physically turned around, looked at the boom box, and said out loud... what is THAT!?

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