New Adventures in Hi-Fi: My Journey Into R.E.M., Part 1

Hello from Athens!  So to speak anyway.  This is the first leg of my journey through the discography of alternative rock heroes R.E.M. If you want a little more historical background on the band and their roots, well, I guess you can hit up Wikipedia. I’m going to focus as much as I can on just the music for this series.

So I know that in the introduction post I said I’d only be hitting the main albums and EPs in my writeups, but I would be doing everyone a disservice without mentioning “Radio Free Europe.” Released in 1981, it’s R.E.M.’s first single and was largely responsible for landing them a record deal with I.R.S.

Listening to it 30 years later it’s easy to figure out where it fits in the history of alt rock, although there are some strong New Wave sounds going on as well. Here’s the original version as released on the Hib-Tone label.

What I hear is a young, raw band full of energy and with an already strong sense of melody. The star of the show as far as I’m concerned is guitarist Peter Buck, whose ringing chords and melodic arpeggios are a real treat. I was pleasantly surprised by Mike Mills’ bass playing, which was steady and propulsive when it needed to be but a little adventurous too. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that guy.

Up next is Chronic Town, R.E.M.’s first EP, released in August 1982. Apparently the group’s manager, Jefferson Holt, didn’t feel the band was quite ready for a full-length release. So instead we get five songs clocking in at just under 21 minutes.

As with “Radio Free Europe,” the tracks here all crackle with energy. The first song, “Wolves, Lower”, is my favorite. It’s got a certain infectious, nervous energy and some really fluid playing from Buck. Mills’ bass is nice and punchy, and provides a great foundation alongside Bill Berry’s drumming. Most of all, though, “Wolves, Lower” is simply the best-written and best-produced song on the record.

The group also shows a bit of an experimental side on a few tracks. “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” starts off with a weird-sounding synth bit, and there’s a fun spoken word/percussion breakdown in the last half of “Stumble.”

Every song here is pretty good at least, although a few problems plague Chronic Town. As expected with a relatively low-budget release from a young band, the performances aren’t very polished and the production is uneven (the fadeout in “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” is a bit ham-fisted, for example). Tempo problems abound (especially with “1,000,000” and “Stumble”) and Michael Stipe’s vocals don’t sound especially assured.

The only other quibble I have is that the songs do tend to lock into a very similar rhythm. It’s not enough to make them sound identical, but I was hoping for more dynamics. But maybe that’s just me being ignorant of alternative rock conventions.

So after one very strong single and one good EP, I’m pretty excited about this project. This is not a genre I’ve ever really been comfortable with, but if what I’ve read is true and the next handful of R.E.M. releases keep getting better, I should be in for some good times.

Favorite songs: “Radio Free Europe” and “Wolves, Lower”

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