Sunday, January 16, 2011

R.E.M.: Eponymous (1981-87)


R.E.M.'s never been a singles band. None of their three somewhat official hits compilations really satisfies. I seldom advocate this argument quite so strongly, but if you're shooting for an R.E.M. crash course, don't start with this or In Time. Eponymous gathers the semi-hits and commercialish songs from the band's first five albums, typically (erroneously) referred to as their "indie period" -- in fact, I.R.S. was scarcely more an independent label than Sire in the '80s -- and the band, who'd just signed to Warner Bros. in 1988, wasn't particularly keen on this record's release. A label jump usually renders a best-of inevitable, but I.R.S. was a bit rude in scheduling Eponymous for release mere weeks before the band's WB debut, Green, even forcing out a single (the chestnut "Talk About the Passion" from Murmur) for competition with "Orange Crush."

But the band, presumably to protect their name, went along with the project and contributed, for the effect that unlike subsequent attempts to canonize their I.R.S. years -- including their own sanctioned retrospective, And I Feel Fine -- feels somewhat like an R.E.M. album. It doesn't have the wise sequencing or mood variance of the albums from which it lifts its twelve songs, but it has a confounding R.E.M.-like cover plus an annoyingly clever title, contains typically oddball elements like a yearbook photo of Michael Stipe with the words "THEY AIRBRUSHED MY FACE" slathered over it, and Stipe not only contributed the clipped, bizarre liner notes ("philomath is located between lexington and crawfordville and used to have its own post office") but directed a sobering video for "Talk About the Passion." The result is still a mess of abbreviation and compromise.

In 1988, R.E.M. had roughly the clout that Arcade Fire has now; not huge by 1988 standards, but huge by today's, and worlds bigger than the bands they tend to be lumped with (The Replacements, Husker Du) in revisionist essays about college rock in the '80s. They are remembered as an underground phenomenon, but all of their albums charted, and they were lifted up and celebrated by a massive scene in their hometown that spread across the country, followed swiftly by critical adoration that would stay with them for nearly two decades. Five albums in, they'd reached a commercial breakthrough with Document, buoyed by the ominous hit "The One I Love" and its horrendously ugly, butt-stupid video (directed by the man responsible before for the hideous cover of the Replacements' Tim and later for the cinema classic Johnny Mnemonic). This landed them on the cover of Rolling Stone, which billed them as "America's best rock & roll band" (within the space of a year, they'd say the same thing about a different band).

As alternative rock in general slid toward the mainstream, R.E.M.'s music grew more commercial, a decidedly positive development for them that allowed them to craft their best album, 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant, a massive-sounding southern rock opus with verve and life and personality. It's represented by one song on Eponymous. Conventional wisdom has their masterpiece as 1983's Murmur and there is, you guessed it, one song from Murmur on this disc. We end up with hardly an evolutionary tract -- the songs chosen for this collection are either outliers on their respective albums or the most radio-friendly country-leaning selections thus far. It's not even a complete set of I.R.S. singles. "Wolves, Lower" was pushed to radio as the lead track for the Chronic Town EP but isn't here, nor is the Murmur retake on "Radio Free Europe," the Fables of the Reconstruction oddity "Wendell Gee," or -- most glaringly -- the classic cover of the Clique's "Superman" from Pageant. The prospective buyer would find any of the five I.R.S. releases a richer method of exploration than this.

The fan, however, needs it for a few rarities, two of which are essential. The very first track is the slamming, crazed original version of "Radio Free Europe," R.E.M.'s first-ever release on the Hib-Tone label in 1981. Vastly different from its familiar Murmur revision, the track suggests a wholly different path for R.E.M. as maxed-out garage rock merchants. Next, Chronic Town is represented by the undisputed "Gardening at Night," but this version with a throatier, more masculine lead vocal by Michael Stipe trounces the one that made the EP and deserves to be canonical. Without the context of the strange, atmospheric enigmas of the rest of Chronic Town, "Gardening" sounds like a further pushing of the garage aesthetic.

The other two semi-exclusives come later and won't really generate excitement for the fan, much less the newcomer. "Romance" is a soundtrack stray that got left off Dead Letter Office; it's extremely annoying and to the best of my knowledge, this is still the only place to buy it. Usually R.E.M. b-sides and leftovers are extraordinarily good, so it's a bit of perversity that the one that ends up on their best-of is so awful. Lastly, one of the remixes of "Finest Worksong" makes the cut -- the one with horns that was usually played on the radio -- but one misses the riskier strokes of the "lengthy club mix."

As for what else is here, you've got "So. Central Rain" to "Rockville" to "Can't Get There from Here" to "Driver 8" and all of those are wonderful songs, but they're illustrative of two specific aspects of R.E.M. -- the sentimental jokesters and the banshees of Appalachian-rock dread -- that simply felt like interludes in album context. Yet again, it's not necessarily the fault of the compilers, it's just that we have here a band that's extremely tough to pare down, and this LP vainly attempts to summarize five albums that are pretty much essential anyway, that even the most casual fan should own. That'd be okay if it were a straightforward singles collection, but it's not.

So beyond the two nifty opening rarities, what's the point? Well, there's "Romance" (ugh) but there's also this little detail -- Eponymous has been superseded by a 2006 compilation called And I Feel Fine, which adds a second disc and gathers everything here, including the stray singles I bitched were missing, plus lots more unreleased stuff and a considerably fleshed-out introduction to R.E.M.'s first eight years of existence. Problem: it sounds like shit, maxed out and compressed, and it's about twice as expensive as this thing, and I don't care who you are, you still are going to need the albums it references. Four of the first five R.E.M. albums, plus the debut EP, are as delightfully mysterious and resonant as alternative rock gets; you need them more than you need any condensation of them. But if you gotta, grab this one; at least you can still chuckle at the yearbook photo when you don't really need the record anymore.

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