Saturday, April 16, 2011

R.E.M.: Chronic Town EP (1982)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Sure, R.E.M.'s first 12" release is a jangle pop record -- one of the first of its kind -- but if that were all, you could name another recording as baffling, mysterious, and seductive within its narrowly eccentric Southern dreamscape framework. If the British Invasion offered the music of outer-space creatures, this was the music of ghosts.

These songs seem to have existed always, to have been merely discovered by R.E.M., who exist here on a completely separate plan from their less auspicious debut, the Pere-Ubu-meets-B-52's new wave single "Radio Free Europe." Their music, creepy but sexy, enigmatic and painterly but invariably quick and engaging, offers layer upon bewildering layer of Byrdsian guitar, shifting, haunted textures, and joyfully anguished vocals.

R.E.M. was always obviously a southern band, but they simultaneously evoke urbania. Defying any conventional definition except that they borrowed equally from Gang of Four, the Everly Brothers, and Television, their songs are something above and beyond the widespread postpunk college rock of their day. "Carnival of Sorts," "1,000,000," and "Wolves, Lower" are like small, puzzling film strips, unlabeled and left behind in a cabinet somewhere. The songs even have a scare factor at times, and the closing track, "Stumble," immerses the listener in a completely unfamiliar environment during the bridge. Michael Stipe maintained that R.E.M.'s music was highly visual; they and producer Mitch Easter have tweaked each song, each short film, to its maximum effect, like editors in the cutting room. As a result, the intricate, precise details in the music make it an teasingly absorbing listen.

"Carnival of Sorts" is a chilling moment, capturing the paranoia of the times the way the New York groups did but in a passive, dadaist fashion that makes it both emotionally evocative and sincerely mindbending. The befuddling lyrics make it all the more personal. What's especially riveting is the way Michael Stipe not only belts out all this free-associative nonsense, but does it in a way that sounds terrifying in its insistence. You really believe every word he says no matter how much it lacks any kind of linear structure. Even Tom Verlaine managed to sound like he at least had some point to get across. Stipe has the wonderful qualities of someone who's lost it altogether, whose flashes of sanity and conventional anecdote -- in "Gardening at Night" -- last for a sentence at the most. Guitarist Peter Buck said once that Stipe's postcards were like plays without the beginning and middle. But there's a liveliness in his words.

This band's songwriting always was astonishing. Their radically unconventional musicianship -- the melodies are often in the bass from Mike Mills, the unofficial backbone of the group -- and sense of both joy and restraint allow the songs to wrap around Stipe and the listener, as if both of you are lost in the same maze.

On this EP, Bill Berry's drumming is pronounced enough that the band carries identifiable traces of new wave on the way to their college rock pantheon, but this would change by the time of the debut album and it has no negative effect whatsoever on the songs. Their surrealism allows them to confront you with freewheeling, quickly transforming emotions. A single song, like, say, "1,000,000," might be happy and sad and funny and dark and nightmarish at once. Stipe is thrilled to announce that he could live to be the title number, but all the while he's wandering through a graveyard.

In a sense, rock & roll is a quest to eradicate meaning. Of course the words can matter but they're best if they are subordinate to the music and if ultimately the complete ignorance to real-world fact and folly is what makes you throw your head back and dance. CHRONIC TOWN reminds me of "Sweet Little Sixteen" or Talking Heads' "The Great Curve" or the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," those points when things just shift and everything works perfectly, everything moves out of the way for you to surrender, and it supports you when you fall. In 1982, R.E.M. were pure rock & roll. Perhaps even more than the insistently enigmatic Murmur LP that would follow, this is the perfect capturing of R.E.M. as the strange entity that initially won hearts. It may look small but it's really gigantic, and despite its length it is remarkably close to being their finest work.

[Originally posted at my webpage in 2004.]

Eponymous (1981-87)

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