Career In Brief: REM’s IRS Years


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Career In Brief: REM’s IRS Years

REM are to indie rock what Rome was to European civilization. Arising out of an unlikely, cultured-though-backwoods town (Athens, GA), achieving early, sweeping victories (their entire IRS catalog), ascending to epic and glorious hegemony of mainstream popularity (Out of Time through Monster) and then coasting into curiosity ever since, they are undoubtedly one of the greatest rock bands of all time, at least in the top 50 and maybe in the top 20. For what it’s worth, they are definitely in my personal top 10.

While their major label career has been strong and certainly spectacular at times, in this post I will be focusing on their “IRS years”, the string of recordings that established them as one of the greatest indie bands of all time and, in all reality, have held up best over time. You’d be hard pressed to find an unbroken streak that strong anywhere in popular music (maybe Elvis Costello’s early years, or the Rolling Stones’ 1960’s albums), and I will strongly recommend that anyone who dares call themselves a fan of rock music should own everything they released on IRS, with the exception of the puzzling and incomplete sampler EPONYMOUS.

20-Track Sampler
Wolves, Lower
Gardening at Night
Stumble
Radio Free Europe (Murmur version)
Sitting Still
Catapult
Talk About The Passion
Harborcoat
So. Central Rain
Rockville
Maps & Legends
Driver 8
Life and How to Live It
Can’t Get There From Here
Cuyahoga
These Days
Fall On Me
Finest Worksong
One I Love
Exhuming McCarthy

MAJOR/NOTABLE RELEASES

Chronic Town EP [1982] (A+): Now found on the “odds n’ ends” collection DEAD LETTER OFFICE, the 5 songs that make up CHRONIC TOWN reveal a band heavily influenced by the angular post-punk of bands like Television and Gang of Four, all the while hinting at that “something else” that can only be described as the sound of the south. I’m a sucker for a strong extended player, and this is one of the best I can think of. “Gardening at Night” is the acknowledged classic, but I’ll put a plug in for my personal favorite, the frantic “Wolves, Lower.” (R: “Wolves, Lower”, “Gardening at Night”)

Murmur [1983] (A+): Instead of speeding into their debut full-length, MURMUR is the sound of a band taking their time to craft a record both precise and pastoral. The result is a masterpiece. “Radio Free Europe” eschews a classic rock brilliance, the sound of a band making music history, while plaintive tracks like “Moral Kiosk” and “Pilgrimmage” create a template for the band’s future commercial success. Lesser known tracks like “Catapult” and “Sitting Still” re-introduce some of the CHRONIC TOWN angularity without feeling retro-fitted. A must own. (R: “Radio Free Europe”, “Talk About the Passion”, “Catapult”)

Reckoning [1984] (B): Where MURMUR’s strength was found in taking its time, RECKONING accelerates into brilliance and then slowly and inconsequentially fades out. RECKONING announces both the end of the band’s formational era (“Rockville” and “Pretty Persuasion” both pre-date CHRONIC TOWN) and the inauguration of their early “experimental” era. Side One would have made as strong an EP as CHRONIC TOWN. Side Two, though decent (and briefly excellent in the countri-fied “Rockville”), pales in comparison. Still, RECKONING is more upbeat and poppy than MURMUR, and hints at the commercial direction the band would take in years to come. (R: “Harborcoat”, “Seven Chinese Brothers”, “So. Central Rain”)

Fables of the Reconstruction [1985] (A): The most obtuse album in the band’s IRS catalog, FABLES is the band’s experimental detour on the way to stadium-filling anthemic glory. “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” is an incredibly strong statement from a band that had opened their two previous albums with their hookiest songs, but it is also an epic re-casting of the band’s artistic vision. It becomes clear throughtout the record that the band has mostly grown beyond its post-punk roots, but the jangle and southern gothic vibe are still firmly in place on tracks like “Driver 8.” I once bad-mouthed this album. I’d like to retract that here, and one day I’ll get around to writing a full-blown salute in reparition. (R: “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, “Life and How To Live It”, “Driver 8”)

Lifes Rich Pageant [1986] (A): PAGEANT, in hindsight, comes across like an Americanized version of Oasis’ debut DEFINITELY MAYBE. Reaching back to the self-assured “taking my time” approach of MURMUR while turning the guitars up to “11”, LIFES RICH PAGEANT contains some of R.E.M.’s most recognizable songs, especially the classic alterna-folk of “Fall On Me.” “Hyena” and “These Days” rock with fiery conviction, while “Swan Swan H” points ahead to the hushed acoustic aesthetic the band would explore on both OUT OF TIME and AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE. All in all, another classic record, if not altogether perfect. (R: “Fall On Me”, “Cuyahoga”, “What If We Give It Away”)

Document [1987] (B+): DOCUMENT is the most earnestly political record in the band’s catalog. If there were a large American Socialist Party, “Finest Worksong” might as well be its anthem. Simultaneously, the catchy, grooving “Exhuming McCarthy” rails against the mid-80’s political environment by recalling the political environment of the 1950’s. But for all of the album tracks that go unnoticed, DOCUMENT will always be the record that gave us “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and “One I Love”, classic rock radio staples to this day. Not their best, but no slouch of a record either. (R: “Finest Worksong”, “Disturbance At The Heron House”, “The One I Love”)

Rarities: Most of these can be found on the collection DEAD LETTER OFFICE, but there were a few (forgettable) found on EPONYMOUS. Additionally, their IRS catalog is being reissued with early live performances and unreleased demos. I think it is easy to say that early live REM is worth hearing. (R: “Crazy”, “There She Goes Again”, “Burning Down”, “White Tornado”, “Toys in the Attic”, “Ages of You”)

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2 Responses to Career In Brief: REM’s IRS Years

  1. Pingback: Best of 2010 (EP): Extended Players « Sweet Georgia Breezes

  2. Pingback: Quick Review (LP): Collapse Into Now by R.E.M. « Sweet Georgia Breezes

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