Monster by R.E.M.

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Monster by REMR.E.M. found great commercial success with their two early nineties releases, Out of Time and Automatic For the People. Still, the group made a concerted effort to rapidly evolve their sound on 1994’s Monster, which is drenched with distorted guitars, high energy arrangements, and minimal overdubs. on this front, the album is distinct in the long and impressive R.E.M. collections and marks the point where they finally realized a full-fledged rock and roll record. Powered by Peter Buck‘s layered guitars and sonic proficiency along with more simple and direct compositions and melodies, Monster was the last high-water mark for the group.

The members of R.E.M. vacation in Acapulco, Mexico early in 1993 to map out a strategy for the next few years. At that point, the group had not toured at all during the decade and drummer Bill Berry was eager to tour and implored that the group produce a more “rock” oriented album for the tour to support. On the past two relatively slow-paced albums (which the band did not tour to support) the band had been using more acoustic instruments, pianos and mandolins, and often “switching” instruments to keep things interesting, but now that would put together something made for live, raw rock shows.

With about 45 songs originally written for the album, the group started pre production at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans to sort out the best material. Co-producer Scott Litt next brought the band to Crossover Soundstage in Atlanta where most of the album’s basic tracks were recorded live. Production later moved to Criteria Studios in Miami Litt’s home studio in Los Angeles, but was delayed due to health issues with lead vocalist and lyricist Michael Stipe and internal tensions which actually broke up the band for a few tense days in early 1994. However, the group reconciled and finished the album which was met with great commercial and critical success.


Monster by R.E.M.
Released: September 26, 1994 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Scott Litt & R.E.M.
Recorded: in New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami, & Los Angeles, April–May 1994
Track Listing Group Musicians
What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
Crush with Eyeliner
King of Comedy
I Don’t Sleep, I Dream
Star 69
Strange Currencies
Tongue
Bang and Blame
I Took Your Name
Let Me In
Circus Envy
You
Michael Stipe – Lead Vocals
Peter Buck – Guitars, Organ
Mike Mills – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Bill Berry – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

Monster by REM

 

The original, non-CD release of the album was separated into the “Head” and “Tail” sides. The first side starts with the sonic saturation of the lead single “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, where Buck’s guitar presence through the whole track carries it to the heights along with slight effects and riffs enhancing the song. The song’s title was was inspired by an incident in 1986, where news anchor Dan Rather was the victim of an assault by an assailant who, between beatings, would ask, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?”. Inspired by the group New York Dolls, “Crush with Eyeliner” is total new-wave glam with quasi-shock lyrics and potent music throughout. “King of Comedy” takes another turn in genre, towards alternative rock complete with vocal effects and a steady drum beat which makes it somewhat  of a rave dance song.

The sizzle and snarling distortion of Buck’s over-driven amps and cut by Berry;s rolling drumbeat on “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream”. Like the group’s earliest material, Stipe’s vocals, are buried deep in the mix and difficult to decipher due the greater presence of the musicians. “Star 69” is a direct garage rocker with rapid-fire vocals which became a minor radio hit, while “Strange Currencies” finished off the “head” side as a slight tribute to Stipe’s friend River Phoenix, who had recently died of a drug overdose.

The “Tail” side starts with the soulful and unique “Tongue”, which Stipe performs in falsetto throughout. While it is doubtless that Monster is guitarist Buck’s finest hour the melodic bass of Mike Mills is also integral to many tracks along with his piano and organ textures, which are prevalent on “Tongue”. The most traditional sounding R.E.M. song on the album, “Bang and Blame” is steady and hypnotizing and another a real showcase for Mills. Also potent are melodies of Stipe, who restrains the flourishes in favor of lyrical potency, and the fine, strategically placement of background vocals of Rain Phoenix.

The remainder of the album is less than spectacular with further songs dealing with the overall theme of identity problems in the face of growing fame. The highlights here include “Let Me In” where guitars fill the atmosphere throughout the song and “Circus Envy”, which has extra buzzy guitars, pretty melodic hooks and methodical drums that don’t quite match the underlying frenzy of the rest of the arrangement.

Upon its release, Monster debuted at number one on both sides of the Atlantic and R.E.M. set out in January 1995 on their first tour in six years. On the strength of this third consecutive blockbuster album, the group re-signed with Warner Bros. for what was rumored to be the largest recording contract in history to that point. However, fortunes soon turned with further member health problems, trouble with management, and eventual cooling of the band’s popularity.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1994 albums.

1994 Images

 

Green by R.E.M.

Green by R.E.M.Years before alternative was “cool” (in other words, when “alternative” was still alternative), R.E.M. was forging their own way through the super-slick eighties. Their sixth album, 1988’s Green, was the breakout album that followed the group’s quintet of critically acclaimed but commercially light pieces earlier in the decade. The result was a successful attempt to strike the right balance in both of those fields and branch out to an international audience. This was the group’s debut album for the big label Warner Brothers Records after cutting their teeth with the indie I.R.S. Records with their late 1987 release Document, which received major airplay but was not widely distributed overseas. In their frustration, the band entertained big label offers and signed with Warner for reportedly between $6 million and $12 million.

Working with producer Scott Litt (who would produce five albums in all with the band), R.E.M. began recording demos in their home town of Athens, Georgia before moving to major studios in Memphis, Ten. and Woodstock, NY for the proper recording. The record’s tracks ranged from upbeat to more somber and political material. Led my vocalist Michael Stipe, the band made a consorted effort to “not write any more R.E.M.-type songs”. The group began what would become a tradition of swapping instruments and the result was a very eclectic and sonically diverse output.

Green is defined by the tweaks the group made to their creative process, grown out of the restlessness of their then eight-year career of near constant touring. For R.E.M., this meant composing positive, or at least satirical and playful, material for the first time in a while. The band were also more open to strong rock influences such as the Byrds, the Doors, and Led Zeppelin, than they had been in the past.

 


Green by R.E.M.
Released: November 7, 1988 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Scott Litt and R.E.M.
Recorded: Ardent Studios, Memphis & Bearsville Studios, Woodstock, NY, May–Sep 1988
Side One Side Two
Pop Song 89
Get Up
You Are the Everything
Stand
World Leader Pretend
The Wrong Child
Orange Crush
Turn You Inside-Out
Hairshirt
I Remember California
11
Band Musicians
Michael Stipe – Lead Vocals  |  Peter Buck – Guitars, Mandolin
Mike Mills – Bass, Keyboards, Accordion, Vocals  |  Bill Berry – Drums, Vocals

 

Green labeled its original LP sides, with side one being the “air” side. “Pop Song 89” is a twangy, three-chord, upbeat song with a memorable lead guitar riff by Peter Buck and harmonized, low key vocals by Stipe. This opener is a sarcastically titled, semi-parody of pop music which is deliberately simplistic. “Get Up” follows with a straight-forward rock arrangement but seems to be a little more forced than the opener, especially with the excess vocal parts. The lyrics were written about bassist Mike Mills and his habit to sleep late during their recording sessions.

“You Are the Everything” is the first song to use a completely alternate arrangement, with Buck playing mandolin, Mills on accordion, and drummer Bill Berry providing a simple bass. Set to the backdrop of chirping crickets, the song provides a Southern pastoral setting and straight-forward, love-song-like lyrics through a fine vocal melody by Stipe, making this the first really interesting song on the album. The group returned to this exact arrangement on the second side song “Hairshirt”, which adds even more melody and entertainment to the mix with top-notch mandolin and very laid back accordion and bass.

The ultimate R.E.M. pop song, “Stand” starts with carnival-like organ and moves towards some good guitar riff and great vocal hooks. With a kind of in-your-face singsong chorus sung by Stipe and Mills in close harmony and a signature wah-wah guitar solo by Buck, the song did well on radio, MTV, and the pop charts. “World Leader Pretend” is a much more serious piece led by a driving acoustic guitar, interesting drum accents and a subtle cello by guest Jane Scarpantoni. The song is notable as the first and only to have lyrics printed on the original album sleeve. The first side ends with “The Wrong Child”, an acoustic guitar and mandolin piece with several competing vocal parts which Make it almost interesting but a little too busy at times.
 

 
The second side is referred to by the band as the “metal” side, and starts with the military stomp of “Orange Crush”. Stipe sings through a megaphone that lends his vocals a corroded quality appropriate to the subject matter (the title refers to the chemical “agent orange”), which is counter-balanced by the very interesting tone and theme. Although not commercially released as a U.S. single, “Orange Crush” reached number one on both the Mainstream and Modern Rock Tracks.

The rest of the album consists of moderately interesting tunes. “Turn You Inside-Out” contains a slow, electric twang with a methodical and strong beat by percussionist Keith LeBlanc. “I Remember California” has a strong electric intro arrangement which gives way to just simple bass and busy, tom-filled drums by Berry during the verse, making it unique and interesting, although a bit too long. “11” (the eleventh, untitled track) close the album with Buck playing drums on an upbeat, new-wavish song with definite British influence.

Green has gone on to sell over four million copies worldwide and the band launched a visually developed tour to support it in 1989. Riding the worldwide success of this album, the band continued the momentum with the success withs Out of Time in 1991 and Automatic for the People in 1992.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1988 albums.


1988 Images

 

Automatic For the People by R.E.M.

Automatic For the People by REMAutomatic For the People is the eighth album by R.E.M., released in 1992 following their breakthrough Out of Time. Since the band did not tour to support that album, they were able to start writing and rehearsing for the next album shortly after its release in June 1991. The three musicians -guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry had informal rehearsals for months, often trading instruments and trying different musical arrangements. Lead vocalist and chief lyricist Michael Stipe was not present for these 1991 sessions and received finished demos at the start of 1992, when he started recording vocals.

The album is very much musically subdued and deals with mortality. This was not the original intent, as the band first strove to record a more “upbeat” album, but soon turned further away from the lighter, sweeter pop of previous albums. The finished product was co-produced by Scott Litt at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York. String arrangements by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones were recorded in Atlanta.

Many critics regard Automatic For the People as the finest R.E.M. album due to its beautiful and moving sounds mixed with melancholy themes of hopelessness and anger. It contains a core set of folk songs with majestic overtones resonating from the exotic instrumentation. This is the group’s coming-of-age album as they pass the “alternative” flame to the slew of new bands which now populated the rock landscape.

 


Automatic For the People by R.E.M.
Released: October 7, 1992 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Scott Litt & R.E.M.
Recorded: Various Locations, 1991-1992
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Drive
Try Not to Breathe
The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite
Everybody Hurts
New Orleans Instrumental No. 1
Sweetness Follows
Monty Got a Raw Deal
Ignoreland
Star Me Kitten
Man On the Moon
Nightswimming
Find the River
Michael Stipe – Lead Vocals
Peter Buck – Guitars, Mandolin
Mike Mills – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Bill Berry– Drums, Keyboards, VocalsAutomatic For the People by R.E.M.

 

The pace of the album is immediately set with the opening track “Drive”. This doomy, acoustic-driven tune with heavily reverbed vocals and a touch of accordion has Neil Young quality along with a touch of some of the moodier material by the James Gang. “Try Not to Breathe” follows as another acoustic tune, but much lighter and brighter than opener, although the Stipe’s lyrics are every bit as dark as they narrate the plight of an elderly person who has chosen to end his life.

The radio hit “Everybody Hurts” contains high, sweet vocals and romantic chord progressions by Buck with topped off by themes of desperate hope. The lyrics are stripped of their usual crypto-poetic attributes to a pure, raw, and unambiguous message;

“…when you think you’ve had too much of this life, well hang on, don’t let yourself go, everybody cries, everybody hurts sometimes…”

“New Orleans Instrumental No.1” is an entertaining musical break with tremolo electric piano and a sustained-note guitar groove. “Sweetness Follows” contains more ethereal doominess and a comforting melancholy while “Monty Got a Raw Deal” is built like a traditional R.E.M. song with an acoustic folk beginning and the later addition of the accordion and mandolin. “Ignoreland” is the most rock-oriented song on the album, with strong fuzz guitars, distorted vocals by Stipe, and intense drumming by Berry while “Star Me Kitten” is a calm and moody, almost psychedelic tune with ethereal organ and synth effects and a melodic lead guitar.

Nearly a decade after his death, many people had all but forgotten about comedian Andy Kaufman before R.E.M. figuratively brought him back to life with “Man On the Moon”, a song which both pays tribute to Kaufman while poking fun at the theorists who thought he staged his own death as an elaborate joke. Musically, the somber calmness seems to fit this theme perfectly and the effective two-part chorus puts the song over the top. The song’s title was later used to name the Hollywood biography of Kaufman, starring Jim Carey.

The nostalgic, piano driven “Nightswimming” is an ode to teenage freedom and discovery. The odd musical arrangement and mood makes this a unique and interesting listen. The album concludes with “Find the River” a nice acoustic ballad with piano, fiddle, backing vocals, and an overall good mixture, ending the album with a more traditional song than much of the other material.

Automatic For the People was yet another in a string of hit albums for R.E.M., reaching number two on the U.S. album charts and yielding six regular radio tracks. The album would perhaps be the high-water mark for this innovative band who were truly alternative long before alternative was cool.

~
R.A.
 


1992 Images

 

Out of Time by R.E.M.

Out of Time by REMFollowing the success of R.E.M.‘s 1988 album Green and the extensive supporting tour which followed, the band took nearly a year to recuperate before reconvening to produce their next album. That album would come in 1991 and be titled Out of Time, and would serve to further expose this once niche alternative band to mainstream commercial audiences. The seventh studio album by the band, Out Of Time was by far the most richly produced to date, with more relatable compositions, an expansion of the instrumentation used, cameos from contemporary artists, and much more attention paid to sonic detail of the finished product.

The album combines the elements which were carried over from Green – pop and folk – with the addition of country, funk, and classical elements. The band’s chief lyricist, singer Michael Stipe, moved away from the overtly political themes they had used frequently in the 1980s, towards more personally-relatable and accessible songs, a direction they would continue through the 1990s.

Fueled by the blockbuster hit “Losing My Religion”, which became the band’s biggest, Out of Time would top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, despite the fact that R.E.M. did not tour to support the album. The single and album won a combined three Grammy Awards in 1992 and to date has sold over 18 million copies worldwide.

 


Out of Time by R.E.M.
Released: March 12, 1991 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Scott Litt & R.E.M.
Recorded: Bearsville Studios, Woodstock, NY, Sep-Oct 1990
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Radio Song
Losing My Religion
Low
Near Wild Heaven
Endgame
Shiny Happy People
Belong
Half a World Away
Texarkana
Country Feedback
Me in Honey
Michael Stipe – Lead Vocals, Melodica
Peter Buck – Guitars, Mandolin
Mike Mills – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Bill Berry – Drums, Keyboards, Vocals
 
Out of Time by R.E.M.

 

The album commences with “Radio Song”, a lighthearted funk that was completely unique to anything the band had done to that point. The song features vocals by KRS-One, leader of Boogie Down Productions, and also shows off the talents of the band’s drummer Bill Berry. Another popular song from the album to include a guest vocalist was “Shiny Happy People”, featuring Kate Pierson of the B-52s. The song is introduced with a unique string arrangement before breaking into a typical, upbeat R.E.M. riff. It became the band’s fourth career Top 10 hit. The song’s title is based on a Southern phrase meaning “being at the end of one’s rope, however Stipe has also stated the lyrics are influenced by unrequited love.

Near Wild Heaven” was another single released from the album, co-written and sung by bassist Mike Mills. It was the first such song to be written and sung by Mills. Mills also provided vocals for “Texarkana”. While this was not released as an official “single”, did well on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. “Country Feedback” was written as a stream-of-conscious by Stipe who claims he sang it in one take as an experiment and it was not re-recorded. The recording features pedal steel guitar by John Keane.

With the success of Out of Time, R.E.M.’s status grew to a top-level, major act from their humble beginnings as a “cult band” on colleg radio. They would continue the momentum into the next year with 1992’s Automatic For the People.

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R.A.

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1991 Images