Monday, May 29, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1011: REM

Before I write this next entry I want to take a moment to bid farewell to Gregg Allman, who died this week at the age of 69.

In one sense I came to the Allman brothers late, only getting into their music in the last few years after Sheila bought me their first two albums.

In another sense I’ve been into them from the very beginning, given what an incredible influence they’ve had on the music I’ve grown up loving. I can hear the echo of their genius in many of the bands I love: Blue Oyster Cult, Tom Petty and Molly Hatchet all borrow from the innovation of the Allman Brothers band.

Gregg’s life was marred by tragedy and in the end he too left the world very early, but as musical legacies go, you couldn’t do much better. RIP Gregg Allman.

Disc 1011 is…Monster
Artist: R.E.M.

Year of Release: 1994

What’s up with the Cover? An out-of-focus bear with a goofy expression on its face. This cover reminds me of that horrible third jersey my beloved Boston Bruins have been forced to wear from time to time, with the giant bear head logo. It looks stupid, and so does this album cover.

How I Came To Know It: My roommate Greg owned this album back when it first came out, so I heard it through him first. I think this CD is one of Sheila’s, although I don’t recall when she bought it.

How It Stacks Up:  We have six R.E.M. albums. With no apologies to the fawning critics over the years, I put “Monster” down near the bottom at number five.

Ratings: 2 stars

Back in the early nineties it felt like everywhere you looked artists were being influenced by the grunge aesthetic. REM’s entry into that canon is “Monster,” which blends their college protest rock sound with grunge. The result is a lot of feedback.

When I say ‘a lot of feedback’, please understand I’m not exaggerating. This album’s guitar sound is so fuzzed out it feels like the melodies have been choked out from not having any room to breathe. “Monster” may succeed in its quest to capture a restless, grinding anger, but halfway through I was ready for a little variation.

The album starts out with one of R.E.M.’s most iconic songs. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is a powerful song with a guitar effect (in the form of a sort of feedback echo) that is as instantly recognizable as any more traditional guitar riff. The song takes its title from an expression shouted at Dan Rather by a man who was assaulting him. Its power and frustration feels as deranged as those origins would predict.

Other than that, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the lyrics on this record. It is hard to hear Michael Stipe through all the fuzz, and it is more about the grind and power of the guitar than other R.E.M. albums anyway. I will say that “King of Comedy” is supposed to be an ironic title, but not only is the song not funny, it feels kind of hard-hearted and pointless as well. R.E.M. has written plenty of solid protest music, but “King of Comedy” just feels mailed in and obvious.

The record picks up again with the stripped down “Strange Currencies” which is reminiscent of something you might hear from their previous album “Automatic for the People” which – spoiler alert – I like a lot more. The thick guitar is still evident here, but it is tame enough to serve the song rather than wash it out.

Tongue” is also an intriguing palate cleanser, where the fuzzed out guitar is replaced with a fuzzed out organ and Stipe sings in near-falsetto. “Tongue” gave me the break I needed from the oppressive guitar treatment of the first half of the record. It has an almost sixties Motown quality which was a stretch for R.E.M. but one I think they pull off nicely.

After the more forgettable “Bang and Blame” the boys get back to crunching it out with some white noise guitar on “I Took Your Name” which has the same echoing feedback of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” without managing to be a great song in the process. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is a delicate bit of alchemy to pull off  and on “I Took Your Name” you just get the feeling the boys went to the well once too often.

The album ends with three more equally heavy and ponderous songs all very similar to each other. All that darkness after “Strange Currencies” and “Tongue” felt like being force-fed a second steak after I’d had my bowl of sorbetto and was waiting for my bill; overfull and with a bad taste in my mouth.

“Monster” is a critical darling, and while there is plenty on it that I like, if I’m being honest outside of the one smash hit most of what I like are the album’s few outlier songs. As a result, despite the record’s promise it is usually a long way down the list when I find myself picking an R.E.M. album I want to listen to.

Best tracks: What’s the Frequency Kenneth?, Strange Currencies, Tongue

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