Strange Tastes: R.E.M.

From the soft orchestral melodies of “Nightswimming” to the fast-paced dissonant sound of “Bad Day”, alternative rock band R.E.M. manages to capture a slice of their rich cultural roots in each song presented to their eager listeners.  Born in a small town in Georgia during what would be aptly named the Athens Renaissance, the members of R.E.M. draw upon their rich blend of roots and experiences as the basis for the majority of their songs.  Indeed, the Southern country influences of lead singer Michael Stipe mesh surprisingly well with the more modern, Californian inspiration that backup singer and bassist Mike Mills brings to the table.

Image Credit: Stefano Andreoli, Flickr. CC-BY-SA License.

Image Credit: Stefano Andreoli, Flickr. CC-BY-SA License.

Because R.E.M.’s sound has evolved so drastically from their inception, they’ve been able to publish many styles of music, meaning that listeners are bound to find songs that appeal to them. In the beginning of their musical career, R.E.M.’s music could only be described as small, mellow, and fun.  In most of their early works, the vocals left a lot to be desired, but guitarist Peter Buck and former drummer Bill Berry stepped up to the plate to carry the band through with a strong instrumental profile.  I maintain that some of the best music produced is by underground bands, and the fact that R.E.M. produced some of its best work during this early period is a prime example.  During this period, they managed to cater to their small following without sacrificing themselves.  Overall, if you’re a fan of interesting instrumental songs, and don’t care much for vocals, then you’re bound to find some early R.E.M. song, like “Driver 8″, “Harborcoat”, or “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville, to fall in love with.

As R.E.M. began to garner a real popular following, their music took a stronger, prouder turn.  In works like “Begin the Begin” and “Finest Worksong”, the instruments were able to take a step back as Michael Stipe started to find his true voice.  They’ve got some swagger in their step now – and their music reflects it.  Personally, while I feel this was a necessary step for R.E.M. to take to reach their full potential, their music during this period strayed a bit from the original values they had emphasized.  However, if you’re looking for strong, boisterous vocals and don’t mind skimping on the instrumental, check out the songs mentioned above in addition to “Orange Crush”, and “Get Up”.

Towards the end of the band’s career, the band members’ attitudes began to mellow – but not their sound.  R.E.M. began to release songs more consistently that managed to encapsulate all their good aspects:  honoring their roots, a full and diverse instrumental profile, and deep, yet playful lyrics.  At this point, they managed to strike the unique balance of vocals and instruments that defined the closing of their musical careers, and with the release of their final songs and albums, they took their characteristic blend of cultures and pushed it further than ever before.  If you enjoy the genre of alternative rock at all (or frankly, music in general), you owe it to yourself to check out representative songs like “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, “Supernatural Superserious”, “Bad Day”, and “Imitation of Life”.

Overall, while R.E.M. is a strange taste, this alternative band is worth at least checking out.  Whether you favor more modern rock pieces or more traditional rock, R.E.M. can provide.

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite

Driver 8

Categories: Arts & Culture

4 replies

  1. Wow, Garrett, you are taking me back to high school! Monster is by far my favorite R.E.M. album, though amazing songs are peppered throughout their discography. I also still know all the words to It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)…

  2. Garrett, when I listen to R.E.M. I will always think of you, and strive in vain to reach your level of devotion.


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