Tag Archives: R.E.M.

Things I’ve started writing but haven’t published

  1. A blog post about the anniversary of R.E.M.’s Green, because somehow this blog has become obsessed with R.E.M.
  2. A blog post in anticipation of my workshop on podcasting at the 2015 Computers and Writing conference–a workshop and conference that has now ended, with the post sitting there unfinished, unposted
  3. A scholarly webtext on the materiality of sound, vinyl records, and the crazy ways that these things can inspire composition pedagogy (few of which I’ve actually tried in the classroom yet), a text that I drafted last summer over 3 weeks of using 750words.com every day
  4. It depends what we mean here by writing, but maybe when I talk to a friend in the car about writing routines and relationships and kindness, maybe that’s a kind of writing and maybe saying good things out loud together is a kind of publishing
  5. A chapter from my dissertation on historical attitudes toward the rhetoric of music and how we can do better
  6. A chapter from my dissertation reporting on interviews with student music composers
  7. A piece of music, which I admit hasn’t even been started or considered until now, but a piece of music that tries to capture what it’s like to write but not quite doing so, sitting there, dodging it all by organizing your mp3s and reading good scholarship and tweeting good tweets–which are writing too, we can all agree on that, it’s the 21st century–and if you don’t know why a piece of music would be good for that, why are you even reading this list
  8. An bizarre, juxtaposition-filled audio essay that jams together the sounds of my favorite movies/TVshows/videogames with the words of scholars on the phenomenology of sound
  9. That one above actually exists, even though you’re starting to wonder if any of these things actually exist, and I don’t blame you, how could anyone have this much that they haven’t finished, how could anyone be so much like cookies that just went into the oven?
  10. This one doesn’t exist, but I wish it did: a blog post on Pearl Jam and aggressiveness, chronicling how intimidated I was by their first album and how I forced myself to like it anyway and then how they slowly came to just seem like nice guys playing rock music but when did that happen I mean don’t you remember “IT’S . . . MY . . . BLOOOOOOOD!!!!” and all that from the second album?
  11. A personal essay about the time in 4th grade when I stayed the night at Andy’s house and jammed a thumbtack through the face of a kid I didn’t like on his copy of our class photo, followed by the time in 5th grade when I pulled the fire alarm at school but before it started so that’s not as bad I think
  12. A personal essay about my youngest brother and our weird mutual aggression over our lives, if you can call it that, and I’m not sure you can, but don’t you think I should use the word aggression to echo #10 above?
  13. A personal essay about chaperoning a bunch of college student singers on a trip to Florida
  14. Episode nine of my podcast which is on teaching with podcasts kind of self-referential isn’t it podcast podcast podcast kind of a weird word when you say it too often
  15. Self-referential blog posts that–and you won’t believe me here–that actually help move these texts toward a public, which is really where they ought to go, so let’s get to it, folks
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In Which I Write One Sentence about Each Song on R.E.M.’s Up Album

The other day, I had a delightfully lengthy conversation on Twitter about R.E.M. It all started with this:

I’ve written about R.E.M. on here before, but in that post, there was a bit of an edge of “here I am, blending my musical and scholarly interests, because I’m a scholar who writes about music.” This time, inspired by that tweetversation, I’d rather just drop any scholarly pretense. (What is this blog, anyway, these days? I have no idea.)

So: one sentence about every song on Up (1998), released in the fall of my senior year of high school. Just because.

  1. Airportman: It’s like listening to Brian Eno in a construction zone, with that mechanical, robotic bass crunch cutting through the rest of the beautiful production–which I suppose Eno would probably find interesting.
  2. Lotus: I promise I would like this song without the faux-scream vocal doubling.
  3. Suspicion: A good example of why this album is better with headphones and the spaces they create, as you hear these little door slams from the building next door, the quiet strings in the basement, and the band crooning in a posh hotel ballroom.
  4. Hope: If these lyrics were published in a book of poetry I’d take a picture and post them on Facebook.
  5. At My Most Beautiful: I totally forgot about those “Eleanor Rigby”-style cellos crunching into the silence toward the end, and while I like the piano alright, I’d like to hear an all-cello version.
  6. The Apologist: I counted Michael singing “I’m sorry” or “so sorry” at least 23 times, and that doesn’t count the quiet echoed versions that just about double it; I think that’s a bit much.
  7. Sad Professor: Prettier and sadder than I remember it; in high school I always tried to decide if the really good part of this album started at this song or the next one, but I usually decided it was after this.
  8. You’re in the Air: I put this on far too many mixtapes in 12th grade, mostly because most of my R.E.M. was on tape and I wanted CD quality on my mixes because a mix is serious business and this is the most obvious contender on the album for a mix oh I like it so much I mean listen to all that moody ambience (does this still count as one sentence?).
  9. Walk Unafraid: This is a song I’d like to hear on Song Exploder: what elements, exactly, add up to that that enveloping, escalating clump of sounds in the chorus?
  10. Why Not Smile: I don’t think it’s a real harpsichord, but is it a keyboard synthesizing a harpsichord sound or a guitar effect–and by asking this technical question am I ignoring the beauty of this song?
  11. Daysleeper: How did I never hear this as a carousing drinking song until today, or realize how much it sounds like it could have been on Automatic?
  12. Diminished: For an album called Up, there’s a lot of uncertainty and hopeless hope in the lyrics throughout–one example from this song: “I’ll consult the i-ching / I’ll consult the TV / Ouija, oblique strategies / I’ll consult the law books for precedents / Can I charm the jury?”
    1. I’m Not Over You: I have no memory of this little acoustic ditty living at the end of the “Diminished” track, which is weird given the number of times I listened to this CD in 1998.
  13. Parakeet: I always knew that the R.E.M.’s lyrics were a step above the rest, but this listen is reminding me how lovely and fresh they are on this album, and this track is a delightful example (if we ignore that “so sorry” business above).
  14. Falls to Climb: In a weird backward twist of history, this song would sound nice as an 80s synthpop remix–maybe Chvrches can cover it?

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Second Guessing

The drums on R.E.M.’s first album Murmur and its follow-up Reckoning sound completely different. I’ve listened to these albums on and off for twenty years, and I hadn’t paid attention to the drums until recently.

Here’s how it happened: I read J. Niimi’s book about Murmur, a delightful exploration of its recording, lyrics, and meanings. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened. Then I read Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever, a book that, among other things, has reminded me how much I haven’t been hearing in the recordings I have. Then I decided to read a bit about how Reckoning was recorded. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened.

And there’s a real difference: Murmur’s drums, recorded in a booth dedicated just to drums, are clean, distinct, a bit tinny–“disco,” according to one source I can’t find any more–and, to my ears, not really worth saying much about. But Reckoning‘s drums are rock-and-roll, strong, and intense. It sounds obvious to me now. I can’t unhear.

But here’s the thing: for years, I’ve always thought of those two records as having the same sound, more than any other R.E.M. records. They were twinsies, with what I’ve always thought of as similar, simple liner notes; similar, simple songs; similar, simple meanings.

How much of that judgment, though, came from my personal history with those two records–my first R.E.M. albums bought on CD, bought at the same time, shelved next to each other, and paired by me (not by them or by the sounds of their drums) as a sort of disc one and two of a double album?

Really, though, it’s more like this: there is indeed a double album effect going on here, but each album is a disc one and me, my body, and my memories are an always-present disc two.

***

Here’s Thomas Rickert: “ambience puts place, language, and body into coadaptive, vital, and buoyant interaction” (via).

Buoyant: it floats. I float. And I float because I’m enmeshed in something else that is denser than I am.

The spine of Reckoning: “File under water.”

***

I didn’t like R.E.M.’s first two albums all that much, at first. I wasn’t really their intended audience, either: I first heard them ten years after they were released, in 1992, when “Drive” from Automatic for the People (album #8) was on the radio stations I was starting to listen to. This was sixth grade, which I musically associate with Automatic, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and Arrested Development’s Three Years. . . . 

Autumn Lockwood told me that R.E.M.’s old stuff was better; she made me a tape of Document (album #5, still something that sounds little like Murmur and Reckoning) plus her favorite two songs from Lifes Rich Pageant (“Superman” and “Swan Swan H”).

I liked it. I slowly decided I should methodically own the whole back-catalog, so I joined and re-joined and re-joined Columbia House and BMG until I had most of their albums on tape and CD.

I remember so much about the look and feel of how that music was packaged: Autumn’s yellow tape sleeve with hand-written song titles; my white Automatic tape; Michael Stipe’s changing face: airbrushed inside Eponymous, wrinkled and wise inside Automatic; my tape of Green so faded from leaving it in cars.

In the context of my rediscovery of this band that everyone else had known for a decade, I always lumped Murmur and Reckoning together as kind of weird sounding, with something distasteful that I couldn’t place. Lifes Rich Pageant somehow sounded right to me, like the R.E.M. I knew singing songs I hadn’t had the privilege to know yet. The first two albums sounded like a different band; they were part of a context I didn’t know anything about (early 80s college rock); they were a swimming pool I had been too young to play in.

But here’s what I wonder: Murmur and Reckoning were my first R.E.M. albums on CD. Was this a band that, for me, was fundamentally tied to the medium of the cassette? Was it wrong, or impossible, for me to enjoy them any other way? And what does it mean that I chose to get their oldest records on the newest recording technologies, like watching a John Wayne movie on Blu-Ray, or watching recordings of old musicals on YouTube, or listening to digital versions of old cylinder recordings?

No, those parallels aren’t right. It was more like taking a river–the entire experience of standing with your feet in a rushing, cold, fresh-smelling river–and shoving the whole thing into a 1-liter Nalgene bottle, and then sipping from the bottle, and then saying that the river isn’t your favorite river of all the rivers.

***

Milner’s book describes a visit he had with Dr. John Diamond, a man convinced that listening to digital audio is physiologically hurting us:

He encouraged all of his patients, no matter what issues they were working through, to make music a regular part of their lives–listening to it, and, if possible, playing it themselves. But recently he had noticed that music did not seem to be doing some of them any good. In fact, it appeared to make their ailments worse. . . .

It didn’t take him long to figure out that many of his patients were listening to records manufactured from digital masters. Could that be the problem? When he could find them, Diamond substituted analog versions of the same songs or pieces–sometimes even by the same performer–and the music once again proved therapeutic.

(via)

***

I know I want to write about R.E.M. and how my memories affect how I’ve heard their music throughout the years.

So naturally, I go to the section on the canon of memory in my dissertation. The first sentence of that section makes me physically jump back a second, because I think it coincidentally mentions R.E.M., but it turns out I’m just seeing it wrong. The sentence actually reads, “When I hear the word memory, I think of computer memory, in terms of hard drive space and RAM.”

This makes me pause. I wasn’t thinking about a computer’s “memory” when I started this post. But as I write, I’m streaming a 1985 R.E.M. concert from Germany in another browser window, a concert I learned about when I tweeted a quote from an online article about the band:

These days, R.E.M. is wrapped into my digital memory just as much as they were ever wrapped into my body’s memory.

***

20th-century composer John Adams once told an interviewer this:

There is a ten-year-old boy (not a student) who comes over to my house every week or so and plays his music for me. He has a MIDI sequencer at home, and his pieces are all polished and notated with his print software. I don’t discourage him for doing that, but I also point out that there’s no substitute for having plain, awesome musical chops: having a great ear, being able to perform well on an instrument, and having a huge, encyclopedic knowledge of music. Composers should know everything.

(via)

***

For a couple weeks now, I’ve been listening to the early R.E.M. albums over and over, checking out the special editions from the library, streaming various shows, reading the lyrics on various websites.

And in a digital, analog, distant, embodied sort of way, I’ve taught myself to love these records. Really, really love them. Eventually, I know I’ll move on to the next records, paying attention to them all in this new way, with headphones and lyric sheets in front of me. But I’m not ready yet. I want more early R.E.M.

(And in the back of my mind: can you manufacture love? Can you manufacture a river?)

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