The Vanishing Point Appears: Life Score By R.E.M. – Part 1

Please take a few minutes to check out part one of my reflection on the retirement of R.E.M. and their effect on my life: The Vanishing Point Appears: Life Score By R.E.M. – Part 1.

Music Review: COLLAPSE INTO NOW by R.E.M.

I was four years old when Peter Buck met Michael Stipe while working at the Wuxtry record store in Athens, Georgia in 1980. I’m now 35, married, and have two kids of my own. Peter Buck and Michael Stipe are still part of the band they would create with Bill Berry and Mike Mills not long after meeting and that band is called R.E.M. The college rock icons, who reached their commercial peak in the mid-nineties, just released their fifteenth studio album entitled COLLAPSE INTO NOW.

At this point I would like to take just a moment to pause and thank whoever it was that hired Peter Buck to work at Wuxtry records. Thank you. Because of you (whoever you are) two of the four critical pieces were put into place to meet and begin a creative journey that has progressed for thirty one years and is still putting out beautiful, grand, and gripping music. While many artists fade into oblivion, R.E.M. is putting out some of its better work in its thirty-first year as a band. It is an album that flexes the characteristics that have made R.E.M. the icon of a band that they are, but, in a manner that steers well clear of merely being a reprise of their past work.

COLLAPSE INTO NOW opens with “Discoverer” which wields guitar and drums without shame and in a manner that seems even more explicit than their rock revival, 2008’s ACCELERATE. It is a testosterone-tweaking song with a driving arrangement that hits hard from beginning to end both musically and lyrically with perfectly placed and timed lines like, “…I rang the church bell ‘til my ears bled red blood cells…” I can’t put my finger right on it, but, for some reason that line is extremely impressive to me. Maybe its the way it is sung or maybe its the clever cluster of rhyme and alliteration. But, it is a fantastic line in a killer song.

The next four tracks together create a golden stretch of songs that are as compelling as they are beautiful. “Überlin” seems like it could have been at home on AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE or perhaps REVEAL, but, fits perfectly, here in 2011 on their newest album as a tribute to the city of Berlin where a good portion of COLLAPSE INTO NOW was recorded. “Überlin,” at least, rivals the integrity and character of the R.E.M. that many fans have loved them for over the past three decades. But, where “Überlin” provides a fresh spin on the classic R.E.M. sound, “Oh My Heart,” creates a fresh and altogether reverential and somewhat celebratory new and fully realized composition that should be counted among the best in the trail left by the Athens, Georgia band through the fields of rock music history. Scott McCaughey’s accordion and Peter Buck’s mandolin provide the perfectly flavorful background for the slightly discordant dance between Michael Stipe’s lead vocal and the backing rounds of “Oh my heart…” in a manner that tactfully, sincerely, and respectfully celebrates the journey and the victory that is the city of New Orleans.

“It Happened Today,” and “Everyday Is Yours To Win” complete an altogether strong side A to COLLAPSE INTO NOW. “It Happened Today” strikes a very comfortable chord by appealing to my high school/college years preferences with a celebratory and anthemic demeanor that is ever so delicately and blissfully enhanced by the vocal chords of one Mr. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. “Everyday Is Yours To Win,” conjures up instant relativity to AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE with lines that make references to ticking clocks, rock and roll, bridges, and coming to peace with one’s lot. It could just be me. Regardless, the song soars with the middle bridge which features the golden background vocals of Mr. Mike Mills. Its a keeper, for sure.

“Mine Smells Like Honey,” while a decent song and all, is probably the one that I could survive without. You see, I’ve got kids and, even if they don’t have any idea (at 3 and 7) what the songs lyrics are referring to, I can’t bring myself to play it in the car (the others I have no problem with) for them to learn and sing along with. So, I automatically (darn! – another AUTOMATIC reference!) hit skip when its on unless I’m alone. But, when I’m alone….well, “mine smell like honey.”

“Walk It Back,” is a simple song in which Stipe taps a more soulful pool than that which has been heard in the past. It reaches its height when Mills can be heard contributing background vocals in the latter part of the track.

“Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” very much comes out of the box much like “All The Best,”: a raucous, testosterone laced rocker that flaunts the irony of the song’s aggressive musical arrangement by juxtaposing with it an alternately flexing and reflective lyrics that cling true to where R.E.M. is now in 2011: an icon of a band that has experienced it all and is better for having done so.

“That Someone Is You” may be my favorite song on the album. It is a quick-tempo nod to their intertwining pop-punk influences that, true to form, measures in well under two minutes. There is no song that I revel in more when nobody is looking – and sometimes when they are.

Certainly, one of the more subdued tracks on the album is “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I.” Stipe’s delicate lyrics, in combination with the vulnerable and sincere-sounding vocals, rest on an acoustic, ambient bed of sound that, again, while maintaining a sense of personal reflection, are enhanced by gentle background vocals subtly placed by Mike Mills at just the right time in the latter part of the arrangement. The song creates an environment for the listener similar to that which was featured throughout R.E.M.’s vastly underrated 2001 album REVEAL: a gentle place and time where reflection is allowed, encouraged, and where the listener can be at ease.

Finally, the album closes with “Blue.” Patti Smith, longtime influence and friend of the band, provides her characteristically beautiful and haunting voice to a song that features a rapid stream of consciousness monologue delivered, albeit through distortion, by Michael Stipe. The song and the lyrics (at least those that are clearly decipherable) present a fitting and victorious end to R.E.M.’s fifteenth studio album before reprising the sounds of the opening track, “Discoverer,” in a manner that is fitting both poetically and sonically.

Altogether, very few bands survive long enough to put out fifteen studio albums. Even fewer do so in the manner and with the integrity that R.E.M. has over the past thirty years. COLLAPSE INTO NOW stands tall, not only in comparison to R.E.M.’s own catalog of studio albums, but, in comparison to the rest of the music world as it is in 2011. The band made good on what Stipe set out to do in “All The Best”: “…let’s show the kids how to do it, fine fine, fine fine.” Indeed. A fine record.


“Discoverer” – 3:31

“All the Best” – 2:48

“Überlin” – 4:15

“Oh My Heart”  – 3:21

“It Happened Today” – 3:49

“Every Day Is Yours to Win” – 3:26

“Mine Smell Like Honey” – 3:13

“Walk It Back” – 3:24

“Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” – 2:45

“That Someone Is You” – 1:44

“Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” – 3:03

“Blue”  – 5:46

BIG STAR’S THIRD Live Tribute Show Review

My review of the 12/10/10 BIG STAR’S THIRD tribute show that Mike Mills played in featured on Mike Mills Tribute

Reflecting on R.E.M.’s Summer Album REVEAL

R.E.M. released REVEAL in 2001 lush with a delectable blend of acoustic and electronic, guitar, and drum machine. While critically acclaimed it didn’t sell as well as other members of the R.E.M. library and, subsequently, remains an underrated album. But, that’s just it. It’s strength lies in its cohesiveness in theme, lyric, texture, and tone as an album. Since its release in 2001 it has been a constant companion amidst a slew of albums that have floated in and then back out of rotation by various artists and bands. I’ve created a site devoted to the album complete with video links, published album reviews, REVEAL-era artwork and photos, and lyrics (lyric page still under construction). Also included is an exclusive reflection from part-time R.E.M. extended-band member Ken Stringfellow (The Posies and The Disciplines) about his experiences taking part in the making of REVEAL. Why not check it out?

“Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged; What A Beautiful Refrain”

“‘Judge not lest ye be judged;’ What a beautiful refrain.”  “New Test Leper,” a song from R.E.M.’s 1996 album New Adventures In Hi-Fi, tells the story of a transvestite featured on a television talk show being cross-examined and ridiculed on account of lifestyle. The point of the song, I believe is pretty straight forward: the same finger-pointing self-righteousness that Jesus revealed in the hearts of the Pharisees, and even his own disciples, still exists today.

From the farthest reaches of the religious right to left wing extremists, and from the poorest among us to the most affluent, daggers of criticism are brandished and thrown as thoughtless, conceited, knee-jerk reactions barren of humility. Statements of judgement are made with the clear intent to discredit the opposition when, most often in reality, such statements do far more to discredit those who make them.

It shouldn’t be too hard to understand that, as Christians, the lesson here is not merely to avoid judging others, but, in addition, to recognize our own shortcomings and, subsequently, approach and interact with others out of a spirit of loving humility. Oswald Chambers wrote:

Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” He went on to say, in effect, “If you do judge, you will be judged in exactly the same way.” Who of us would dare to stand before God and say, “My God, judge me as I have judged others”? We have judged others as sinners…Yet God judges us on the basis of the miraculous atonement by the Cross of Christ.

If we can adjust our perspective so that we view the world through a lens of humility rather than entitlement, and if we can scale down our own sense of importance, we will find that, instead of so many perceived flaws to criticize in others, there are magnified blessings and wonders all around us that are big enough to put our interactions with others in perspective and, hopefully, overcome our own shortcomings. Grace exists for us to the extent that we recognize it and, in turn, extend it to others.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” Matthew 7:1, 2 NKJV

The Soundtrack To Ten Years Of Marriage

With my tenth wedding anniversary approaching on June 24th 2010 I thought I’d take a few minutes to survey some of the music that has provided the soundtrack to our first ten years together. I admit to being the bigger music fanatic between the two of us, but, we both like music and we both enjoy singing along in the car or in the house. The best times or those when we both get into the groove at the same time. Listed below are artists that fit the following criteria:

1 – My wife Angela and I both appreciate their music. We may not appreciate them equally, but, we both like ’em.

2 – Each artist/band’s music listed below has been in heavy rotation for a significant amount of time, at some point, during our firs ten years of marriage and/or the three years that preceded our wedding day.

Barenaked Ladies A blend of good humor, off-kilter Canadian character, and, at times, passionate music provided a soundtrack that we could both sing along to in the car. Angela was the original BNL fan between the two of us, but, I grew to love them. I’m not quite sure which tour it was, but, we had a splendid time seeing them live (with Vertical Horizon opening) at the Verizon Wirless Ampitheater in Charlotte a few years ago. Some of our favorites: “Brian Wilson,” “The Old Apartment,” “When You Dream,” and “Pinch Me.” Just after Julia was born in 2003 I did a photo montage on my iBook using “When You Dream,” one of the most beautiful songs ever, I think. The albums most in rotation over the past decade: Rock Spectacle, Stunt, and Maroon. I just downloaded “Snacktime” to add to our summer family music rotation for the kids.

Dwight Yoakam I grew up listening to country radio into my early teen years which was just about the time that Dwight Yoakam started to make a name for himself on the country charts. It was around the time of my first year in college that I purchased Just Lookin’ For A Hit because of the realization that Dwight’s alt-country bend had a grip on my ears. A CD that was in high rotation in my CD player around the time that I met Angela was Gone. Dwight was new territory for Angela, but, she caught on and “Near You” became one of our first token songs as a couple. I can’t remember if it was for a specific occasion or just because, but, Angela later purchased Under The Covers (Dwight’s collection of cover tunes) which, to this day remains a favorite album for both of us. Under The Covers stretches Dwight’s style from traditional country to big band and everything in between. Angela and I made a trip to Western Carolina University sometime around 2003-2004 where we saw Yoakam put on a great show after The Charlie Daniels Band opened.

Paul McCartney My long-time fascination with the Beatles resulted in the  purchase of Flaming Pie, Paul McCartney’s openly Beatle-esqe 1997 solo album. The same sing-ability of Paul’s classic Beatles tunes such as “Penny Lane,” “Hey Jude,” and so on was revived for Flaming Pie with songs such as “Little Willow,” and Angela’s favorite, “Beautiful Night.” This is one album that will stand the test of time for sure.

Aaron Sprinkle As somebody who really latched on to Poor Old Lu during my college years I was disappointed with their demise as a band. Aaron Sprinkle’s solo efforts, however, were a consistent comfort for me during the first several years of life as a freshly-transplanted to the south, young, freshly-married teacher. His sometimes oblique lyrics left themselves open to be applied therapeutically in my life and the new awkwardness that I was going through with so many changes taking shape in my life. But, the part that lured Angela in, I think, is the pop sensibility that seems to come so naturally to Sprinkle. Beautiful, lush melodies, along with tactful and unique arrangements have made Sprinkle’s work a staple. But, I do like to pull out the classic Poor Old Lu material (including their reformed project The Waiting Room) as well as work from other projects that he’s been involved with such as Rose Blossom Punch and, most currently, Fair.

U2 2001’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a simply phenomenal album. Not since Achtung Baby had U2 released such a compelling work. “Beautiful Day” is a classic that stands the test of time and, despite attempts by others to cover it, belongs only to U2. “Grace” is a beautiful song on a number of levels from the recording itself to the concepts illustrated by the lyrics. Angela allowed me to give our daughter Julia born in 2003 the middle name of Grace based in part on the meaning of the word as illustrated in this song. “Wild Honey” has always been symbolic, for me, of my relationship with my wife and the album as a whole is one that we both appreciate enthusiastically whenever it comes up in rotation. My favorite concert experience ever (narrowly beating Bill Berry’s on-stage reunion with R.E.M. in Raleigh in 2003) was the U2 concert that Angela and I attended in Charlotte when they were touring in support of All You Can’t Leave Behind. We were about a yard away from the bottom-right side of the heart-shaped stage throughout. The enthusiasm and performance put on by the band was simply awe-inspiring. Add to that the hiqh-quality show production and the wealth of U2’s catalog that was played so beautifully that evening and it the sum was just magical. Best concert ever.

Social Distortion Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell is an album that first purchased in tenth grade. Over time it has stayed in rotation just because it is such a solid album. Social D’s unique outlaw/rockabilly/punk sensibility simmers throughout the album giving many songs that could easily be performed as straight, traditional country songs, instead, an edgy alt-tinged rock tilt that delivers. They are catchy without roaming anywhere near pop and ballsy while being reverent to the roots of American rock and roll. Angela picked this one out in particular as being one of the albums that we mutually appreciate the most.

Jars Of Clay While Redemption Songs, Good Monsters, and The Long Fall Back To Earth have all had their place in rotation, I list them here because of the very fond memory of Angela and I driving to Asheville, NC last year to see them play at The Orange Peel. With two kids (now 7 and 2), time away with my wife when we can actually relax and have fun is rare. The two-hour drive to Asheville, the great show, and the ride back was a refreshing, albeit brief, respite from our normal daily lives during which we have to pretend we’re responsible adults.

R.E.M. Last, but, certainly not least on this list is R.E.M. Out of all of the music that I have ever listened to in my 34 years of life, R.E.M. has consistently remained my favorite band. During the course of my relationship with my wife all of their albums have come into play at one time or another. But, the albums that have been the most prominent during our ten years of marriage are New Adventures In Hi-Fi and Reveal. New Adventures in Hi-Fi was still fresh when I met Angela. Being that we were in the infantile stage of our relationship the line, “I want to be your Easter bunny…I want to be your Christmas tree…” from the song “Be Mine” struck a light-hearted chord with me, so I presented it as our very first token song as a couple and it has maintained that title to this day. It was the song played for our second dance during our wedding reception (we picked a more traditional song for our first, but, “Be Mine” is our real first dance song as far as sentiment goes) and it still instantly reconnects us nostalgically to those first days of our relationship. Even though Michael Stipe himself seemingly distanced himself from the song in some interviews, it’s still our song and I’m happy with it.  Other tracks such as “Binky The Doormat,” “Low Desert,” “Leave,” and “E-Bow The Letter,” form the backbone of an album with a thick aural landscape. Reveal was released during our first summer as a married couple. Seeing as how we had both been experiencing varying levels of homesickness and/or culture shock throughout the year prior to its release, the bright, lush, summertime texture of the album (complete with R.E.M.-esque references to southern symbolism, culture, and the natural warm-weather world) couldn’t have come at a better time. Frankly I’m surprised that the disc is still in one piece and unscratched after the miles that have been put on it being played in the car CD player over the past nine years. Angela and I both have a great deal of appreciation for each of the songs on that album. It has a textured complexity that doesn’t wear easily or quickly. Our connection as a couple with R.E.M. was only strengthened by the two pilgrimages that we took to Athens, Georgia in the past year. Last summer we visited most of the R.E.M.-related historical sites in the area and also stayed at a nearby bed and breakfast. Highlights of the trip included a visit to the studio of John Keane (a frequent R.E.M. collaborator and accomplished musician/producer/engineer in his own right) who graciously showed us around and a tour of the R.E.M. headquarters that was given by the overwhelmingly kind and gracious Mr. Kevin O’Neal. After meeting Kevin (and R.E.M. art director Chris Bilheimer) Angela and I drove all four hours home to Salisbury completely overwhelmed and with smiles on our faces. Finally, this past April we visited Athens again to take in a tribute concert put on by several R.E.M. collaborators (including Mitch Easter who produced R.E.M.’s first two albums and John Keane) in honor of R.E.M.’s thirtieth birthday as a band. The performances were phenomenal and the trip afforded us time to have lunch and chat with the staff of Athens Music Junkie and also to take in more of the sights, sounds, and tastes of Athens. Now our kids are becoming familiar with the R.E.M. catalogue (granted that there are a few songs they’re not ready for). I have a distinctive memory of “Belong” (from Out Of Time) playing in the car on the way to the hospital to deliver Julia when Angela went into labor four weeks early on June 24, 2003. Now Julia knows many of the words to several R.E.M. songs by heart and even Jacob, at two and a half years old, enjoys singing along with “Second Guessing” (from Reckoning).

Other Songs Of Note:

“To Make You Feel My Love,” by Bob Dylan – The first song that Angela selected that would become one of our token songs.

“I Will Be Here,” by Steven Curtis Chapman – The traditional wedding song that we decided to go with for our first dance as husband and wife.

“Circus Envy,” by R.E.M. – A song that Julia, unprompted, recited the lyrics for over breakfast one morning after I was trying to identify and remove something floating in my coffee: “…put pepper in my coffee I forgot to pour…”

“Like A Stone,” by Audioslave – The song playing on the radio in the nursery when I saw Julia for the first time since they took her out of the delivery room. I do have a good deal of appreciation for Chris Cornell from his Soundgarden days, but, not exactly what I would’ve hoped would be the soundtrack to the first few minutes of my admiration for my newborn baby daughter.

A  few albums of note by artists/bands not listed above that haven’t necessarily been mutual favorites, but, that have been in significant rotation over the past ten years when I’ve had control of the music selection.

Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue

Audioslave – Audioslave

Johnny Cash – Unchained

Petra – Jekyll & Hyde

Jason Morant – Open

Incubus – Make Yourself

Chris Cornell – Euphoria Morning

Various Artists – Basquiat: Original Soundtrack

Kevin Max – The Imposter

Poor Old Lu – The Waiting Room

Moby – Play