Title: Chronic Town (EP)
Released on: Aug. 24, 1982 (I.R.S. Records)
Favorite tracks: âWolves, Lower,â â1,000,000â
Recently I heard Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills on âFresh Airâ talking about R.E.M.âs career and it reminded me of how much I like the group. That almost seems to go without saying, especially since I went to college in the 1980s. I never thought of R.E.M. as my #1 favorite 1980s band (which is more of a four-way tie with R.E.M., U2, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello), but R.E.M. was in a lot of ways the definitive band back then, both in the prevalence of their music and their influence on indie/college radio rock, especially at a Southern university.
So Iâve been inspired by blogger/screenwriter Todd Alcott's cinematic example to do a chronological, album-by-album retrospective of R.E.M., up to their new one, Accelerate, which Iâve barely heard as of this writing. (Yes, I probably should have done this back before Accelerate's release date.) Now, Iâm not a rock critic and I donât claim to have the ear or vocabulary of a musicologist. To the best of my ability, Iâll write about their sound, their songs, why they âclickâ and how theyâve evolved. Iâll share any tidbits I come across, and Iâll talk about how the music sounds to me now, as opposed to how the albums sounded when they came out. And Iâm giving my self plenty of leeway to share memories and associations the music inspires. Feel free to join in.
Skipping over the bandâs 1981 single âRadio Free Europeâ (which Iâll mention with Murmur), I begin with the 1982 EP Chronic Town.
For me, the word that comes most strongly to mind for R.E.M.âs first EP is âurgency.â The spidery opening chords of âWolves, Lowerâ draw you right into REMâs sonic âworldâ almost instantly.
Remember the old commercials that would go âWhen I bite into a York Peppermint Patty, I get the sensation ofâ¦?â Well, when I listen to early REM, especially Chronic Town, I get the sensation of hurtling headlong across a rural road or landscape by dark of night. The song lyrics are like sign posts that whoosh past so quickly, youâre not sure you read them properly. Frequently the sound makes me think of speed â the drumsticks snapping at the beginning of âCarnival of Sorts (Box Cars)â reminds me of the snap of playing cards in the spokes of bicycle wheels. Because of âBox Carsâ being in the song title, I think of the rattle and rush of train cars as they go past. (And I drove back and forth between Atlanta and Athens, Ga., a lot from 1987-1989, and remember driving past actual trains to and from R.E.M.âs home town.)
I think the musicâs urgency helped it enormously to connect with listeners in R.E.M.âs early years. Critics use words like âarcaneâ and âinscrutableâ to describe the songs, but thereâs something about the speed and the strangeness of it that draws you in. You may not have understood what they were staying, but they meant it absolutely. I think thatâs what made R.E.M. break out more than comparable bands (or more accessible bands) of the era. Chronic Town sounds a little raw compared to their subsequent works (thereâs a spare basement-tapes quality to â1,000,000â that makes it particularly appealing), but their sound is rich and almost fully formed.
Early listening experience: A quintessential part of my undergraduate/R.E.M. fan experience was arguing with friends about what the lyrics meant. We had some considerable discussion at the Vanderbilt University student newspaper as to whether the chorus of âWolves, Lowerâ was âHouse in orderâ or âIâll sit and adore her.â One of my friends had a phone interview with Bill Berry and they tried to figure it out. These days, something about âWolves, Lowerâ makes me think of The Three Little Pigs, probably because I have a kid now, and the song mentions wolves, houses and possible gardens. (Incidentally, on the interview Michael Stipe called âGardening at Nightâ something like the first real song they ever wrote, or ever recorded.)
I mostly listened to Chronic Town on a cassette tape I made from a friend probably 23 years ago â which I retrieved last week. It shares side A of the tape with U2âs Wide Awake in America EP. For some baffling, horrible reason, after Chronic Town on the tape comes Aerosmithâs âDream On.â For the life of me, I cannot imagine why.
More about R.E.M.âs early unintelligibility coming up with Murmur.
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