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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

REMtrospective 1: Chronic Town


Title: Chronic Town (EP)

Released on: Aug. 24, 1982 (I.R.S. Records)

Favorite tracks: “Wolves, Lower,” “1,000,000”

Recently I heard Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills on “Fresh Air” talking about R.E.M.’s 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 I’ve 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 I’ve barely heard as of this writing. (Yes, I probably should have done this back before Accelerate's release date.) Now, I’m not a rock critic and I don’t claim to have the ear or vocabulary of a musicologist. To the best of my ability, I’ll write about their sound, their songs, why they “click” and how they’ve evolved. I’ll share any tidbits I come across, and I’ll talk about how the music sounds to me now, as opposed to how the albums sounded when they came out. And I’m giving my self plenty of leeway to share memories and associations the music inspires. Feel free to join in.

Skipping over the band’s 1981 single “Radio Free Europe” (which I’ll 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.’s first EP is “urgency.” The spidery opening chords of “Wolves, Lower” draw you right into REM’s sonic “world” almost instantly.

Remember the old commercials that would go “When I bite into a York Peppermint Patty, I get the sensation of…?” 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, you’re not sure you read them properly. Frequently the sound makes me think of speed — the drumsticks snapping at the beginning of “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” reminds me of the snap of playing cards in the spokes of bicycle wheels. Because of “Box Cars” 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.’s home town.)

I think the music’s urgency helped it enormously to connect with listeners in R.E.M.’s early years. Critics use words like “arcane” and “inscrutable” to describe the songs, but there’s 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 that’s 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 (there’s a spare basement-tapes quality to “1,000,000” 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 “Wolves, Lower” was “House in order” or “I’ll sit and adore her.” One of my friends had a phone interview with Bill Berry and they tried to figure it out. These days, something about “Wolves, Lower” 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 “Gardening at Night” 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 — which I retrieved last week. It shares side A of the tape with U2’s Wide Awake in America EP. For some baffling, horrible reason, after Chronic Town on the tape comes Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” For the life of me, I cannot imagine why.

More about R.E.M.’s early unintelligibility coming up with Murmur.

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