Tag Archives: Automatic For The People

Rocks In The Attic #478: R.E.M. – ‘Unplugged 1991’ (2014)

RITA#478I’m glad that MTV’s Unplugged shows are gradually becoming more and more available on vinyl. Only the other day I picked up a bootleg of Stone Temple Pilots’ fantastic Unplugged set from 1993. Of course, the really famous ones are Eric Clapton’s Grammy award winning record from 1992, and Nirvana’s swansong show in 1993, also a Grammy winner.  Now if they would just release Aerosmith’s 1990 show, I’d be very happy.

As cynical as you want to be about the whole Unplugged thing – a soul-less cash-in by a corporate TV station only interested in producing programming content – it’s become a nice little time capsule of early ‘90s rock and alternative rock. Of course the show is still going to this day, but the last one recorded was by Miley Cyrus in 2014 which shows just how much it’s devolved over time. It’s just a ratings chaser and always has been. In the early ‘90s, it was Nirvana fans and Pearl Jam fans who were propping up the album charts, these days it’s tweens propping up the download charts.

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R.E.M.’s first Unplugged set (they recorded another one in 2001) is dated between 1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People – effectively smack bang in the peak of their career. They take the time to go as far back as their debut record Murmur( for Perfect Circle), and of their studio albums only Reckoning and Fables Of The Reconstruction are passed over. The set does lean a little more towards the later albums – Green and Out Of Time – which is understandable considering how the music videos from those albums had opened the door to the wave of Alternative Rock which would fill the station for the first half of the 1990s.

The sound on this record is superb, and my only gripe is that the guitars all sound a little too clear and bright. That’s R.E.M. all over though – jangly ‘80s pop guitars rather than an authentic dusty blues guitar vibe.

Hit: Losing My Religion

Hidden Gem: Rotary Eleven

Rocks In The Attic #197: R.E.M. – ‘Automatic For The People’ (1992)

RITA#197This was one of the first CDs I ever bought. In fact, it might have been only the second or third such purchase. As soon as I started listening to music obsessively, I joined one of those music mail-order clubs, where you choose a stack of CDs for a really low price, and then they try and send you the latest new release every month. Automatic For The People was in that first stack of CDs I bought from them. I thought then, as I do now, that it’s a perfect album. There’s nothing about it that I dislike, and it’s remained a firm favourite ever since.

R.E.M. fans will have you believe that their earlier albums are where it’s at, but for me, everything they ever did in their formative years leads to this album, and everything they did afterwards was just a steady downhill decline. If somebody was foolish enough to say that Murmur or Reckoning was a better album than this, I’d just laugh in their stupid face. There’s a horrible trend for musos to instantly dislike an album as soon as it’s crossed over into the mainstream and achieved a certain level of acclaim. I’m probably guilty of having done this from time to time. To dismiss this album in that fashion though would be a real mistake for anybody to make.

I’ve listened to this album on a couple of road trips, and it seems to attain something different when you listen to it while travelling. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I think the mood of the album seems to make more sense. R.E.M. are a very American band – they deal in Americana – sometimes to the detriment to their reputation outside their native country, to people who might not necessarily always ‘get’ them; but I think the universal themes of the album – loss, regret and longing – seem to connect better somehow on the road.

Hit: Everybody Hurts

Hidden Gem: Drive

Rocks In The Attic #171: R.E.M. – ‘Monster’ (1994)

Unlike a lot of R.E.M. fans, I really like this album. It was the first album of theirs to be released after I started listening to music (I had started listening to music obsessively whilst Automatic For The People was oute, but I was too concerned with other bands to pay any notice to R.E.M. or to that album at the time).

A lot of people don’t like this album because it doesn’t sound like R.E.M. The guitars are more distorted than usual, and it comes across as more of a rock album than an alternative album. So what? That sounds perfect!

This was released a year (almost to the day) after Nirvana’s In Utero, which may go some way to explain the direction that band were taking. Even though the two bands are very different, they were both flagbearers for early-‘90s alternative rock, and you would be naive to think they weren’t keeping tabs on each other’s output (Monster even includes a song in tribute to the recently departed Cobain – Let Me In). R.E.M.’s producer Scott Litt had even been hired to fiddle with the sound of In Utero and to remix a couple of the album’s tracks before it was released, so perhaps a large part of the influence was channelled through him.

I have a very clear memory of discussing this album with my good friend Dominic Beresford a couple of years after it came out, when I was at University. The amusing question raised by the album’s opening track, What’s The Frequency, Kenneth, was how Peter Buck was expected the play the backwards guitar solo on the song when they were playing live. The idea of him travelling though time backwards via an onstage teleporter sounded lavish, implausible…but funny all the same.

I did see R.E.M. play live at Glastonbury a few years later – they did play the song, but my memory is sketchy as to what he did across those bars of the song. I did find the answer eventually – at a Simon & Garfunkel show a few years ago, the guitarist played a backwards guitar solo in the break of Hazy Shade Of Winter – without the aid of any Cronenberg-esque teleportation devices. Evidently there is a guitar pedal that replicates a backwards guitar solo. I don’t think Buck would have had that pedal at the time (it would have been reversed on tape in the traditional way), but the album does reek of a certain pedal – half the tracks are drenched in tremolo.

Another odd memory I have of this album is my roommate at University refusing to believe that the band released Bang And Blame as a single off this album. In the world of Google, this sounds like an odd thing to have an arguement about. These days, it’s too easy just to look on Wikipedia and confirm, but back then it was his word against mine. I knew it had been released as a single as I’d seen the music video, but he refused to believe it, I think because he was a huge R.E.M. fan, and this knowledge had somehow passed him by. Wikipedia – thankyou! – confirms it was the second single to be taken from the album.

I like most of this album but the one song I really love, Crush With Eyeliner, became a firm favourite of mine when I used to DJ at Oldham’s 38 Bar / The Castle.

Hit: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

Hidden Gem: Crush With Eyeliner

Rocks In The Attic #23: R.E.M. – ‘Out Of Time’ (1991)

I’ve never been a huge fan of R.E.M. I’ve always been slightly suspicious that it took them so long to finally start recording hit albums. I was also put off by them because it was fashionable to like them when I was at college. And it was usually knobheads who liked them – R.E.M. and Oasis.

But I’ve always been a big fan of Automatic For The People, and this album’s really growing on me every time I listen to it.  I remember Automatic For The People was one of the first albums I bought on CD – it was one of the five or so CDs I got when I joined one of those music clubs (where they’ll send you the latest chart album if you do absolutely nothing).

Automatic sounded otherworldy back then (and still does now), and this seems much more accessible. I don’t think I’ve ever owned this on CD – I’d probably have listened to it much more than I have if I had it on my iPod, but as it stands I’ve only listened to it on vinyl.

I probably bought it for Shiny Happy People – probably the first R.E.M. song I ever heard and one of my favourite singles, which I think I bought on CD – and I think I was always slightly disappointed that Kate Pierson didn’t sing on all the rest of their songs.

Hit: Losing My Religion

Hidden Gem: Low