- Published on Amazon.com
R.E.M. -- Chronic Town. Released October 1982. Produced by Mitch Easter and R.E.M.
With cryptic song titles, clean, chiming guitars, orchestral drumming, driving bass, and haunting, nearly-indecipherable vocals, R.E.M. snuck onto the early 1980s rock scene in America around the same time I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, straight out of high school, mere months after my mother passed away from cancer. A new city, a new job, a new life--why not new music? I first read about them in a music magazine. Remember when you would read about bands in a magazine and then it would take months, sometimes even years before you would actually hear that band? The summer of 1983 and I was reading about them yet again and still had not found a copy anywhere in Jax until I went into Coconut Records on Atlantic Blvd. Not only did they have Murmur, their first full-length album, they also had Chronic Town, the EP I had read about months before. I bought them both.
When I put Chronic Town on my turn table it was the first time that I ever heard a bass player that sounded like ME. This was extremely important as a nineteen year old trying to find their own way as I was becoming more and more convinced that I was doing something wrong. Around this time I was in a band that had auditioned a keyboardist and at the end of the audition, instead of waiting for us to tell him what we thought, he began to rip into each of us, beginning with me. You're playing in the wrong register, he said to me. That's not a pentatonic scale, that's not how you hit the strings, oh and by the way, those aren't even the right type of strings. He went on to criticize every member of the band and then had the audacity to ask when his first gig with us would be. This sort of thing can be shattering when you're young and still learning who you are. I was also noticing that other bass players did things in similar ways to one another yet I had no clue what they were doing most of the time or how to copy them. Or even if I wanted to copy them. But Mike Mills' lines made sense to me. Melody and pulsing and keep it climbing and galloping. If there was at least one more bassist out there that I could connect with then I must be onto something. I never bothered to learn how to play any songs off Chronic Town or Murmur, I felt as if I'd been playing them already. Yes, validation is a wonderful thing. Years later, a guitarist I was playing with was criticizing my playing, saying that I needed to play "the same way everyone else did." I stuck to my guns and never looked back.
Recorded in a weekend at Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studios, this is a slapdash, yet good sounding EP--clear and punchy, very rock 'n' roll without sounding as if you'd heard it all before. Not as moody or atmospheric as the soon to be released Murmur, closer to what the band must have sounded like in their practice room in Athens.
Michael Stipe, the singer, was criticized for mumbling the words but this never bothered me, especially when I was younger. Words? Who cares because the vocal melodies were still easy to sing along with. Stumble through the yard, stumble through the--what? Who cares, just keep goin'. The sing-along equivalent of running through the rain with a busted ankle while on a runner's high. It doesn't matter, so don't stop. And don't look back. Walk it off.
What else? Oh, instead of "Side One" and "Side Two" the record was labeled "Chronic Town" on one side, "Poster Torn" on the other. No beginning, no ending, no discernible order. As a teenager with a warped imagination and a unique sense of self, these small differences from the norm were very important. And after years of listening to loud distorted guitars in rock bands, the clean, yet driving, guitars on this record seemed like a Revolution. Or perhaps a Revelation. One of them "R" words. When other bands played clean they were playing sad songs or slow songs or sappy songs. Peter Buck choosing to keep his guitar-sound clean seemed purposeful. Intentful. And rockin'.
There's only five songs on this EP and it goes by way too fast. When it was over I was most hungry for more. Luckily I had Murmur to delve into. More on that on another post.
Before we leave, can we talk about the cover of this album for a moment? That sly imp, sticking out his tongue, as if daring you to buy the album, seems to be ready to share a secret if you're willing to listen. The secret? What do YOU think? Any takers?