Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Ghosts of New R.E.M. Records Past

I'm listening to the new R.E.M. album, Collapse Into Now -- released today -- on my old CD player, and it occurs to me that it's the exact same CD player I played Monster on the day it was released nearly 17 years ago — still my favorite New R.E.M. Record Day ever.

Which got me thinking: Can I remember where I was living, what I was doing, and where exactly I bought every R.E.M. album on the day of its release? I admit it’s much easier for me than for some people; I only started buying brand spanking new R.E.M. albums on that same day back in 1994, when a 16-year-old high-school Matt hopped into his shit brown 1980s Monte Carlo hand-me-down and ... wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

MONSTER (Sept. 26, 1994): I’ve told this story many times, so many that I wouldn’t be surprised if you Googled “Matt Marrone” and “Monster” and found 40 different retellings of it. The basic gist is this: I couldn’t sit still all that day in school. I think “R.E.M.” was every other word I said (“Monster” was the other). I had heard What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? and, like many recently converted R.E.M. devotees, I was wondering why the fuck it didn’t sound like Automatic For The People. In fact, I hated it on first listen. After school, I drove to Media Play in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and couldn’t find the damn CD anywhere. I almost left the store dejected until I took one last peek at the New Releases section and, being that my desperation was bordering on panic, I figured I’d pick up the neon orange CD with the cartoonish bear head on it and see what the hell that was. My life as a music fan has never, ever been the same. I took Monster home, marveled at how brash it was, how gruff and distorted and loud, how it seemed like a great big fuck you to the Grammy voters and casual fans they’d picked up the previous few years. It was glorious. I listened to WTF,K? every single day after school for at least six months.

NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI (Sept. 9, 1996): Maybe my one-time blogging partner Geoff can remember specifics, but we were college roommates at NYU at the time, and I almost certainly bought it at the Tower Records that used to be (essentially) on campus. I recall just a few days before, we attended a record promo party a few blocks away at Astor Place (it was a parking lot then, now it’s a high-rise), and along with showing Road Movie and handing out album cover stickers, they tossed a few promo copies of the album into the crowd. I would have given my left nut for one. I got a million stickers, but no CD. Turns out a guy on our floor (at Brittany Residence Hall on 10th and Broadway) got a copy. We heard a bit of it emanating from his room, but were too shy to knock on his door. Oh the follies of youth.

UP (Oct. 26, 1998): I remember this one like it was yesterday. The record was released not long after serendipity struck; I had sent away for David Letterman tickets that summer and the very week I found out R.E.M. was going to be on, my parents called and told me I’d gotten some type of letter from The Late Show. Turns out it was two tickets to the same night R.E.M. was appearing. The night of the show, I sang along to Daysleeper to Geoff’s embarrassment/horror and the fascination of one CBS page. Good times (I also scored tickets and saw them on Conan not long after, which is when I met the band for the first time). Anyway, the night before the record was released, they had a Midnight Madness sale at the aforementioned Tower Records. We were living near South Street Seaport at the time, and Geoff, to my shock and dismay, decided it was too much work and went to sleep. He later came to regret it, but for me it turned out to be one of my most memorable first listens. Not that anything crazy happened at the sale; it was just the subway ride home, reading the lyrics (printed lyrics? gasp!) and then listening back in the apartment, on the 27th floor of Clair Huxtable’s law offices, all of Manhattan glittering around and below me. I remember calling Liz, then my girlfriend, in the wee hours of the morning to tell her about the record. I was so moved by it I literally felt sick. To this day, it’s my second favorite R.E.M. album, eclipsed only by Monster.

REVEAL (May 14, 2001): I decided, with the Internet changing music buying forever — in ways that seemed more bad than good, at least back then -- that I’d refrain from downloading any tracks or reading any advance features/spoilers/what have you prior to the album’s release. I was living in Prague, and my roommate Ryan would read articles and not tell me what they said so I could live vicariously through him. Just before Reveal came out, Ryan, my student Petr and I drove to Cologne, Germany, to see R.E.M. perform live in a square next to the city’s gorgeous gothic cathedral. We stayed overnight at the home of some wonderful fellow fans — who tormented me by trying to show me the album cover — then joined 70,000-plus others for one of the greatest (free) concerts of all time. Not only would it be the first time I had heard the new songs, but just hours before the band took the stage, I heard my name being called from across the square. “Matt! Matt!” It was my German friend, Charis, who had been there for my famed Burger King crown incident in ’99, and with whom I’d completely lost touch. Later, I had a baseball catch with a Brit on a suburban German street ... and the drive home, was, well, that’s an entirely different, and yet even more legendary, story. (For the record, I eventually bought Reveal at Bontonland in Wenceslas Square, where I got all my music during my two years in the Czech Republic.)

AROUND THE SUN (Oct. 4, 2004): I’d rather forget this album, entirely, but I’ve given myself the task, so here goes. I was back in the U.S. at this point, living with my uncle in the Bronx and commuting to my then part-time job at the Daily News, having just returned from my graduate school thesis work in Scotland. I hate hate hate this album, and I can’t remember where I got it (probably Virgin Megastore in Times Square or something like that). I actually enjoyed my first listen that night, lying in what had once been my grandparents’ bedroom, because I had already heard it — and hated it — prior to the release and was in that New R.E.M. Record Day haze that makes even a shiny turd seem shinier.

ACCELERATE (April 1, 2008): Another all-time classic release day. It started with waking up before dawn and making my way from my old apartment in Hoboken, N.J., to Rockefeller Plaza to see R.E.M. perform on the Today show. As it turned out, I got to see them do a soundcheck as well as perform live, and I ended up getting caught on camera (screen grab here). I also met fellow fans Jen and MaryLou on line and the three of us later went to a nearby Best Buy and bought the album. I had this blog back then, so here is the full account.

COLLAPSE INTO NOW (Today): Kind of anticlimactic since so much of the record was released by the band beforehand, and the entire thing was streamed on NPR over the weekend. Plus, I had to work (ESPN New York) and couldn’t buy it (at Tunes in Hoboken) until I got home (my second go-around in my fifth Hoboken apartment). I bought it on both vinyl and CD (I don’t buy CDs anymore except for R.E.M.) and then played it on my aforementioned CD player, which was also the first CD player I ever owned. And it sounded great -- once I was able to rip the long-stuck CD tray out so I could get the damn thing in there.

Okay, I could go into more detail but I have Mr. Geoff on the phone and we’re talking about how old we are.

Happy New R.E.M. Record Day!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

REMRing's got a lot to learn

It seems my sparring partner, Eric, despite his stated dislike for the soon-to-be-released R.E.M. album, Collapse Into Now, is far more excited about it than I am.

How do I know this? Somehow he managed to skip ahead and write track reviews for All The Best, Everyday Is Yours To Win, Walk It Back, the video for Uberlin and the song Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter before I could get around to responding to even his first post, let alone listen to the latter track enough to remember its name (I had to copy and paste it from his site).

Eric, I implore you, sit back, take a deep breath, enjoy a White Sox spring training loss and a nice slice of deep-dish pizza (I need a recommendation for my upcoming trip, by the way), and relax. The blogosphere can survive a few hours without you.

Anyway, as a result of your verbal barrage, I am forced to condense my response into a single post. Here goes:

Dearest fellow R.E.M. enthusiast,

Let's take your rarely lucid points one by one:

1. All The Best: A broken (tick tock) clock is right twice a day, as they say, and since there are two tracks on this album that do nothing for me, All The Best and Walk It Back, you come off like a fine piece of precision Swiss craftsmanship here. The song is filler, little more, and while it doesn't tarnish their legacy, it likely won't get many spins from this diehard fan.

2. Everyday Is Yours To Win: It really surprises me that you like this song as much as you do. Still, your clear inability to form reasonable opinions of new R.E.M. songs has grown to near-epic proportions, so I'll once again have to humor you with a response. You're right, Everyday Is Yours To Win is one of the best songs on the album. And yet it still has some of its corniest lines (the aforementioned tick tock, plus cherry pie and I've got a bridge for you). Where on other songs, that would immediately disqualify it from your esteem, you're willing to look past it, accept it for what it is, and enjoy it. With all due respect, why can't you fucking do that with the rest of the album? Your mysteries are vast (though not at all intriguing).

3. Walk It Back: I don't hate it as much as you do -- the music itself is decent enough. But yes, Stipe is no longer a deep, nuanced lyricist. Again, you'd hate this song a whole lot less if you could accept that. Still, I'm not gonna fight you here. Stipe mailed this one in, so why shouldn't I follow suit?

4. The video for Uberlin: I really like the song, and the video is fine. Does anyone even give a crap about music videos anymore? As long as it doesn't result in the band facing criminal prosecution (snuff film, kiddie porn, terroristic threats), I really don't care much either way. That being said, I was taken aback by your claim that the R.E.M. fan community loathes it. Why? At worst it's simply forgettable (perhaps a valid criticism of the record as a whole), but after a couple views I think it's just good fun.

5. A_A_A_A: There a few songs on CiN that, while they may not be essential R.E.M., simply rawk. This is one of them. Peaches is great, and Stipe sounds like he's woken up after a nice 3:24 nap. While, yes, the lyrics are nonsensical, this is a prime example of a song you should be praising. What group of 50-somethings still make music that sounds this alive? #Winning.

Okay, I think we're caught up. If not, my dinner's ready anyway so feel free to continue your assault on the the Internet's collective intelligence.