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R.E.M. – Around The Sun

I’m better-acquainted with earlier (up to and including Automatic For The People) R.E.M., but I will definitely drop $2 to hear a newer record of theirs!

I don’t even know how to review this except to say it’s a collection of great tunes, perfect for later at night and in the background. That trademark R.E.M. sound is here, and Stipe’s voice, of course, is the hook on which all of this hangs.

As I discussed recently in a Watchmen review, I don’t have much time for drum machines, and on this record Bill Berry’s absence at the kit is noticeable. I also wasn’t much for the electronic blips and bleeps (sparse though they were) in Electron Blue.

But I loved the 1-2-3 punches of Make It All Okay / Final Straw / I Wanted To Be Wrong. Many of the other songs are solid R.E.M. songs – does that make sense?

Overall, and remember I’m not the biggest expert on more recent R.E.M., I’d say this is a decent record with a lot to like about it.

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R.E.M. – Automatic For The People

Oh man, was this really released 16 years ago? Wow. OK, so I’m really dating myself here to say that this was absolutely essential first-year university late-night dorm room listening for me. Well, so be it. This ol’ codger has been listening to this record ever since and I just plugged it in today for the umpteenth time and it still slays me. I love this record.

This is the record that R.E.M. was trying to make all those years leading up to it, and it’s the record that they’ve been trying to duplicate ever since. Oh stop it right there before you go flaming me – I know that they’re huge and popular and “classic” and all that now, and I know that this band has written so many GREAT songs over the years (and, of course, I’m once again partial to their earlier stuff, same as I say for pretty much every band), but this was THE record, in its entirety, that was perfect (to me). Their other records had great moments, of course, but were never complete. This one totally is.

So, how many people have I pissed off by saying that? Cool. Well then, go write your own blog about how you think Out Of Time or Reckoning or Murmur was the one. Good for you. Have fun. Please, though, just wipe that drool off your chin and leave me alone.

Nope, for me it’s this one. Start to finish it’s chock full of track after amazing track of meditative, brilliant songwriting and so much musicality that it’s almost not fair to other bands. This is the perfect example of how less is more. There’s so many little things adding up to make a huge whole without any really over-the-top showiness, and that’s yet another reason why I could play this record any time, anywhere, and why I would choose it over a ton of their other releases in a pinch.

And then there’s Nightswimming. The best song they ever wrote? Discuss.

Yeah, this is one for the ages. Fucking brilliant.

Track Listing:
01 Drive
02 Try Not To Breathe
03 The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite
04 Everybody Hurts
05 New orleans Instrumental No. 1
06 Sweetness Follows
07 Monty Got A Raw Deal
08 Ignoreland
09 Star Me Kitten
10 Man On The Moon
11 Nightswimming
12 Find The River

SLCR #135: R.E.M. (June 8, 2008)

There is a list of bands that I’ve never seen before and that I would travel reasonable distances to see. It’s not a long list to begin with, and now it is one shorter.

To be sure, Regina to Toronto is not a reasonable distance; Google Maps tells me that I’d have to drive for 27 straight hours to get there. But then I didn’t travel specifically to see R.E.M., either; I got a cheap plane ticket on WestJet’s one-day birthday sale. Cheap enough that I booked tickets first and asked questions (specifically, “is it okay if I took some time off?”) later. Luckily, my boss is a cool guy who was very accommodating. Even more luckily, when I checked Pollstar to see who would be playing Toronto while I was there, one of the first names I saw was R.E.M., with Modest Mouse and The National as opening acts. This, clearly, was awesome. Even more awesome if I don’t admit that I had never heard of The National up until that point.

When I booked the trip, it was months away. And it continued to feel like it was months away, even when it was less than a week away and I had to start making some concrete plans. Luckily, my pals Aaron and Cindy from Owen Sound (previously of Saskatoon and a whole pile of other places) were already planning on being in Toronto that weekend to see the legendary Leonard Cohen. I thought about going to that show too, but it sold out super quickly and the only remaining single seats were in the $250 section. I like Leonard Cohen, but I’m not sure I like him that much – even if this may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

While in Toronto, I was crashing on the couch of my pal Steve, whose couch I crashed on for a week in 1999. It doesn’t feel like that trip was so long ago, but I guess it would have to be. Back then, I went to Toronto because the Crash Test Dummies were playing a 19+ show on the day before Steve’s 19th birthday; I figured that I could get us on the guest list and so he wouldn’t get ID’ed at the door. Much to my amazement, this plan worked flawlessly and that show ranks among my top concert experiences ever. This time, the concert was kind of incidental to the trip, but I still had high hopes.

Before the show, we met Aaron and Cindy at The Keg. Unlike Saskatoon or Regina, Toronto has many Kegs and there was some brief confusion over which one to meet at (“meat at,” perhaps), but it all got sorted out with plenty of time. This Keg was in Toronto’s gay district, which meant you saw some really interesting ads on the walk from the subway station; ads for gay porn channels, an all-lesbian boxing card, and an upcoming appearance by Sandra Bernhardt. We chose this particular Keg not because of the neighbourhood but because it is alleged to be haunted. When I mentioned this to Dave, he suggested that it was haunted by the ghost of Billy Miner, who doesn’t want you anywhere near his pie. I told this joke during dinner. Epic fail. Then the waitress brought us dessert menus and recommended the Billy Miner pie and probably wondered why I was laughing and everyone else was saying “ohhhhhh.” Sadly, nobody saw any ghosts.

After dinner, I gave Aaron and Cindy my stuff to carry back to their car (what a treat for them!) while Steve and I hopped a streetcar towards the Molson Ampitheatre. I find this whole streetcar situation baffling. Do they offer an advantage over busses? And if so, what? Apart from being kind of neat?

The trip was uneventful. I saw a few places that I had previously only read of in Meredith’s blog, so it’s nice to know that she’s not just making stuff up (as far as I know, anyway – I mean, it’s not like I saw her there or anything).

We got to the grounds at about 6:50 or so. Our tickets said 6:30, and judging by the faint sounds of The National off in the distance, it seems that Toronto strictly adheres to the advertised times. Most of the time, I am a fan of this policy, but I could have done with a bit of a delay in this case. By the time we walked from the subway stop to the Ampitheatre, got inside, and checked Steve’s bookbag, we got to our seats just in time for the last half of The National’s last song. From what I could tell, they were pretty good, but I can’t pretend to have seen enough to truly judge.

I have spent significant amounts of time in Toronto on two occasions. Both times, I have gone to see bands at the Molson Ampitheatre. Both times, I have missed the opening act. It’s tradition!

After enjoying half a song, I settled in for the break between acts. At that moment, I remembered something vital – Ted was in attendance. Ted is this dude I have known from message boards for nearly a decade. His name is not actually Ted, but it has become Ted and I refuse to call him anything else. I sent him a text message, he texted me back, and so we met up. History was made! I think he might have preferred that I call him “Paul” upon meeting him in real life, but forget that noise, his name is Ted. I had Steve snap a picture to document this historic occasion.

I’m the tall one.

I hung out with Ted for a bit of second-hand smoke, and we headed back to our seats as Modest Mouse took the stage.

I’d seen Modest Mouse last fall and they were quite good. The setlist was quite different this time – instead of focusing on their two most recent albums (i.e., all the stuff I know), they played a much wider range of material. I appreciated the variety, but could have stood to hear a few more of my favourites. Eventually, I ducked out to hit the washroom and buy drinks (not at the same time.)

The line for drinks was only about four people long, and you would not have thought it could possibly take as long as it did. I formed that kind of temporary bond with the strangers in the line, all of us united by a common frustrated bemusement. Modest Mouse was playing their hit single Float On, which we were watching on the closed-circuit TVs the Ampitheatre thoughtfully provides to the people in the drink lines. Just then, it started to rain. I laughed. Eventually, I got to buy two bottles of pop (for $9! Well played, Molson Ampitheatre), only they had to be poured into cups because there were no bottles allowed by request of the band. This wouldn’t have bothered me if they had lids for the cups. I did my best to keep them from getting too rained on.

Modest Mouse was finishing up just as I was returning to our seats with the drinks. In effect, I was swimming upstream and this proved somewhat challenging. It’s worth noting that when The National finished up, they got a standing ovation, but when Modest Mouse was done, people bolted for the washrooms and the concession stands. Later on, when Michael Stipe introduced the band and did the standard “let’s hear it for” the opening acts, the reaction for The National was substantially greater than the reaction for Modest Mouse. I’d go so far as to say that the one National song I heard was better than anything Modest Mouse played in their entire set.

I mentioned the rain – right before R.E.M. took the stage, the rain stopped and there was a big beautiful rainbow in the sky behind me. As such, I think I inadvertently wound up in a lot of people’s pictures. Hi folks! I like your city. It’s real big.

I have been aware of R.E.M. going back to high school, and a fan ever since taking a random chance on Automatic for the People from the Columbia House CD club. For my money, Automatic is far and away R.E.M.’s best album and one of my desert island discs. Even if I didn’t like anything they did before it or after it – and I didn’t have much use for some of their more recent albums – I would be super excited to see R.E.M. in concert.

The first thing to note is that the lighting and the stage looked great. I see a lot of bands in tiny clubs and so I’m a sucker for a big rock show that looks like a big rock show, and I have seen few that looked better than this one. Video cameras in front of the stage filmed the whole show and displayed images on a wall of LEDs behind the band, with effects that changed for each song. I didn’t take any pictures because I didn’t bring my camera – last time I was there, they were big on confiscating things – but luckily, we have the internet and you can see some pics from the show here; there’s video too.

Another nice thing about the internet is that someone else will write down setlists so you don’t have to:

These Days
Horse To Water
What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?
Drive
Man-Sized Wreath
So Fast, So Numb
Ignoreland
Accelerate
7 Chinese Bros.
Hollow Man
Bad Day
Houston
Electrolite
Living Well’s The Best Revenge
The One I Love
Final Straw
Until The Day Is Done
Let Me In
Begin The Begin
Animal
Orange Crush
I’m Gonna DJ

Encore:
Supernatural Superserious
Losing My Religion
Second Guessing
Fall On Me (with Johnny Marr)
Man On The Moon

Let’s review, shall we? Three songs from Automatic, which is awesome, but I’d happily pay to hear them play the whole album from start to finish. Man on the Moon was my one must-hear song and we got it, but I must admit I’d have liked a bit more love for songs from New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which is underrated and pretty great. I hope you like Accelerate, their new album (it’s pretty good), because you got all but two songs. I do not want to be one of those guys who only wants to hear the hits, but there was a stretch when I did think that I’d like to hear a song I knew. One of the new songs had a video made by a Toronto production house; they were all in attendance, front and centre, and the video played on the screen behind the band as they played the song. What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? might have been the highlight, because it was fast and loud and the first single they played and it made people jump up and down. I’ve had Final Straw and I’m Gonna DJ stuck in my head ever since the show (two very different songs, so the variation is nice).

As mentioned before (maybe in my personal blog – I’m writing two things at once and getting confused), it was bloody hot that day. Michael Stipe made mention of this, saying that for the first time this summer, he was sweating, and “as a Georgan, I really fucking appreciate this.”

I was especially delighted to hear Fall On Me; on the message board that Ted and I post at, one guy had “buy this guy and sell this guy and tell this guy don’t fall on me” as his signature line. This was taken from the R.E.M. song (“buy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky, ‘don’t fall on me'”); as soon as the song was over, I received a text message. Before I checked my phone, I knew who the message would be from and what it would say. Let’s ignore, for a moment, the several years I spent believing that the song’s lyrics actually WERE “buy this guy and sell this guy and tell this guy don’t fall on me” – sure, it makes no sense if you think about it, but in my defense, I never once thought about it. Songs have weird words sometimes.

I have been writing this review while listening to a playlist comprised of the above-listed songs. I’m on the last one so I should wrap this up. It was a good show! I’d go see them again! And then we left! After retrieving Steve’s bookbag, we decided that fighting the crowd to get back on the streetcar was a bad idea, so we walked quite a ways before catching a different streetcar. This took me to the subway station where Aaron and Cindy were waiting for me. Of course, they thought I’d be coming OUT of the subway station, since that was the original plan, so there was a moment of brief – if amusing confusion. I know most of you won’t care about that, but I’m trying to write a concert review and a travelogue at once, and I’m kind of hoping the two will link up seamlessly.

Actually, it’s 2:20 a.m., so at this point, I don’t really care what they do.

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