Review: R.E.M. – Chronic Town (I.R.S.)
Recorded by Mitch Easter who had produced the band’s debut single Radio Free Europe, Chronic Town introduced the majority of the music world to R.E.M.
Whilst he may have been the fellow who captured the bands early jangle heavy guitar sound on tape, the end product was already born and while Peter Buck’s arpeggio playing style wasn’t by any means unheard of at the time when you added to it Michael Stipe’s elusive & often mumbled vocal drawl and hook laden melodies the group managed to developed their sound to capture the essence of 60s pop whilst still sounding totally modern at the same time. Quite the coup. This new sound initially took American college rock radio stations by storm and slowly, it trickled from the US airwaves to the rest of the world.
Whilst the two tracks on side two have their appeal I never flip my vinyl over any more. The three songs on side 1 hold such wonderful Americana within their grooves that I don’t see the point in listening to substandard versions of them. Even though 1,000,000 and Stumble can pretty much run rings around anything the likes of U2 had written by 1982 it’s only when the needle hits the record and Bill Berry starts his simple drum rattle on Wolves, Lower I know that the next 12 minutes will be full of musical nirvana. Bono and The Edge may as well pack their bags and fly back to Ireland.
Until the chorus when Mike Mills lays down those terrific backing vocals with Stipe crooning “Ay-hi-ya-ya” in between his lines it all feels a touch odd, like one of the not so funny scenes in Twin Peaks. You know, what exactly is going on here? By the time Gardening At Night (which was so named due to the band wanting to pull the van over on an early tour on the way back from a gig to urinate) begins its chorus I know that I will have to play these songs again straight after. This track in particular probably comes across as the most complete R.E.M. Song on here, they attempted many similar ideas on their next couple of albums and the up-tempo drums combined with Stipe’s stipulation that the verses needed to be as memorable as each chorus lifts them to incredible heights that very few achieve at all, let alone on their debut EP.
Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars) finishes the holy trio of early R.E.M. songs by infusing their independent sensibilities with an early Kinks guitar line and chorus. This obvious display of commercial intelligence brightens what may otherwise have appeared as quite dark and murky record (due mainly to the thin production and of course those murmured lyrics). It’s not quite Shiny Happy People but its use of classic pop structure and repetitive chorus lines pointed into a direction that the band would head into in not too many years.
Chronic Town is by no means perfect but it holds the key to what the band soon became, that first side of the record is so great. There is spirit that runs throughout the mini-album/EP that clues the listener in to what the band is about and what heights they would eventually reach. When a band opens their career with songs this odd and exciting they rarely fulfil their promise. R.E.M. themselves seemed to have little doubt that they could do just that.