R.E.M. – Chronic Town – EP

Chronic Town – EP (1982)

B+

1. Wolves, Lower 2. Gardening At Night 3. Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars) 4. 1,000,000 5. Stumble

 

Most people suck at writing songs when they first try – especially when those people are 14 and their first song consists of a single inexpertly strummed chord and four verses of amelodic, whiny crap about how the girl they have a crush on doesn’t like them back (the person I’m referring to is either me or James Blunt. Take a guess! Hint: one of us managed to improve our songwriting skills over time. The other one is James Blunt). Sure, there are freaks of nature like your Bob Dylan or your Pete Townshend who can make their first song ever be “I Can’t Explain,” one of the greatest 2-minute rock songs of all time (which explains why the guy has such a massive ego), but most of us have to work at it. REM were no different. After Stipe and Buck met at the famed Wuxtry Records in Athens (which is “famed” because of that meeting, of course), they formed the band with pretty much the sole purpose of playing at a party their friend was throwing in April 1980. Party bands generally aren’t known for songwriting, or for sounding good at all in any context other than a loud drunken party, but that’s what REM were. Everyone’s gotta start somewhere. I’ve heard a recording of their first ever show, which took place in a church (all that remains of it now is a crumbling steeple, which I have stood next to!), and most of their original songs were exceedingly slight three chord teenybopper new wave pop songs. A few remnants of that era showed up on Dead Letter Office and as various B-sides during the 80’s, and a few aren’t bad, but they aren’t exactly anything to base a career off of.

Fortunately for REM, they got a lot better real fast. Within 15 months of that first show, they had their debut single getting significant radio airplay, and about a year later they followed it up with this EP, which had critics fawning over them already. It’s easy to see why, because they display a whole lot of maturity for such a young band. All the components of what would become their signature sound are already well-defined – Buck’s clean arpeggios, Stipe’s mumbling, Mills’ counter-melodies. And they’re not playing third-rate new wave anymore – these are like creepy sounding folk rock songs. And they’re expertly arranged, too – timbre-wise they’re just your standard guitar/bass/drums, but check out how spot on those harmonies are and how smoothly the parts all flow together on “Wolves, Lower” – that sure as shit doesn’t sound like the work of a one year old band! “Stumble” does, though – sounds like they came up with a couple cool fragments and then strung them together repetitiously without bothering to have them build tension or cohere. But it’s the only moment of semi-weakness here.

Man, this is kind of weird for a debut EP, isn’t it? There’s a dark, mysterious vibe running throughout (there’s even some Halloween-like organ at the beginning of “Carnival Of Sorts” and what I’ll term “zombie shrieks” in “Wolves, Lower”), and, other than Buck’s mutant Byrds riffs, there aren’t any of the classic rock or punk touchstones we’d expect to see from a debut record in 1982 – there’s NO distortion or bluesiness at all, and the singer doesn’t sound as if he realizes he’s, uh, the singer of a rock band. I mean, Stipe might as well be humming the cute popper “Gardening At Night”… which is fine with me. The mumbling probably added to the mystery back then, and as is the lead vocals provide melody and nothing else. Shouldn’t it be that way more often?

OK, so this isn’t exactly robust, rocking music (except the two-chorder “1,000,000”! That’s one of the coolest rockers they ever did! That gravely, affected singing might actually be my favorite Stipe vocal ever!). REM were always kind of pussies, and they have always been better at atmospheric folk rock of the sort found here than, you know, RAWK (which they unfortunately forgot by the mid-90’s). But with that in mind, take Chronic Town and early REM for what it is – that being, most prominently, catchy as balls.



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