On Second Thought
R.E.M. - Reckoning






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

No one ever seems to mention the stature that R.E.M. held in the early-to-mid eighties anymore. It sort of feels like it all never even happened. I wonder if younger people who weren’t around at the time even realize how godlike people used to think R.E.M. were.

With all of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s revivalism going on, it’s interesting that there hasn’t been a single band (to my knowledge, anyway) really influenced by early R.E.M. R.E.M.’s stylistic formula might have been too idiosyncratic, but it was also perhaps too complex and subtle. It may be accurate to say that R.E.M. evolved into more of a folk-rock band by the time of 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, but if people were calling them “folk-rock” before that, it probably just had a lot to do with the fact that Peter Buck was playing single note lines and arpeggios on a Rickenbacher guitar, a sound too easily tagged as “Byrdsian.” (Maybe the slight southern accents in the vocals contributed to the sense that it was “folk,” too?)

You put on “Harbourcoat,” the first song on 1984’s Reckoning, however, and what you are hearing are basically power pop chords. There are some interesting bootlegs of early R.E.M. playing a whole repertoire of original material that predates the songs on their early records. On a lot of this stuff, their roots in power pop are quite evident. (R.E.M. actually recorded one of these songs, “All the Right Friends,” for the soundtrack to the 2001 film Vanilla Sky. The song is featured on In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003.) “Harbourcoat” is not just unique power pop because of R.E.M.’s folk-rock aspects, however (or because it was highly unusual for a power pop band to have weird, Dadaist lyrics!); it’s unique because it’s more overtly dance music-oriented. Listen to drummer Bill Berry’s hi-hat. In the intro (actually the song’s chorus played without any vocals), he plays straight eighth notes, but mixes it up with some quarter note attacks on upbeats where he opens and closes the cymbals (a technique known as a hi-hat “choke”). In the verses, he alternates between hitting the hi-hat only on upbeats (plus some chokes for accents) and a sixteenth note beat.

The reason why certain hi-hat beats involving sixteenth note patterns or “syncopation” (the accentuation of upbeats, in this case) seem to have something to do with a song’s danceability is a topic a little beyond the scope of this article. This use of the hi-hat was certainly a very common feature on disco records, however. From my limited study of the genre, disco tempos generally seem to range from about 100-130 beats per minute. Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” played at about 95 BPM, feels like the slower end of the disco beat spectrum, while Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood,” played at about 145 BPM, feels very quick. “Harbourcoat” is at about 158 BPM. This velocity of tempo has more to do with new wave danceability than it does with disco, but adding dance beats to power pop certainly compounds the dance element of the music.

Some of the early R.E.M. material on the bootlegs mentioned above is a kind of fast roots rock music (they used to cover Buddy Holly’s “Rave On”), and this stuff naturally worked as new wave dance music, too. (“Permanent Vacation,” an early song in this style, was also revived fairly recently and is available now as an iTunes exclusive.) Related, and also seemingly intended as new wave dance music, were songs less roots-rock oriented and more punk, as in their first single, “Radio Free Europe.” On Reckoning, both “Second Guessing” and “Little America” would seem to be of this style. Both are quite fast (“Second Guessing” at about 170 BPM and “Little America” at about 163 BPM). Notice once again how Bill Berry uses a sixteenth note hi-hat beat on “Little America,” working these dance beats not only into power pop songs but more punk-oriented songs as well.

The other of these two tracks, “Second Guessing,” may be the great lost single from Reckoning, with a tight structure and some gorgeous, low register background vocal parts. Even more gorgeous are all the contrapuntal vocal melodies and harmonies on “Letter Never Sent,” a more mid-tempo (approximately 142 BPM) power pop tune featuring yet more of that hi-hat dance beat action. Without going into a whole musicological analysis attempting to support the argument, there’s a degree of simultaneous strength and beauty to this music that feels, to me, like it beats R.E.M.’s contemporaries in this area hands down—Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Replacements, Sonic Youth, fIREHOSE, all of them. Camper Van Beethoven, at their best, might have equaled R.E.M. in this area, but only for moments here and there. R.E.M. pull gorgeous stuff off left and right on Reckoning and its predecessor, Murmur.

“So. Central Rain,” probably the most well known song on Reckoning, is another mid-tempo power pop tune. Peter Buck’s intro is, of course, a classic Rickenbacher guitar sound. The Rickenbacher is certainly one of the signature sounds of early R.E.M., but they did a lot with it in the studio, getting a real variety of tones from overdub to overdub and from song to song. The quality of the guitar sounds was perhaps the most significant difference between the early records, produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, and the subsequent Fables of the Reconstruction, recorded in 1985 with veteran English folk-rock producer Joe Boyd.

Mike Mills plays some great lead bass and melodic bass counterpoint in the verses of “So. Central Rain.” Mills’ piano playing on the song is pure honky-tonk, however, and this element changes the character of the song considerably. R.E.M.’s dabbling with country has been sporadic, but it is perhaps most prominent on Reckoning. Peter Buck’s guitar playing on “Camera,” especially the appoggiatura lick right before the vocals come in at the beginning of the chorus, would be another example. One of the most signature uses of the appoggiatura in country music is the piano playing on Floyd Cramer’s classic country instrumental “Last Date,” a song which R.E.M. (perhaps not so coincidentally) recorded a few years later. The same style of piano playing is featured on Charlie Rich’s huge 1973 country hit “Behind Closed Doors,” which (also perhaps not so coincidentally!) Michael Stipe used to sing a capella onstage during the tour supporting this album.

Recorded originally as a bit of a joke, the country version of the group’s early song “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” on Reckoning was some kind of holy accident. “Rockville” works absolutely archetypically as a country song, its I-ii-V chord progression in the chorus perhaps having something to do with the ii-V-I progression in Lynn Anderson’s classic country hit “Rose Garden.”

If “Camera” is a little bit country, it would also appear to be third album Velvet Underground-style balladry, however. Nailing it down a little bit further, it’s more “Pale Blue Eyes” than it is “Jesus” or “I’m Set Free.” “Time After Time,” another song on Reckoning, is actually more “I’m Set Free,” but look at how Peter Buck mixes it up. His repeating guitar riff heard at the beginning and continuing through the verses might have something to do with the guitar riff in “The Murder Mystery.” His droning second guitar part that comes in on the second verse is pure “Venus in Furs.” Buck’s D major modal riff in “Seven Chinese Brothers” might also have been a “Lady Godiva’s Operation” variant.

Reckoning might be overlooked in some ways. If it is looser than the great mood piece Murmur, it is also quite possibly a better collection of songs on the whole. The performances also seem to have been more dynamic, and the overall vibe of looseness never affects the quality of the sound. If anything, the looseness and spontaneity of Reckoning perhaps creates a context in which the many subtleties of the record are just taken in as one. While the album certainly works as a nice set, the ten songs on Reckoning impose themselves less on the listener as a program than any other album that R.E.M. has made.


By: Tim Ellison
Published on: 2005-05-24
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