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RDR reviews the 25th anniversary reissue of "Green" by R.E.M.

Rhino / Warner Bros.
"Green" by R.E.M.
Fertile Ground Compost Service
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ALBUM REVIEW:

R.E.M. - Green (25th Anniversary Edition) Rhino Records 2013

As I begin to type this review, I feel tears welling up in my eyes and chills running over me. Could it be that "You Are the Everything," one of the strongest songs in the R.E.M. canon is currently playing here in my room? Well, yes, and yet there's more to the feelings I get when I play the Athens, Ga.-based quartet's 1988 major label debut Green, re-released this week .

For me, Green was an incredibly important album. In the weeks leading up to its release in early November 1988 (right around the time George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis were vying for our votes - we know who the guys in R.E.M. were voting for that year), I was incredibly excited. This was also right around the time U2 released Rattle & Hum, and while I was a big U2 fan at the time, I was a bigger R.E.M. fan. I was even into the celebrity side of things, wondering if singer Michael Stipe and 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant were "an item," as noted in a music magazine I read at the time. I wanted to emulate their Southern, educated, liberal "coolness" and progressive politics. I loved Document and Life's Rich Pageant (also recently re-released in extended form) and was blown-away by the number of amazingly good college-rock bands sprouting in the American Southeast. And, with a Top 10 hit with "The One I Love" the prior year, the pump was primed for more.

Anyway, Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry struck me and my friends as hip, secular big brothers in an alternative-music subculture that was going to take us to a better day in the waning days of the corrupt Reagan/Bush era where Iran-Contra, AIDS, poverty, the environment, apartheid, racism, and Cold War meddling in Central America were grave concerns for my generation. Yes, I was concerned about these things and yet, being 16, I had an adolescent optimism about the future and Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe would lead the way.

The first single from Green, "Orange Crush," was a very good sign of what was to come. A decidedly powerful anti-war song where the band really was in sync (and who didn't love the break with Berry's martial snare and the boot camp and helicopter sound effects - this, for a teen deeply interested in the Vietnam War era) and really saying something at a time when "Morning in America" platitudes and Moral Majority hokum was turning stale.

And so, with much anticipation, on Nov. 7, 1988, I raced down to Yesterday Records there in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas and bought Green on vinyl. A few days earlier I had spoken to the proprieter of a CD-only store (CD's were a bit of a novelty at the time - I still bought tapes and records in those days) and asked him if he was outraged that R.E.M. had "sold out" to the evil Warner Bros. behemoth, leaving groovy I.R.S. Records behind. The guy looked at me and shrugged and put on Bobby Brown's Don't Be Cruel while proceeding to ignore me.

So, a few days later, standing in there in Yesterday Records, owner Stan Smith eyeing me, wondering what I was thinking (I was a regular, usually buying Kinks, Jefferson Airplane and Searchers re-issues) as I held the orange-covered album sleeve, looking for clues, as we did in those days.

So, racing home in my Mom's station wagon, after plunking down the $10 or so I owed Stan and Yesterday Records, I brought Green into my bedroom and placed it on the spindle of my hand-me-down, circa-1969 KLH turntable (a Document-era band poster on the wall above) and listened (only printed lyrics were for a song called "World Leader Pretend") and heard the intro to "Pop Song 89." Off the bat I knew the band was in a more playful mood.

Stipe sings: "Hello, I saw you, I know you, I knew you / I think I can remember your name, name."

Knowing that they were, as I noted earlier, seen as a band that had a message, Stipe later asks: "Should we talk about the weather? Should we talk about the government?" Indeed. And I would be playing this 45 single a year later when I worked as a roller-rink DJ - not exactly "couple skate" material.

The following track, "Get Up," had a pop bounce and rock edge that worked well with Stipe singing lead and Mills providing his unmistakable harmony.

And then, the night sounds of the crickets, followed by Buck's gorgeous, plaintive mandolin and Mills on accordion, we are treated to "You Are the Everything." This song, while too folky to ever be considered a single, would be a key track on Green, even making it on to the tour T-shirts that would follow the following year.

And while the thoughtful "You Are the Everything" is bookended with "Get Up" on one side, it's bookmarked by another slice of bubblegum rock with the insanely catchy "Stand," a song that would provide the band another big hit. And it was also the first time Buck would offer up a wah-wah guitar solo like no other.

Things get serious once again with "World Leader Pretend," a particular favorite. While interpreted as a "political" song, maybe about Reagan, over the years I've come to see it as a more personal song about a person tackling his self-centered ways. Stipe's vocal takes on a depth and clarity that wasn't quite there on the three prior songs (save "You Are the Everything") and the instrumentation - flourishes of cello, lovely pedal steel, Berry's crisp, 60's-ish drumming - are quite compact, while providing a melancholy air.

And as someone who didn't always fit in with the other kids, the haunting track "The Wrong Child" resonated to a certain degree. Considering the fact that Michael Stipe (while not overtly "out" at the time - after all, wasn't he dating Natalie Merchant?) was gay, was this a reflection of feeling as though he didn't fit in, while growing up? Or perhaps Stipe's observant nature, reflecting on a disabled child left out of the fun?

"I'm not supposed to be like this / but it's okay," Stipe sings. It's certainly open to interpretation and another song offering up Buck's burgeoning interest in folk instruments like the mandolin. And in a different way, the spare folk of "Hairshirt," with Buck's mandolin at the fore, more demons are exorcized, it would seem.

Turning things over, under, sideways and down, R.E.M. has an almost proto-metal song with the muscular "Turn You Inside-Out."

Nearly a year after Green was released, the apocalyptic and menacing "I Remember California" was on the minds of lots of fans after the San Francisco Bay area was struck by a powerful 7.1 earthquake. Earthquakes are certainly common along the San Andreas Fault, but still …

But R.E.M. doesn't want to leave listeners on a bad note. No, they pull-off "(Untitled)," a decidedly positive and uplifting mid-tempo track. It's a song that stays with you and has a flower-power simplicity that leaves a smile on your face.

Over the years, it has been Green that I found myself returning to, time and again. I love all of R.E.M.'s music (although, as a drummer myself, I felt they lost a key member and a certain "something" after Bill Berry departed in the mid-1990's) and this album really has an understated power that I didn't find in the other albums, good as they are.

In addition to the original Green album, this 25th anniversary edition includes a recording of a 1989 Greensboro, North Carolina show that includes Green tracks, naturally, as well as personal favorites like the eco-conscious "Cuyahoga, the buoyant, Mike Nesmith-styled, alt-country-rocker "I Believe," the rapid-fire "These Days" and the Fables of the Reconstruction favorite "Life and How to Live It."

Songs like "Low" and "Belong" were trotted out on this tour and wouldn't appear on a proper album until 1991's Out of Time.

And I love how Stipe introduces "Exhuming McCarthy," patriotically - tongue firmly in cheek - "I pledge allegiance to the United States of America!" before saluting his way into a politically-charged number from Document.

On "Finest Worksong," a song towards the end of the live set, the band is still charging along, before concluding their 21-song set with the bittersweet Murmur track - a live staple - "Perfect Circle."

Included with this attractive clamshell-box set reissue are four CD-sized cards each featuring a picture of a member of the band, accompanied by a Green-era band poster. The liner notes, provided by Allan Jones of Uncut magazine are insightful but not particularly revealing, at least to this long-time fan.

It's great to have Green back. It certainly is a definitive rock album deserving such positive recognition. And while I do pull out my original vinyl version from time-to-time, having this 25th anniversary reissue is a reminder why I should spin it more often.

Copyright 2013 Red Dirt Report

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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