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R.E.M.’s Monster 25th Anniversary Box Set Reviewed

Since 2013 R.E.M. have been releasing 25th Anniversary box sets and have gone from Murmur to Automatic For The People, arriving on November 1st to their rock and roll album. Monster is REM’s ninth studio album and was released 25 years ago. To mark this occasion, Warner Brothers prophets/profits again dug into the vaults and found some stuff that many hardcore REM fans will probably throw down the hard-earned dough-re-me on.  I hope I am not sounding too jaded, alas, I will lighten up, this is quite a record, indeed. It is a lot of material to digest, and with today’s dollar being less available, this would seem, as in most boxed sets, that probably only the hardcore faithful will take the plunge on this collection. Hopefully, this review will help the borderline fan out on that buying decision.

So, a bit of history, I remember the first time I heard what was announced as the new song by REM, I was in a dance club  (of all places, The Big Huerta does not dance, unless he is dragged to these places by an ex-girlfriend) in the LBC with my aforementioned girlfriend at the time. They played “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” and I was immediately elated. I heard fuzz guitar! I heard energy! It was as if Scott Litt (producer) told the boys “hey enough of this jingly jangly Rickenbacker high end tambourine shit, break out the effects pedals. C’mon Buck have some balls! Throw down some real heavy guitar raunch! Shit that the kids can grab onto! Shit that will make them rethink REM….then you can go back and put out some decent middle of the road Lp’s with a couple good songs on each and maybe even do one without Bill (Berry, drummer) here! Suck it up boys! Let’s play something that inspired you to become rock gods in the first place!”  Yes, that is precisely what might have been said.

This 25th Anniversary package contains a remaster of “Monster”, demos, a remix, two live cd’s, and a Blu-ray DVD. That is a ton of REM to reckon with! But this is one of their best albums, if not their best! I am sure I will get some REM peeps arguing with me. But this is my opinion, I have others.

Quick short story…I feel a certain kinship with REM. I was there from the very beginning. In fact, the band I was in, back in the early 80’s, Copper 7, was scheduled to open for them at The Concert Factory in Costa Mesa. I was sooo excited because I owned that first e.p. Well, the management of the establishment did not want to pay the band the dollar figure that was asked so REM cancelled that day and lo and behold, Concert Factory somehow booked Jason and the Nashville Scorchers to play after us, and needless to say, they proceeded to school us up and down the ill attended concert hall. This was the first time that I saw a band that made me want to quit playing music. That’s how good they were! But alas, I continued to play music and I don’t have to explain how rich and famous I became. I owe my house in the Bahamas to Jason and the lads or if I think harder about it, to REM…cheers gents! (of course, I am joking peeps and the IRS!) Also, Mike Mills was in the audience when another band I was in, The Jack Brewer Band, opened for Sonic Youth at the Roxy. He really dug us. That was fab…another brush with the Athens lads, Michael Stipe and I watched Opal together at Club Lingerie during his long curly haired canteen-satchel wearing days. There’s a pic of us together somewhere, so I got that going for me…

By the way, I am just going to touch on this anniversary package ( keep your hands to yourself on that one!),  for if I waxed eloquently, we would be here for a fortnight and interest would wax to the waning side. One more aside, the first cd is a remaster, the uninitiated should listen to this first, to get the idea of the record. I always thought remaster is just another trick to get the fans to pay for different (the liner notes don’t lie) but same sounding product. I myself will proceed to the remix version and throw down my opinions of the songs etc…then I shall hit the demos and toss off a couple of opinions on the live stuff…

Dig, “Monster” opens with “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Now, to my ear, this appears (remix) to be slowed down a tad with Stipe’s vocals pushed forward and Berry’s ride cymbal crisper (one can truly hear the plastic tips of his drumsticks) on the chorus and the genius staccato guitar less enhanced. Buck’s guitar totally wins MVP on this song. The distortion makes them sound like a very polished garage band. Of course, everyone knows the history of this song involving Dan Rather. It’s the question of frequency that has us bewildered. In my opinion, one of their best songs and a helluva opening song.

Next we get hit with Stipe warming up vocally and more staccato guitar interplay.  “Crush with Eyeliner” features Thurston Moore of the aforementioned Sonic Youth on backup vocals. This song contains wonderful lyrics such as “She’s a sad tomato…she’s three miles of bad road”. This is their brief homage to the New York Dolls and the glam scene. So far, this 2019 remix disc is go to, if you dig extra tags, synth drums and enhancements.

Speaking of dance clubs, “King of Comedy” sounds like they were trying to do a song specifically for the dance clubs. This is a bit more extended and not so aurally harsh as the original (more playful). Again, Stipe’s vocals are pushed forward and clear and you can actually understand what he is saying. A welcome departure for sure! This mix gives the instrumentation distance…a roomy room feel.

“I Don’t Sleep I Dream” a nice r & b type number is Stipe’s first introduction of what I call his Smokey Robinson voice. Bill Berry’s tom work is fantastic on this, especially the intro. I always thought that Berry was a very underrated drummer. Not too flashy nor difficult but he had the perfect grooves and accents for REM without overplaying and that folks, is talent. Stipe is all sexed up on this one for we all know that coffee is NOT coffee! Just ask George Costanza…again this 2019 remix has playful added bonus vocals by Stipe.

Track 5 is a galloping little rocker titled “Star 69” and is in reference to the archaic way of checking who called you last. Seems so dated these days. It’s a nice little number enhanced with echoey call and response vocals with Mike Mills. Then there’s “Strange Currencies”, to me, it is “Everybody Hurts” part two with a slight nod to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”. A nice slow to medium song about a guy pleading with his lover to be his one and only. We are seven songs in and there hasn’t been a clunker in the bunch!

“Tongue” is Stipe’s full on nod to Smokey on this one. Don’t let him tell you otherwise! Another r & b influenced song and it is a very graphic sexual song in nature. Some beautiful piano, churchy organ and sparse percussion along with Beach Boys influenced backing vocals during the instrumentation, all turn this into a head nodding groove.

“Bang and Blame”, according to what you read, is either based on River Phoenix or Kurt Cobain…either, or, Stipe’s sister Lynda still sings backups on this regardless of who it is about. Cool tremolo-ey in and out guitar during verses and more sweet tom work by Berry. I don’t know why but this reminds me of the twice removed stepsister to the Stones “Paint it Black”.

“I Took Your Name” another cool guitar distorto exercise with some heavy bottom thrown down by Mike Mills. This is not your father’s REM people! Dig the fuzz, the wah, the falsetto!!! I don’t hear no tambourine nor 12 string.

The tenth song is called “Let Me In” and this is where I start to lose a bit of interest. It reminds me a bit of Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby”, basically just Stipe and Buck, maybe the other dudes were on pub break. ”Circus Envy” is a medium guitar based rocker. If it was like, Hoobastank, it would be heralded by their fan but this is REM and it’s just okay. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool driving song with the patented Stipe melodic weird lyric hook that he seems to be able to toss off whenever he feels like it.The final song on this remix is “You”. Cool psychedelia complete with pounding toms, raga riffs, backward hi-hat, and ascending vocals in the chorus that Stipe seems to totally own and if they would have sped this one up it could have been right at home on The Who’s My Generation lp. Not a bad way to end Monster.

So, we end up with 12 songs…only one has a bit of the clunker nod on it…this is not bad folks! If you thought REM was a pastoral band (for lack of a better word) this Monster remix LP should sway even the hardest doubters. They seriously rev all the effects pedals up for some serious aural fuzz sturm und drang! Plus, with the Scott Litt remix, we get to hear what Michael Stipe is writing and singing about finally!

Disc two is an outtakes disc. Wise decision not to throw this stuff out there. A lot of middle of the road semi-typical sounding REM instrumental fare. I have been in many bands. And usually you practice a bunch of songs and only a few get to see the light of day, be it in a recording studio, or live shows. This gives you an insider’s view of how bands and songs play around, garage bands in a garage, million-dollar money making bands have the luxury of effing around in multi-tracked studios. It’s all relative, folks. We also get a glimpse of how important phrasing, words, melodies, sweetening (usually the producer’s hand), all make a song ear worthy or just another forgotten reel (file). Among the “songs” that stand out on this 15 track disc is “Harlan County w/Whistling”, “Mike’s Guitar” with verses that Stipe would usually throw his emotional lyrical hat on but there really isn’t much of a chorus. This could be the reason it never got much further attention. “Black Sky 4-14” could have also become a decent mid tempo song with a little work from Stipe’s lyric books. “Time is on Mike’s Side” is a nice rocker that sounds very much like “World Leader Pretend” off REM’s “Green” lp released in 1988.

Discs 4 and 5 are from live shows from Chicago in 1995. REM has always been a decent live sounding touring band. I remember when they first started, it seemed as if Stipe always wanted to crawl into a hole, but over time, due to the band’s popularity, he is a bit more engaging, even wearing strange facial make-up for the arena and stadium crowds, but he still seems to not truly trust a crowd nor want to share any secrets. He does like saying stuff, misinformation, to the crowd just to f with them, so that’s pretty endearing in my book. The hits are played here along with some nice surprises like “Near Wild Heaven”, “Revolution”, “Me in Honey”, “Country Feedback”, “Monty Got a Raw Deal” “South Central Rain” and “Departure”. A fine example of Stipe messing with the crowd is his introduction to “Losing My Religion” where he states that the song was made popular in 1973 by B.J. Thomas. The thing with live shows, as you all know, is that it shows just how much work is put into the studio to make a song sound palatable. It is impossible to recreate the wall of guitars and vocals that are mixed down in the studio. The live songs do sound thin in comparison with the studio tracks as with all bands. Just appreciate the band for what it is.

Blu-ray disc is a cool view of REM onstage along with music vids of a handful of songs from Monster. I particularly dig Stipe’s nod to the Chicago Blackhawks. He wears their jersey onstage like a dress. I am sure some locals got a kick out of that but more than likely most of them didn’t grasp the statement nor the nod of homage.

So there lies Monster. I was in love with it when it came out, I still listen to it every few months, it still moves me, I still think it is one of their best efforts. I guess you could say I am smitten with this album, quite possibly, it’s my crush with eyeliner. 25 years ago, REM called, I just had to Star 69 them again. Be well, all.

1 Comment

  1. Jack on September 29, 2019 at 7:12 pm

    Well done!

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