Monday, January 5, 2015

Out of Time in 1991

I'm a bit sick this week, too feverish to concentrate very well on the Camus that I'm reading. Too feverish too make artwork successfully. Video games are fine and brainless, but I find myself catching up on my listening.


Somewhere along the way I picked up a copy of the DTS re-issue of Out of Time. It's a wonderful, lush re-master, revealing a production value that is higher than the band probably deserved. At the time, though this seemed the height of "alternative" music culture.

Being a working-class high school student, I didn't have the money for a CD player. I could check tapes or records out of the library (and then tape them), but much of my listening time was spent recording songs of off the radio. And radio was a fairly awful place in 1991, dominated by 1960s rock or AOR pop songs. Even the largest local college station, Loyola's WLUW, had switched to a top 40 format by this time.

Out of Time came out in March, just before the rest of my class graduated (I had already given up by this point and decided to finish in summer school, but that's another post). Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" wouldn't take over the charts until that fall. That summer became dominated by "Losing My Religion," which turned out to be the advance guard of a new "alternative rock" format.

Which is especially weird in retrospect, because the album is the least rock-ish of the R.E.M. albums. I've always viewed it as an obvious attempt to capture the dominant AOR/Fleetwood Mac audience. At the time in which my, smaller, generation was just coming of purchasing age, the consumer entertainment world was still driven by the older, boomer generation. And they loved themselves some Garth Brooks and Tom Petty.

Of course, the guys in R.E.M. were older too, and probably wanted to listen this stuff. The 80s seem to have ended with adults making pop music for adults. Middle-aged balding guys like Phil Collins and Michael Bolton ruled the land. Then, after "Teen Spirit," the record companies would scrounge the nation for more youngish rock bands, more reflective of my age group.

Being older, one could argue for the merits of having a well-practiced group performing at their height. R.E.M.'s peak however, seems to have been Green. As much as this album pretends to cover new ground, from country to spoken-word to instrumental waltzes, the core sound is still Peter Buck's Byrd-like plucking as played against a standard rock rhythm section. Michael Stipes vocals especially suffer in this new cleaner production style, revealing his limitations, especially when measured against the amazing Kate Pierson guest spots on the album.

The orchestration on the album, however, is what gives the better songs their re-listen-ability. It's much easier to get lost in layers of stringed instruments than in the annoying bark of guest rapper KRS-One. And, of course, it's much less of a chore in this digital age to be able to only listen to the songs that one likes. Those of us with tape decks had to suffer through the dull bits or risk having the cassette "eaten" with too much rewinding and fast-forwarding. Now I can listen to "Losing My Religion" and skip straight to the second "side." Such is progress, I guess.

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