Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On R.E.M.'s 25th Anniversary Release of Document

"Take off your dress."

It's hard for me to separate that overheard 1987 Work Tour era bellow from the album the tour was promoting, Document. While I never attended a show from that tour, I did have something in my possession that was far better. A cassette given to me by a friend of my sister's. She had personally recorded a Work Tour show in Michigan and made me a dub. It was probably made from the confines of her purse, and it sounded like hell, but it was a show in its entirety, and it was exciting to my young ears in 1988. Stipe was apparently wearing a dress at the show, which is even more defiantly funny in hindsight, knowing full well it didn't take much to distress and disturb the more knuckle headed sort that was starting to invade their turf. Jock baiting weirdness. I can only imagine the look on that goofball's face when Michael launched into a huge monologue discussing the Tennessee Valley Authority and water pressure before diving into the most sinister and fast version of "Auctioneer" I've ever heard. That was my personal souvenir of the Document Tour and my point of entry.

By this time, the album Green had come out and it was interesting to hear the difference in approach. There was something unhinged about their attack during the Work Tour. It drew on the raw, moody vibes of the Fables Tour and built upon it with layers of distorted muscle. Peter Buck's guitar during this period was an amazing thing to behold. A smoldering, barely contained shrill and brash scraping together of ships. It transformed songs that were once gentle, woods dwelling doe eyed mammals into lacerating birds of prey. Beasts even. Witness the change in character of a song like "Moral Kiosk" on the second live disc on the Document re-issue. Even "Life and How To Live It" has its finest hour here.

There are many reasons for re-purchasing this double disc set, but I did so for the live Work Tour disc. It's a chance to peak behind the veil, to see the songs emerging and growing beyond the preciousness of the studio. Listening to the Work Tour version of Document is to really hear the album honestly.

I also bought the re-issue so I could have a couple pristine sounding versions of my favorite song, "Oddfellow's Local 151". A dirge to be sure. That's how I roll. Bill Berry and Mike Mills finally pull out the mutant funk that's been patiently lurking about on the rest of album for a full on outing (with the exception of Lightnin' Hopkins", a more uptempo funk fest). Peter's guitar never sounded more destructive. And Mr. Stipe never so creepy. It's an evil song. Maybe even a bloodletting to prevent the album from exploding from the insides. It just trails down the street gutters while everybody listens until the bloody hulking record vanishes into quarters unknown. I discuss this song because it has a hypnotic quality that transcends radio and cultural trends. The aforementioned bootleg from Michigan featured a very long version of this song. Better yet, everybody clapped along. They didn't do that for any other song. The menace of "Oddfellows" had the effect of a sermon, to clap along was to momnetarily surrender to the more chaotic elements at play. The most uncommercial song in their catalog had at that moment become the most powerful, and groovy. Unfortunately, nobody on the second disc of this set succumbed to such a moment.

"Lightnin' Hopkins", also from Document, is another personal favorite. A hybrid of Wire and Gang of Four, this song also displays the seedier and funkier elements of the band. I felt sorry for those duped into thinking "Monster" was R.E.M.'s "rock" record. Listen to the live version of "Hopkins" on the second disc. Document may have served as R.E.M.'s picket fence straddling breakthrough into the mainstream but they were still enjoying themselves by writing these howling, scratchy, brillo pad harmonic squeal, slap bass workouts.

And, while Document is more successful than Lifes Rich Pageant at delivering a consistent whole, the singles weaken the album due to overplay. I for one can go quite a long time without hearing "The One I Love", "End of the World", and "Finest Worksong". It's not that they are bad songs, just simple over exposure. I much prefer to hear the intricate "Welcome To The Occupation", "Fireplace", and the rest of the album. But now that the album is less of a whole, I seem to cherry pick my favorite moments. And like I said, it's the moody bits. But more often than not, I choose the live versions for their strength and conviction.