Tuesday, March 8, 2011

20 Years Out, of Time

It was 20 years ago today, Peter Hosapple taught the band to play.

On this day in 1991, R.E.M. released it's breakthrough, cross-over 'Out of Time'. From that point forward, for better or worse, things would never be the same for the quartet from Athens, GA.

Their seventh studio release, OOT was recorded at an eclectic mix of facilities including Bearsville Studios (Woodstock, NY) and Paisley Park (Prince's digs in Minnesota). It was the third collaboration between R.E.M and ├╝ber-producer Scott Litt.

Interesting sidebar on Litt's association with the band: He had previously worked with the db's in 1982 which included none other than R.E.M's 'unofficial 5th member', Peter Hosapple. Litt first worked with R.E.M on Romance for the soundtrack of the 1987 film 'Made in Heaven'. He would go on to produce six of their most successful albums including: 'Document', 'Green', 'Out of Time', 'Automatic for the People', 'Monster' and 'New Adventures in Hi-Fi'. No surprise that after Litt's departure (along with Bill Berry) in 1997, the band released the dismal 'Up'. But we'll leave that critique for another time.

'Out of Time' continued a distinctive evolutionary period for the band and their music, which had commenced with 1988's 'Green'. Through their own volition, a bevy of talented session players and guidance from Litt, they explored and utilized a variety of different instrumentation in the recording of the album. Several tracks featured mandolin, violin and cello prominently while a touch of flugelhorn was thrown in for good measure. Buck's arpeggio playing technique married seamlessly with these lush new arrangements, and as a result their music became much more deeply textured. Stipe also employed a novel approach to his vocals. You could actually hear and understand all the words in the songs he was singing. Go figure.

The band already had cred among it's throngs of loyal followers and had gained altitude into the rarefied air that few 'college bands' had before, yet hovered just under the stratosphere of cross-over success. They were poised to breakthrough at some point, but it was the unlikely radio-friendly hit Losing My Religion that got them there. A mandolin solo on a Top 10 record? As if? The song was certified gold for the band. It reached No. 1 on Billboard's 'Mainstream' and 'Modern' Rock charts and No. 4 on the Hot 100. If that weren't enough, the multi-platinum album went on to earn the band three Grammys in 1992. Indie darlings turned AOR darlings virtually overnight.

For once, it seemed possible that 'college music' was fit for the masses. Specifically the slow, southern drawl of melodies and bucolic musings that had been R.E.M's SOP. They had honed their craft for over a decade and 'Out of Time' was deliberate in it's attempt to showcase these different sounds with a distinct southern twang attached. A few standouts from the album include: Belong, Half a World Away, Low, Mike Mills' Texarkana and the Stipe/Kate Pierson duet Me in Honey.

Oddly enough, the album was their first to feature a few throwaways. The ill-conceived attempt rap/pop mashup, Radio Song (featuring KRS-1) and the still-to-this-day awful Shiny Happy People. Stipe may have been coming out of his shell during this period, but he over-stepped it on this syrupy sweet nonsense. As soon as I heard it, I knew it was destined a Karaoke fate.

'Out of Time' holds many personal memories for me. It was R.E.M.'s second release while I was going to college and played as a perfect soundtrack for this awkward, young hipster who was trying to make a go of it in art school. Yet even for this die hard fan, OOT was nowhere near as earth-shattering as, let's say 'Reckoning' was. They were clearly my favorite band at the time and when I graduated school a few years later and set out cross-country on my bike, Athens was one of my first stops. I had to see where it all happened.

OOT might not be their best album, but it remains their most important. If only for the fact that it got them tons of exposure, commercial success, a fat contract with Warner and was the beginning of the path that led them to 'Automatic For The People'.

This was the album whose songs I would hear wherever I'd go. It was the one that further solidified and justified my appreciation of them. It was the record that other people heard on the radio and I'd say," Yeah, that's R.E.M, that band I've been telling you about for the last 10 years. Now you understand what I was talking about?" Finally, they delivered an album that enabled them to belong.

Although the band did not tour to support the album, they did record one of, if not the best MTV's 'Unplugged' sessions ever in April of that year. If you don't already have it, you can get it here.

I'm not sure if time caught up with the band or they just went to the well one too many times, but unfortunately it ran dry about 15 years ago. 'Collapse Into Now', their latest release, coincidentally scheduled to drop today, is a far cry from 'Out of Time'. After a recent string of lackluster albums, if I were in the band, I'd be weary of using terms like 'collapse' and 'now' in the title of anything I released, but maybe that's just me. With their contract with Warner expiring, I have a feeling that they are poised to become an indie band once again. I haven't listened to the new record enough yet, so I'll reserve judgment. But I think R.E.M. has been out of time for quite a long time.

I'm just sayin'.

Half A World Away- R.E.M (Unplugged, 1991)

Belong- R.E.M (Unplugged, 1991)

Losing My Religion- R.E.M (Unplugged, 1991)

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