Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mellow R.E.M. Makes For Fine, If Average, Life’s Rich Pageant.

The Good: Good voice, Wonderful lyrics, Moments of instrumentals
The Bad: Nothing extraordinary on the instrumentals, Still mumbling through many songs
The Basics: Despite being a perfectly fine album, I opt to not recommend Life’s Rich Pageant because all of the tracks worth listening to are on a "Best Of" album.

I have decided I might well like R.E.M., though I am definitely a fan of their works after they left I.R.S. This is not to say I cannot see the appeal of the band during the I.R.S. years, certainly lyrically they are a force to be trifled with in that period of their development. Vocally, they do not stretch much and deciphering the lyrics often is a challenge in itself. On some of their earliest albums, R.E.M. presents some of their grandest, most challenging and most overtly political music. Given that without the political activism, R.E.M. might have faded as just another garage band, one appreciates that aspect of their early work, regardless of which R.E.M. time period one prefers.

On Life’s Rich Pageant, the listener is caught with a bit of a bind on that front. R.E.M. is generally singing clearer than they had been, their political activism is intense and obvious, but it is exactly what is expected of the group. There are no surprises on Life’s Rich Pageant and while it is a good album, it is remarkably average, especially for R.E.M. It is short, very simply produced and while the poetry of the lyrics are truly exceptional, some of the most important lyrics are stuck in songs that are dull or underwhelming. Or, they are overwhelmed by the instrumentals, as is the case of the magnificent "Fall On Me."

With twelve tracks, clocking in at 38:23, Life’s Rich Pageant is mostly the vision of the members of R.E.M. They wrote all of the lyrics and music, save to the final track, "Superman," which is a fun song. The quartet plays their own instruments and they do it well enough. Lead singer Michael Stipe provides the lead vocals and the rest of the band backs him up. None of the members of the group take any form of production credit on the album, though. Despite that, it does appear like Life’s Rich Pageant is very much the vision of the men of R.E.M. and that they were not unduly influenced by anyone at the label.

Lyrically, it is hard to suggest that the group has surrendered any of their creative control. Life's Rich Pageant is full of remarkably poetic and creative lyrics that are unlike most of what one normally hears on a rock and roll album. The songs venture into the surreal with lines like, "There's a problem, feathers iron / Bargain buildings, weights and pullies / Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air / Buy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky and tell the sky / Don't fall on me (What is it up in the air for) (It's gonna fall) . . .There's the progress we have found (when the rain) / A way to talk around the problem (when the children reign) / Building towered foresight (keep your conscience in the dark) . . ." ("Fall On Me"). The song has a higher level of diction than most songs out there even today!

There is something wonderful about hearing a young band rail against capitalism, but R.E.M. does just that. They throw finding a catchy single to the wind and instead focus on substance. When they sing, "All the money couldn't buy / You're mistaken no one's standing there / For the record no one tried / Oh I try to / What if we give it away? / Overlooking with a hollow eye / What's pretending is it right / Eye for order a hand for what's in line / Couldn't follow couldn't write / And our life does fine here" ("What If We Gave It Away?") they seem to be daring the record companies to support art over commerce.

Even the song "Hyena," which is the least cohesive and most distorted track on the album is lyrically better than most musical outings by other artists. While I can't stand the repetition of the title shrieked out, reading the lines "The only thing to fear is fearlessness / The bigger the weapon the greater the fear / Hyena is ambassador to here" ("Hyena") reveals a strong sense of political activism and desire to confront the lies we are raised on. After all, there is truth to the insecurity of massive weaponry and R.E.M. makes that musical. It's subversive.

Vocally, the mix is remarkably average. Outside, "Just A Touch" and "Hyena" being fairly noisy, the songs are generally musical and more cerebral rock and roll. Michael Stipe has a very smooth mid-range voice that carries the notes well and has a very slick quality to his presentation and performance. On Life’s Rich Pageant, he almost never stretches out of his comfortable range. In fact, if anything there are moments when he becomes less musical and comes close to speaking his poetry as opposed to singing it, like on "Just A Touch."

This is not to say Stipe is at all atonal; far from it. Tracks like "Begin The Begin" have him going a little lower and he has a voice like honey on "Swan Swan H." Despite how he fails to articulate clearly on "Fall On Me," his vocals are wonderfully musical, which is a rare thing on a surreal, listing song.

The irony of Life’s Rich Pageant might be that vocally the group is at their peak on the lone song they did not write. On "Superman," the group harmonize with amazing vocal clarity. The group sound unified, together and fresh on that track. Moreover, it sounds like the whole band gets in on the action and it works to make the song sound both classic and fresh.

As for the instrumentals, Life’s Rich Pageant is generally average at best. This is very much a simple "guitar/bass/drums" band sound. There is a keyboard utilized on at least one track, but the emphasis for the band is clearly the very simple guitar and bass sound. Actually, were it not for the fact that it seems to be a standard for R.E.M., it might be surprising how emphatic the percussion is on this album. The drums are very evident on each and every track and they have a very strong rock and roll beat.

But there are moments that the instrumentals - especially on "Fall On Me" overwhelm the vocals to the point that the message is lost or made so murky as to be indecipherable. This, naturally, makes one ask, what is the point of unabashedly taking on the establishment and the powers that be, if one makes it impossible to understand the struggle being sung about?

On Life’s Rich Pageant, though, R.E.M. does just that. They throw their gauntlet down at capitalism and apathy and then they cover over that challenge to the authority with mumbling and louder music. Interestingly, it is only in the last lines of this review that it occurs to me that by my own standards, I can't recommend this album. Life’s Rich Pageant is good, but very short and looking over the track list, it occurs to me that every single one of the tracks worth listening to (and one that is not!) are on the two-disc R.E.M. Greatest Hits Album . . . And I Feel Fine - The Best Of R.E.M. from the I.R.S. years. The album is fine, but why bother when you can get a lot more value out of the other album without the deadweight from this one?

The best track is "Fall On Me," the low point is "Hyena."

For other R.E.M. albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Out Of Time
Automatic For The People
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2000 (Deluxe)


For other music reviews, be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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