Post-punk pantheon

By PHOENIX STAFF  |  July 16, 2007

The result was an album that would become the equivalent of a fresh-water aquifer, simultaneously massive and underground and pure nourishment for those that followed.

Loud-quiet-loud, the simplest way to summarize the Pixies signature song structures, was not only the foundation of tracks like “Gigantic,” “Bone Machine,” and, to a degree “Broken Face,” it became a metaphor for the band’s ascension, destruction, and ultimate reunion — and the name of a recent revealing Pixies documentary.

David Bowie once released a cover of “Cactus.” Eve 6 and Coldplay have covered songs from Surfer Rosa, too. But more to the point, somewhere, right now, there’s a group of teenagers in a living room or garage eking out a version of “Where Is My Mind?” describing their own original numbers as sounding “sorta Pixies-ish.” They wish.
— T.G.

VIDEO: R.E.M., "Radio Free Europe"

R.E.M., Murmur (IRS, 1983)
You don’t need an interpreter to identify Michael Stipe’s lyrics anymore. There was a time, however, when his reedy, pine-smoked tenor was as indecipherable as pre–Rosetta Stone hieroglyphics, such as on Murmur, R.E.M.’s first full-length record.

But really, it doesn’t matter what the words are — the atmospheric gurgling only adds to the fantastic mystery. And mysteries multiply on Murmur. For here are four whirling Georgians (well, three, anyway — during early live shows the tragically shy Stipe faced away from the crowd, white-knuckling the mic stand so as not to topple over from nerves), conspiring on a new genre: corduroy-encrusted folk-rock soldered to pointy, half-Buzzcocked arrangements.

Sure, as critics invariably noted, the Athens slackers from the local art scene struck an updated Byrds pose in the jingle-jangle morning of what would come to be known as college rock. But there were murkier, vaguely sinister sounds aflutter too, borrowings from dark-souls Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt, and Flannery O’Connor.

From the opening muffled billiards break of the band’s first single, “Radio Free Europe” (a between-tracks pool game was recorded for the effect) to the countrified doo-wop of “We Walk,” listeners wade into a swampy Southern landscape that’s both familiar and strange. Peter Bucks’s now hyper-famous tip-toeing guitar sprints, Mike Mills’s buoyant bass, and the granite-solid snare work of Bill Berry wrap tightly around Stipe’s oblique lines like the overgrown trestle vines depicted in the cover art.

All is not shadows and fog, of course; the molasses-mouthed vocals of the verses in “Sitting Still” give way to Stipe and Mills harmonizing exuberantly by the time they hit the chorus: “I like it here.” Such elegant up-shifting — from tension to release — spawned the musical DNA for many subsequent indie legends, from the somewhat obscure Feelies to the movement’s pillars: the Pixies, Pavement and Nirvana (Kurt was a big fan).

There’s temptation to scan the disc for signs of the coming sucky-era R.E.M., but premonitions of the collapse are not much in evidence. Two albums later, though, on the underappreciated Fables of the Reconstruction (the band itself has disparaged the record), the optimism of “Sitting Still’s” chorus has morphed into the “Good Advices” lament: “I’d like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away.”

Murmur, meanwhile, seen from a long way away, remains a gorgeously bruised post-punk artifact.
— Mac Montandon

VIDEO: The Replacements, "I Will Dare"

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