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17th Favorite: Flood, by The April Skies

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Flood. The April Skies.
2005, WiaB Records. Producer: Jeff Feltenberger.
Purchased, 2005.

IN A NUTSHELL: Flood, by The April Skies, is a collection of ten infectious tunes with a terrific sound and an Alternative Rock feel. Bandleader Jake Crawford writes great melodies, and delivers them with a weary, yet determined, style. His guitar lines are always interesting and the band behind him always delivers. Drummer Mark Tritico is a highlight throughout, playing subtly intricate beats and rhythms that always serve the song. It’s a little band on a little label, but the results are very big!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I’ve mentioned before that way back in the 80s I played the trombone in high school. I was really good at it, good enough to be in some honors bands and a trombone ensemble with little-to-no practicing. However, I never really liked it so after high school I rarely played it, and by about 25 I was done for good. At some point in my late 20s, my mom told me she was sad that I’d stopped playing. “I always imagined seeing you as a big, famous trombone player on TV,” she told me.

It’s sweetly charming that my mom, by the mid 90s, figured that, among the rappers, boy bands, girl groups and other oddities in the United States’ cultural consciousness, some space still remained for a celebrity trombone player. The wave of the celebrity trombonists surely crested in the 1940s with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. There’s been nary a ripple since until, perhaps, Trombone Shorty today, whose TV appearances would only just barely, perhaps, qualify him as a “big, famous trombone player.” But still – I know what she meant. She meant the talent I displayed early on portended a larger role for that talent in my life than eventually materialized – a role she’d hoped would land me a spot on TV, I guess.

When I had kids of my own, I got some perspective on the child-activity-based forecasting done by most parents – including my mom. As my kids grew up, I realized that my predictions were based too much on the physical abilities of children. “That kid’s really fast! I’ll bet she’ll go to the Olympics!” “That kid built a Lego bridge! I’ll bet he’ll be an architect!” “That kid plays trombone really well! I’ll bet he’ll be a big, famous trombone player on TV!” However, I learned that those physical traits, even if they continue to develop and bring joy to kids and those around them, don’t account for all that is required to reach the equivalent status of “a big, famous trombone player on TV.” A larger necessity than physical traits is an innate DESIRE TO BE a big, famous trombone player on TV. The fast kid won’t go to the Olympics, but the fast kid who WANTS TO go to the Olympics might.

As a teenaged trombone player, I made lots of friends, I had fun times and laughed a whole lot. I didn’t love the music that we played in band, and I hated to practice. I was happy to be complimented as a talented trombone player, but had it been a talent that never revealed itself, I don’t think my life would’ve been much different.

Eventually I learned to play the bass guitar, and this was an instrument that I actually considered playing professionally – sort of. I was part of a band that wrote and performed songs and played wherever we could and tried to grow an audience and get a recording contract. Had things worked out the way we hoped, I’d have been a professional musician. Had things worked really well, I’d have been a big, famous bass player on TV. (This wasn’t as far removed from reality as one may think. We knew lots of people whose bands had videos on MTV. “Big, Famous” may have been a stretch; “on TV,” not so much.)

However, I myself wasn’t really trying to be a professional musician. I was trying to be a professional rock band member. There’s a difference. The other three members wanted to play their instruments. I just wanted to have some fun.

I’ve read dozens of rock and roll autobiographies. What I’ve learned from reading books by big names like Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and Chrissy Hynde; and less-celebrated names like Andy Summers, Dave Davies and Tony Iommi, is that everyone who “makes it big” loves doing what they do. You get the idea that if these people hadn’t become wildly popular and (for the most part) wealthy musicians, they’d still be in their little hometowns, old and gray, picking up the guitar every day, writing songs and playing music, making themselves happy.

It wasn’t really my deep ambition to create music, so after my band, The April Skies, broke up, I didn’t pursue music with much devotion. I continued getting together with Dr. Dave in our excellent band, J.B. and The So-Called Cells, and I joined with friends to form other cover bands, such as Tequila Mockingbird and Two Legs Bad. But I didn’t have the drive to make music my life. The other three guys from my time in The April Skies did.

The April Skies, ca. 1992. (l to r) Cary Brown, Author, Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico. 3/4 of this band appear on Flood.

As of November, 2018, Drummer Mark Tritico is a professional drummer. Singer Cary Brown performs all over Europe with his band Ill River. And Jake Crawford, who led the band long before I joined, continues to put out music nearly 30 years later with The April Skies. He loves what he’s doing, and I love what he does.

So of course, I’ve heard of the band for years and years, ever since Cary, this kid I knew from high school, stopped me in the street while I was delivering pizzas in early 1990, to invite me to come see his band, The April Skies. About fifteen years later, long after I’d joined the band and left the band, I was still listening to everything the band put out. By the early 2000s, Jake had assembled his latest version of the band, and they were hitting the studio with Jeff Feltenberger, member of the roots-rock outfit The Badlees, who’d had some chart success in the 90s. Why don’t I let Jake take it from here:

Flood was the first record where we had a pre-production phase. We rehearsed most of the songs, and worked really hard for 2-3 months while gigging up and down the east coast. There was so much enthusiasm…” I myself LOVE that a bunch of guys with day jobs speak of enthusiasm to create art. “The studio was state-of-the-art. Big sound rooms. Every guitar and amp style you could want. Even a baby grand in the main room. It didn’t take long to see we were putting together something special. We just worked a lot harder at this group of songs than any previous effort. The tempo, the arrangement, the melody, the lyrics and the vocal delivery. All of that was (producer) Jeff (Feltenberger). This record would’ve never happened if not for Jeff.”

As I’ve said, I’ve continued listening to The April Skies since I left the band, and I’ve enjoyed all their music. But something about Flood clicked with me from the first listen. At the time it was released, in 2005, I was working in a lab, and I’d play it on my portable CD player all the time. The album opener, “322,” is an atmospheric, slow-burner that builds powerfully.

All permutations of The April Skies have been able to take a page from the U2 playbook and build an exciting, terrific songs around just 2 chords – as is the case with “322.” The sound swirls between both speakers as Jake’s signature, trebley guitar repeats a simple riff. I think Jake’s always been more comfortable leaving vocal duties to other singers, but I like his voice, and on this album it’s quite strong. “When I heard my voice [on that song], it was life changing. I never sounded that powerful,” he told me. Mark Tritico, who drummed when I was in the band, plays on this record. He’s one of the most creative, yet powerful, drummers I’ve played with. I really like the syncopated rhythm he plays beginning at 1:10. At about 1:50 the song becomes a driving force, with Matt Mazick’s bass and Matt Higgins’s keyboards moving to the forefront. By 2:35, there’s a satisfying resolution, and the song fades quickly. Rte. 322 is a main thoroughfare in the band’s Hershey, Pa., town. Regarding lyrics, Jake says “some tornados had just cut thru this area. The fear and destruction it caused…felt like a great comparison to a few relationships I was privy to at the time.”

Next up is “Crutch,” a song that’s one of my favorites, and that sounds stylistically similar to an act that I couldn’t name. Then Jake told me recently that it was “My attempt at copying Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’.” I myself have always disliked that song. But I love this one.

I’ll be gushing about Tritico’s drums the entire album, and I love them in this song particularly. His snare sound is really great, as are his inventive fills, and his bass drum beat propels it all forward. It’s a catchy mid-tempo number, and the harmonies in the chorus are really strong. I love Jake’s guitar at 1:46 during the bridge, and the harmonies after 3:00. I especially love Tritico’s drums after 3:20 to his final, bubbling drum fill, which is one of my favorites in any song. Both Jake and Mark Tritico were in the band when I was, so maybe it’s because I know them, but I’m a fan of both. Their guitar, vocals and drums help make “You Are The One” a solid song that I would have released as a single.

Jake plays a terrific guitar. I can always pick out his trebley, pinched (in a good way) sound. His playing has always reminded me of James Honeyman-Scott, from The Pretenders. In “You Are the One” it’s less distinctive. But you can hear the typical “Jake” sound on the next piece, the fun, danceable “Long Way Down.”

This song is awesome! To my ears, it’s the lead single – fun, bouncy and danceable. The intro guitar solo sets the stage, and it drives. Regarding the lyrics, “I was lashing out a bit a people who took themselves too serious,” Crawford says. This song also features another member of the band from my years: singer/guitarist Cary Brown sings the high-pitched “Long Way Down” backing vocals. I could listen to this one all day. Jake’s guitar sound is also featured on “A Game,” giving the song a Middle-Eastern feel. His vocals are strong, and the harmonies in the chorus really make it. I love the little organ in the chorus, as well.

I think the melodies this band writes are tremendous. Every song is sing-along catchy. Even the songs Jake doesn’t write, like the lovely “Still,” written and sung by keyboardist Mark Higgins.

It opens with a simple drum beat, with the keyboards and bass, by Mark Mazick, driving the song forward. Higgins’s voice is a strong tenor, and the ranging melody is fabulous – particularly in the second verse. It’s a sweet love song, and Jake adds some nice guitar throughout. Higgins’s keyboards add atmosphere and depth to many of the songs, for example on “Shaking the Tree.” The ethereal organ, along with Jake’s pinched guitar, gives this rocker an 80s British Invasion sound. Tritico again shines here, giving the song a bit of a dance beat while Crawford sings, obliquely, about addiction.

Jake’s lyrics are great. They’re indirect, but clearly purposeful. On the lovely, rather epic, “In the Mirror,” a long-term relationship has ended.

Jake says, “I wanted to paint the not-so-great periods in a relationship so that they’d go away forever. I wanted to isolate those moments where maybe I made a joke I shouldn’t have, or said the wrong thing.” The transition to the chorus is lovely, and Higgins’s harmony vocals are terrific. My favorite parts are Crawford’s guitar solo, about 3:08, and the wonderful bridge, beginning at 4:40, which always gives me chills.

Quick story: when I was in the band, Jake would always play a particular acoustic piece he’d written that was just stunning and powerful, a slow ballad that was clearly personal and that always connected with whomever was listening. We always tried to get him to record it, but he wouldn’t do it. Flash forward 15 years, and the song, “Something to Shine About,” has been transformed into a rocker.

I love the little bass note at 0:13, and the piano. The transition, at 1:07, to the chorus is great, as are the harmony vocals. I also love how the band pulls back, around 3:30, with Tritico’s rimshots carrying the load. Jake plays a cool solo (that could be louder in the mix!) On re-working this old gem, Crawford says, “The band worked up this music. And somehow, the lyrics re-appeared and it seemed to work. Our original intent was for it to be more Pixies/Radiohead with the verses being quiet and the chorus very loud. It sounds kinda Springsteen to me.”

Obviously, my connection to the people who made this record enhances my esteem for it. But I’m sure I’d love this record whether or not I had a friendship and history with Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico and Cary Brown. Would it be #17? I don’t know, or care. What I do know is that the final song, “I Will Surround You,” is one of my all-time favorite album closers.

Mark Tritico has always been able to set a mood with a drumbeat, and the echoes added to his intro deepen the mood here. Jake’s subtle, unmistakeable guitar sound is featured in the introductory solo, at about 0:48. He expands on the solo theme at the end of the song, 4:24. It’s another song that does a lot with only a few chords. It also features Cary Brown on backing vocals again. The lyrics are about a relationship coming to an end. “I had a recurring dream about this song,” Jake told me. “Long before we recorded it, we would jam it out at rehearsals. It would go on and on. My dream, we were playing somewhere out west, at Coachella or some outside event in front of 60,000 people. It was sunny and it starts raining lightly. While we play this song on and on. When I finally wrote the lyrics (long after the music was recorded), it only made sense to plead to keep the life we created together. Didn’t work. But at least I got this beautiful song.”

This last quote, to me, explains why some folks keep hammering away at their art. It says everything you need to know about creative people, and what it means to be “successful” as an artist. To an artist, there are dreams of your art bringing fame and fortune, and there are dreams of your art making a difference on people around you. But in the end, you do it because you could end up with something beautiful – an outcome that’s even better than being big, famous and on TV. The April Skies succeeded with Flood.

Track Listing:
“322”
“Crutch”
“You Are the One”
“Long Way Down”
“Something to Shine About”
“A Game”
“Still”
“In the Mirror”
“Shaking the Day”
“I Will Surround You”

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29th Favorite: Automatic For The People, by R.E.M.

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Automatic For The People. R.E.M.
1992, Warner Bros. Producer: Scott Litt and R.E.M.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Automatic For The People is a record that sounds a lot like growing older while retaining your old-school punk identity. Soft yet intense songs take on death, reminiscing and aging parents, yet it’s not a downer by any means. The band plays relatively few traditional rock instruments, and brings in an orchestra, to boot, but the songs sound fresh and somehow R.E.M maintains its independent, DIY spirit throughout.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I have a distinct memory of being a kid, probably about 7 years old, and hearing my mom and grandma discussing a woman whose husband had died, and that he was “only 42.” Now, in my elementary school years – particularly on weekends and in the summers – my mom and sisters and I spent a lot of time together at my grandma’s house. My dad would be home doing weekend car-repair or engine-building or some other manly art whose seductive qualities of oily aromas and physical domination over metal and internal combustion never held sway over me as he might have hoped. Even his enticement of a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco of my own for the day couldn’t draw me to the garage, such was my fondness for trips to grandma’s house with my mom and sisters.

While my sisters and I played fun games, my mom and grandma would sit at Gram’s kitchen table and talk all afternoon, seemingly nonstop. It felt exhausting, so I stayed out of there. Sometimes my aunt or great-aunt would join them, and then it would be loud and exhausting, as they never provided a break in their patter to allow another speaker to enter, and so everyone had to use sheer volume to join in and make a point. These conversations were too loud to pique my interest (every kid knows the good stuff is always spoken about quietly), and their themes were too disjointed to follow in any case. A good conversation requires at least one person to be listening at least some of the time, and this never seemed to be part of the dynamics of the group’s discourse. So I never understood anything they talked about.

So the talk of the dead husband at “only 42” could have been about someone from church, a mother they knew, a character on The Guiding Light, or something they heard on The Fred Williams Show, the only person keeping WAHT-1510 afloat in the Lebanon, PA, AM radio marketplace dominated by WLBR-1270. Whoever it was, I had no idea why they kept speaking of 42 years old as if it was young. It was not young – it was ancient! I knew from reading the backs of my football and baseball cards that nobody who was any good was ever older than about 34. Sure, George Blanda played in the NFL into his 40s, but he’d stopped playing QB long ago and by then was only a kicker – not a real player. Once you were too old to play, you were better off dead, I figured.

As a now-50 year old, I would be saddened to hear that someone died at 42. (A real person, I mean, not a Guiding Light character.) However, I don’t think of 42 years as “young.” Improved diet and exercise has made 40+ year old athletes more common today than in the 70s, but the best of the best remain those in their 20s: i.e. Young Athletes. As for rock/pop musicians, it’s a similar story.

But this blog isn’t so much about artists as it is about albums. So if it’s rare for athletes and musical artists to be good into their forties (and I recognize the slippery nature of the word “good,” but I’m just going to leave it there), I wonder: is it rare for albums to be good into their 40s? Let’s take a look.

First of all, how to tell how “old” an album is? I don’t think it makes sense to look at the age of the artists. People and music mature at different rates. The Beatles made Please Please Me and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and all the records in between) in the span of 5 years, so the age of the musicians (early 20s to late 20s, in The Beatles’ case) doesn’t really correlate to the maturity of the music. I want to look at albums that are the musical equivalent of a 40 year old. So I need a way to compare peoples’ ages to albums’ ages, like folks do with their dogs and cats.

The average human lifespan, according to the googles, is 79 years. However, I don’t think all those years are really rockin’ years. I’d say the rockin’ years are really only between 15 and 65, giving us a rockin’ lifespan of 50 years. (Thirty years ago, the rockin’ years topped out at about 40, but since then the older generations, having grown up with rock music, have remained rockin’ longer. Plus there’s the fact that rock music is now music for the elderly, so 65 may actually be young.)

Now – how to convert those 50 human years to album years? Well, first we have to see what the average number of albums released is for any given band. I selected 30 rock bands somewhat randomly, meaning the bands that randomly popped into my head. I recognize this is not the definition of random, but this experiment isn’t really the definition of an experiment, either, so big whoop. I also chose bands, not solo artists, because solo artists put out all kinds of weird shit on record sometimes that can artificially inflate their numbers. (In the case of Hendrix, Petty and Costello, I only included albums recorded with bands.) Of the 30 bands I selected, the average number of studio albums released was 10.

So 10 albums per 50 rockin’ years equals 5 human years per album year. A band’s 3rd album? Like a 15 year old. Their 15th? Like a 75 year old. Athletes’ peak years of 20 or 30 would then be equivalent to bands’ 4th or 6th albums. This is unlikely to be true for all artists, but just like athletes, bands’ production matures at varying rates. If you’ve ever had a kid play youth sports, you’re familiar with the situation of the 7 year old whose skills are far beyond his playmates’, yet who by 15 years old is just one of the pack and no longer superior. Similarly, some bands have an awesome debut record and never come close again.

So, then, are there any 40 year old albums that are excellent? I mean MVP-caliber: a record operating at Tom Brady-level, not George Blanda-level. Well, there’s at least one on my list: Automatic For The People, R.E.M.’s 8th full-length, studio album. And not only is it a 40-year old album in age, but it sounds very much like middle-age, as well, a record whose excellence lies not so much in energetic, innovative style, but in its richness and depth. It’s the sound of the confident yet self-aware and reflective nature of one’s 40s, without the anxiety of weight gain, hair loss, crazy pre-teens in the house, crazier parents on the phone, looming college bills, declining basketball skills, and everything else negative on the other side of the hill.

I was into R.E.M. from the moment I saw them on Late Night with David Letterman in late 1983.

They were fascinating, with a bouncy, bass-driven, jangly guitar sound and a singer who was unintelligible but compelling. When the band talked to Dave, after they played the hit “Radio Free Europe,” the singer shyly sat on the riser, then they played a song “too new to be named,” the wonderful “So. Central Rain.” I loved them. However, I was going through a musical identity crisis at the time, trying to get into the hard rock and heavy metal sound that was entrancing rural, white, male Northern U.S. teenagers at the time. I didn’t love it, but I wanted to fit in and didn’t want to seem weird, so I kept my secret love for R.E.M. hidden while claiming a fondness for more “acceptable” hard rock artists. But I always bought their cassettes.

Automatic For The People was released in the fall of 1992, a year after Nirvana’s Nevermind brought college rock to the mainstream. It seemed like everything in rock music was now big and loud, with distorted guitars, howling vocals, pumped up bass and dance-beat drums. R.E.M. had, frankly, lost me a little bit with their 1991 mega-smash album Out of Time, the first album of theirs that didn’t play on a constant loop on my cassette player. Still, I went out and bought Automatic For The People.

And I was disappointed. Where were the jangly guitars? That strong, lead bass? The odd, moaning vocals? This album was all slow songs, mandolins, piano and orchestra. I put it aside. (At least it didn’t have any songs with a guest rapper, something from Out of Time that really confounded me, but that now seems quaintly nifty.) It wasn’t until I revisited it a few years later that it became one of my favorites.

Right off the bat, the album sounds different than anything else happening at the time, and different from what R.E.M. had previously delivered. “Drive” is a slow acoustic song referencing a 70s glam-rock hit that builds to crunching guitar backed by strings, yet somehow manages to put me in a mind of childhood.

It sounds rather menacing, and sets the trend for the album of simple songs that build intensity gradually by adding instrumentation and sounds. You might not notice, but when Pete Buck’s electric guitar pierces the gentleness at 2:00, and violins begin furiously sawing, it’s suddenly a far more intense song than that opening acoustic guitar signaled. As for lyrics, I learned as an R.E.M. fan from the beginning never to worry too much about meaning. Stipe’s lyrics are all about feeling, and this one feels like an older guy wistfully reminding kids to use their youth wisely. Plus, for years I thought he referenced infrequent Bugs Bunny nemesis Blacque Jacque Shellacque, which I loved. (He didn’t.)

It was an unusual song in general, and very unusual as a single. The entire album is unusual, clearly accomplished by a band doing exactly what they want, and it’s this spirit of self-determination that, to me, gives the album a truly punk spirit – even though few punk songs are waltzes that prominently feature a triangle, like the next song, “Breathe.”

Singer Michael Stipe has said the lyrics are about his dying grandmother, and her strength at the end of her life. But the instrumentation and the build of the song make it not sad and mournful but uplifting. Bassist Mike Mills’s backing vocals (“Something to fly!”) at 1:56 mix with drummer Bill Berry’s (“I have seen things/You will never see”) and give the song a touch that elevate it. Buck’s distorted (backwards?) guitar at 2:20 provide dark color, and as the song moves toward its conclusion it truly sounds like the most uplifting song imaginable about a person dying.

These themes and songs were quite unlike anything else in 1992, and I can see why it took me a few years to catch on. It’s a mature record, a 40-year old record, and I needed to be closer to 40 to get it. Closer to a time when one’s parents may be struggling with their health, when a song like the lovely reflection on loss “Sweetness Follows” has more resonance than it might to a typical 25 year old.

For a mellow album, Automatic For The People has quite a lot of feedback and distortion from guitarist Buck. There’s a feedback “solo” from 1:56 to 2:25 that is haunting and beautiful. Stipe’s voice is strong and charismatic, and while it was always Buck’s guitar and Mills’s bass that kept me coming back to R.E.M. over the years, this album is really a showcase for Stipe’s singing. The harmony vocals by Mills are also terrific.

But the album’s not all slow songs about death and loss. From the time Stipe branched out from his early word-salad lyrics, the band has had political songs (“The Flowers of Guatemala,” “Exhuming McCarthy,” “World Leader Pretend“, etc.) and on the rousing “Ignoreland,” they issue a call to action for the 1992 national elections.

This upbeat rock song was one of the songs I liked when the album was first released. It has the characteristic Berry tom-happy drumming, and Mills all-around-the-neck bass line. The rhythm section is supplemented by producer Scott Litt on funky clavinet (heard about 1:40) and harmonica. Buck plays a simple riff, without his usual jangle, that complements Stipe’s (admitted) spleen-venting. It’s got that upbeat, driving R.E.M. style that I’ve always loved. Similarly, the rather crazy and somewhat mindless but absolutely fun “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” has their early upbeat style as well.

It’s one of Michael Stipe’s, and the entire band’s, least favorite R.E.M. songs, but I like it. I like the seeming nonsense lyrics (which may be about living in a cheap motel), Mike Mills’s organ, and the harmony vocals throughout. Mills and Berry are two of my favorite harmony singers in rock. Producer Litt uses their vocals as an instrument on the subtle ode to physical affectionStar Me Kitten,” extending the pairs oh’s and ah’s into unending notes – an homage to an old 10cc song. The band does great stuff without vocals, too, on “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”

The upbeat songs are the exceptions on Automatic For The People, however. Instead of loud songs with thumping beats, the band here finds power in a smoldering energy that builds to a satisfying conclusion. “Man On The Moon,” one of the biggest hits on the record, is a lilting country-western tune that bursts into a full-throated, sing-along chorus. It’s an ode to the surreal 70s comedian Andy Kaufman. In another hit, “Everybody Hurts,” Stipe’s lyrics hearten the discouraged while the simple song swells into an orchestral storm. (All the strings on the album were written and arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, by the way.)

The record is all about subtlety. It celebrates the gray and undistinguished facets in a world where so many wish to see black and white. This may be why it appealed more to the aging me than it did to the younger me. The perspective gained from several more trips around the sun can enhance the world around you. It can put you in a place where a song like “Nightswimming” can move you nearly to tears.

The simple, circular piano of Mike Mills carries Stipe’s lyrics that somehow conjure both the excitement of childhood and the melancholy of reflecting on those happy memories. Each verse builds gently, adding strings until an an oboe solo and full orchestra enter. It’s the kind of song that I would’ve hated as a kid watching R.E.M. on David Letterman in 1983. But as a middle aged man, it trips a certain nostalgia trigger – not nostalgia as in “this is the music of my youth,” but as described in Don Draper’s Carousel pitch on Mad Men: “a place we ache to go again.” It’s a powerful song (and Mike Mills’s favorite R.E.M. song, according to his Dan Rather interview.)

It’s true the album has all this slow, orchestral, emotional music. But yet, to my ears, it retains that punk/alternative spirit of “we’re doing this our way.” The songs don’t sound like a band just decided to write the same old shit but add some strings. The ode to 50s screen star, and tragic man of his era, Montgomery Clift, “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” uses mandolin, accordion and a thunking rhythm to support a catchy melody. Like the rest of the record, it doesn’t sound like anything else in pop/rock from 1992 – it just sounds like R.E.M. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record, and one of two songs about Montgomery Clift that I love (the other being “The Right Profile,” by The Clash.)

Ah, middle age. It’s an astonishing place to find oneself, with more past stretching out behind you than future that lies ahead. You look over your shoulder and it can seem like that’s where all the best stuff lies. But Automatic For The People is a middle-aged record (40 years old in human years, remember?) that shows it’s possible to maintain excellence as you age and grow. In the final song on the record, “Find The River,” lyricist Stipe seems to make the point that all there is to life, really, is experience and memories. Maybe the question of whether 40 year olds can be excellent is moot; perhaps experience and memories are where “excellence” lies as our personal river approaches the ocean that awaits us all. (Or maybe that’s just old-man-talk!)

Track Listing:
“Drive”
“Try Not to Breathe”
“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
“Everybody Hurts”
“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”
“Sweetness Follows”
“Monty Got A Raw Deal”
“Ignoreland”
“Star Me Kitten”
“Man On The Moon”
“Nightswimming”
“Find The River”

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