Thursday, September 29, 2011

What The Breakup Of REM Means, Part 3

OK, as promised, for my continuing series What The Breakup of REM Means, Part 3, I present my list of 31 Songs For 31 Years. My 31 favorite REM songs, in honor of their 31 years together.

Enjoy. Oh, and hey, what are some of yours?


31. Find The River – Automatic For The People

30. Belong – Out Of Time

29. Daysleeper – Up

28. Try Not To Breathe – Automatic For The People

27. Orange Crush – Green

26. Electrolite - New Adventures In Hi-Fi

25. Talk About The Passion - Murmur

24. Don’t Go Back To Rockville - Reckoning

23. Harborcoat - Reckoning

22. The One I Love – Document

21. Catapult – Murmur

20. Superman - Life’s Rich Pageant

19. So. Central Rain – Reckoning

18. At My Most Beautiful – Up

17. Feeling Gravity’s Pull – Fables of the Reconstruction

16. Driver 8 - Fables of the Reconstruction

15. Leaving New York – Around the Sun

14. Let Me In - Monster

13. I Believe – Life’s Rich Pageant

12. Bittersweet Me - New Adventures In Hi-Fi

11. What’s The Frequency Kenneth? – Monster

10. Fall On Me – Life’s Rich Pageant

09. Radio Free Europe – Murmur

08. Sweetness Follows – Automatic For The People

07. Begin The Begin - Life’s Rich Pageant

06. E Bow The Letter – New Adventures In Hi-Fi

05. Drive – Automatic For The People

04. Leave - New Adventures In Hi-Fi

03. Finest Worksong – Document

02. Country Feedback – Out Of Time

01. Nightswimming – Automatic For The People

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What The Breakup Of REM Means, Part 2

This is Part 2 of my series, What The Breakup of REM Means.

These are a collection of random thoughts, memories, and observances about REM.

The first CD I ever purchased was Out Of Time and Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits from Meijers on Gratiot in Saginaw MI with money from mowing lawns. Thusly, Radio Song was the first song ever played on CD on my stereo. This is me.

Country Feedback is the exact same song musically as Revival by Soulsavers. Both of these songs are incredible. Don’t die without having played them both on repeat.


Nightswimming still has the unique power to make me cry - sometimes. Nightswimming can make me happier than any song ever - sometimes. Nightswimming always makes me swoon with nostalgia, even the first time I ever heard it. Nightswimming is a different song every time that I hear it, and touches places inside me that nothing else does.


I always loved REM, but when I saw Tour Film on VHS at my friend Chris Gober’s house – he projected it on his living room wall and hooked up speakers to the TV, cranked them up to 10 and let it rip - it blew me away. Many of these songs immediately became my favorites due to the film. If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s as good a concert film as has been produced. And the black and white cinematography is simply stunning.


REM were the closest thing Americans ever had to The Smiths. We are not likely to hear their kind again. This is a BIG statement, but think about it – if REM had split in 1997 this statement would be much easier to agree with.


John Paul Jones wrote and conducted the symphony on Automatic For The People. This unlikely collaboration created some of the most heart-wrenching music ever recorded.


For a long time in the late 80’s and early 90’s I thought Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant were a couple. This was not an uncommon belief amongst my friends and I. Oh, how naive we were back then.


I always loved how they put “Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe” in the credits to their music. It seemed like such a unified group, a four-legged table like U2 or The Smiths or The Stone Roses. This was proven astoundingly accurate during the last 14 years of their career.


It was the first warm day of spring of my Sophomore year. That first day of sun is like heaven after long cold winters in Michigan, when everything suddenly comes back to life. I was at my friend Rod Huyett’s house in Mt. Pleasant, MI. We set up two amps outside, plugged in a Rickenbacker for him and a Les Paul Special for me, and I learned my first ever chords to What’s The Frequency Kenneth? To this day that widescreen, fuzzy, skuzzy opening riff always makes me feel warmth and rejuvenation and optimism and absolute like the first day of spring.

SIDE NOTE: Those chords were too tricky for my unlearned hands, so we played Down By The River by Neil Young for about 8 hours straight instead. Truth.


When Stipe’s voice jumps an octave for the line “leave it, to leave it all behind” in the song Leave, I can physically feel my chest tighten like when you slam on the brakes and the seatbelt seizes your chest, and my entire body shudders.

This is a power found only in music.


One of my best friends – Jo Carol Mitchell-Rogers – went to the University of Georgia in the few years before Murmur, and saw REM play at campus bars and parties countless times. Michael Stipe’s sister was in one of her drawing classes, and Jo Carol drew Michael’s portrait when he would model for her.

SIDE NOTE: Her roommate dated Herschel Walker during his Heisman campaign and she was a student during their National Championship season – which pretty much means she was at UG for all the best things that have ever happened there, in the entire history of the university.)


Many of the best REM songs are truly cinematic, widescreen affairs (Leave, Bittersweet Me, Leaving New York, all of Automatic For The People) while simultaneously feeling confessional and near. This is something only the truly great bands achieve.


The recent 20th Anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind reminded me of how important REM were at that time. From late 1991, through to Kurt Cobain’s suicide in the spring of 1994 was an incredibly exciting and confusing time*, and Kurt and Eddie Vedder both sought advice and support from whom they considered to be their heroes, and Michael Stipe was very publicly involved in assisting Kurt after his heroin overdose in Rome. This memory brought up a couple of interesting points, that:

1. There was a vital, significant correlation between the mainstream explosion of “alternative” music of 1991 and the trails blazed to that mainstream led by bands like REM and U2, who were still considered “alternative” at the time. I highly doubt that America could have been able to accept the bands of this movement without the groundwork laid by their 80’s precursors.

2. The relationship between REM and (someone like) Nirvana is most likely imperceptible to someone who is 20 years old (or an adolescent listener, or even a contemporary audience) because to their ears, REM is either sunshiny pop (Shiny Happy People, What’s The Frequency Kenneth?) or kind of sappy and overblown (Everybody Hurts), or vague moral and religious dilemmas that they don't seem to understand (Losing My Religion). Either way this connection is completely lost to them, and maybe for all time.

SIDE NOTE: This perception was fostered during REM’s lost years, the final 14 of their career, when their intent and message no longer received a mass audience, especially with listeners under the age of 30.

*From late 1991 through 1994 was the a thrilling time to be coming of age, as it felt like my generation took over and overthrew all that came before. It is often said that the 60’s was really only a few years, from 1966 (Revolver, Dylan goes electic) to1969 (Altamont) and the same can be said for the 90’s – the 90’s were only from 91-94 (the release of Nevermind to Cobain's suicide). Just as the "60's" were not Connie Francis and Pat Boone (though they sold heavily too), the 90's were not Limp Bizkit and Backstreet Boys and all the other garbage that filled the rock n roll vacuum post 1994.

SECOND SIDE NOTE: Yes, I realize I’m beginning to sound like an old Vietnam Vet – “you weren’t there maaaan…”.


REM’s last American Top 40 singles were What’s The Frequency Kenneth? And Bang And Blame from Monster in 1994 and 1995. It makes sense, but I did not realize this until now.


Perhaps the closest thing we have to REM in today’s musical landscape is The National. I would like to publicly challenge them to take the next step and formally pick up the flag flown by REM.

Matt Berninger I’m calling you out.


In 2009 I selected Automatic For The People as the #10 Album That Defined My High School Experience. Here is what I said at the time: "When I first heard Nightswimming, I knew there was a world somewhere so different, that would suit me if I could only get there. I wanted (want) to live inside that song".


Yes, REM should have broken up in 1997. But that doesn’t make their passing any easier now. In fact, it makes it possibly more difficult. Because now they are gone, we can love them again, miss them, appreciate them for all that they meant to us and will always mean to us, and recognize how they changed American culture in a real way in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This recognition was exceedingly difficult to maintain as they released a string of mediocre albums (yet with killer lead singles – Leaving New York, Living Well’s The Best Revenge, Discoverer – due must be given to these, because those are great singles) as persistent reminders of how “lost” they were following Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. With each release I fell into a familiar cycle – hope that they would make that one true, last brilliant album based on said killer single, then utter disappointment upon the release.

But now we can love them again for all they are and were, because that is what endings do.

SIDE NOTE: This is much the same occurrence I observed when Michael Jackson died – all of a sudden there was this crazy outpouring of love for a man that was nothing short of monstrous, a likely pedophile who had disconnected from his public long before. Upon his death it seemed that he could be loved again, not for what he was when he died, but for who he had been, the Michael Jackson of his audience's youth, rather than the fiend he had become. It should be noted for clarity however, that REM did not become an awful thing as Jackson had, but merely a mediocre, rudderless ship, and for a band that had so often charted territories of Greatness, this would not do. However, both REM and Michael Jackson were instantly beloved in death.


And Finally...REM are gone, but their legacy lives on in a million ways, from the current Indie scene to the 80's underground, to the 90's era of grunge. They live on in their fans, in the ways they influenced their ethics and general understanding of the world.

Thank you REM, for all you have meant to me, my youth, my young adulthood, and today.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wood Type Revival Is A Worthy, Beautiful Place

You know all those beautiful old wood types that don't exist in any digital format that you seen in old specimen books? What if you could have some of them, digitized and ready to use in your contemporary Adobe environments? What if?

That was the question that several brilliant graphic designers asked when they started a Kickstarter campaign last year to create the Wood Type Revival. Now that the generous support of backers from Kickstarter have made this idea a reality, you can visit the site to download formerly unavailable antique faces, in digital form.

Born out of Kickstarter: Wood Type Revival is printing rare historic wood type, and turning it into digital fonts for modern designers.

Go there now - support this beautiful idea made real.

What The Breakup Of REM Means, Part 1

By now you have heard I'm sure about the breakup of REM. For me I have had differing emotions about this everyday since. Sometimes these moments are totally opposite one another.

Over at the brilliant and essential The Ever Circling Skeleton Family, some of those tangled emotions have been distilled in a superb post discussing the staggering song Country Feedback:

I think it’s a song like this, like “Country Feedback,” that highlights a part of R.E.M.’s contribution to music, life, everything. I think I’ve said it before even on this page. But there that song is, mammoth, untouchable. Completely inscrutable, but also the most welcoming and understandable set of emotions put to words. Resignation, weariness in a set of words, in every note, every repetition of that chord sequence. But then that resignation and weariness is informed by what could only be love. And that’s all from a line like “you come to me with a bone in your hand.”

Michael Stipe heard characters in his band’s songs, found those characters, became them. For three minutes at a time, he was someone else, and when we listened, we knew those characters like old friends.

The way this band worked together to allow that kind of, I don’t know, magic was amazing. I’m excited, in a way, for the rest of the week, because I’ve already read some great pieces about the band, and I’m sure there’ll be a few more. I’m going to be thinking about it, certainly.

But “Country Feedback.” Just watch that video, and you’ll be devastated by it. The moment for me, in that particular version (from the “Road Movie” tour film), comes around 4:48, when Michael Stipe just sits down on the stage, letting the song flow around him. He’s done his part in that story. The shot of his profile with the projected house in the background is perfect and beautiful.

And now I’m sitting here thinking of a friend who just died, prematurely and tragically, and remembering that this song hinges on the line “it’s crazy what you could have had.” It’s a sad case of “song meaning something different to you” as there ever could be, I guess.

Well, I need this.

I need this.

This, is extremely accurate. Look for What The Breakup of REM Means, Part 2 in the next few days, and a Part 3 featuring my Top 25 REM Songs Of All Time. In the meantime, enjoy listening to their old albums. I am.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

OFFBOOK For PBS Focus On Type Is Brief But Fun

Watch the full episode. See more Off Book.

OFFBOOK is a series on PBS. Recently they featured Typography as their subject of the episode, and grab brief but interesting interviews with Tobias Frere-Jones, Jonathan Hoefler, and Paula Scheer.

Check it out above - it's worth the few minutes.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus Looks Gargantuan

Ralph Fiennes directorial debut - Coriolanus - looks truly epic. A modern retelling of the Shakespearean work, Fiennes stars and leads a strong UK cast.

Comes out Christmas day. Looks incredible.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Learn To Make Coffee At Intelligentsia

As you may or may not know, I am a licensed barista. That's right, I can make coffee anywhere in the world. Not just filters, but full on espresso (notice there is no X in the word espresso), cappuccino, and the best froth you can get. I don't like to brag, but I'll brag on my froth.

Anyway, the superb Department of the 4th Dimension - the premier short makers - has created a stunning set of shorts for exemplary coffeehouse Intelligentsia. And they are fantastic.

Check out the whole series here.


RRL By Ralph Lauren Is Nothing But Spectacular

I've long be a fan of turn of the century mugshots and stereoscopic photographs. Their atmosphere was deliberately evoked in my XTRMNTR series a couple years ago.

Ralph Lauren has released a lookbook for their RRL line, and the photographs are spectacular. Directly referencing to the work of early documentarian photographers, Lauren has created a legitimate collection of images, as stirring as any produced recently.

Additionally the site that supports the line is also a must see. Find the entire series RRL here. Find my XTRMNTR series here.

Simply brilliant.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

MVOTW: "Lions In Cages" by Wolf Gang

As I've discussed many times, I have a deep love of music videos. I believe that they are an art form unto themselves, though unappreciated and now without their former cultural impact. In their first 20 years (1982-2002) they were a dramatic influence on our culture, and their release dates were true events, as large as single releases or album debuts. You would stay up until the late hours to watch a new video (and if it was significant enough it would be played every hour on the hour - like every Guns N Roses video released from the now 20 year old Use Your Illusion albums), you might even stay home from school to be there for this event.

Now of course music videos are kind of a novelty, a mostly non-essential entity shot to specifically appease interested band members, with the decidedly disposable outlet of YouTube or Vimeo. And with the proliferation of inexpensive video equipment and editing software, virtually anyone can make a music video at any time.

That being said, I still love them. To me they hold a power unlike any other art form. As I've discussed previously, they hit me at a very young age and their magic continues to inspire me. And the odd thing is that while the "golden age" of the music video has cleared passed, some interesting and strong work has continued to be produced.

With that in mind, I bring you the Music Video of the Week: Lions In Cages by Wolf Gang. This video is a classic example of taking a song that is solid/good, and elevating it through the unique power of the visual. And it's brilliant, and beautiful, and hits you in the chest, and you don't even really know why. And that is why the music video is an art form, one that will continue to resonate.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Adobe's Muse Is A Design Industry Game Changer

Coming from a print background, I have eternally fought between my print mindset and the limitations of my coding abilities (or lack thereof). For years I have wondered: why does it have to be this hard? Why can't there be an InDesign for web?

Apparently Adobe listened to me (and others like me) as the creation of Adobe Muse is about to prove. Even if it can do half of what they claim, it will be a design industry game changer.

Watch the film. Dream no more.