A Third Ear for “Monster”

R.E.M., Monster (Craft, 2019)

PERSONNEL: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Mike Mills (bass); Bill Berry (drums)

TRACK LISTING (Original Release):

  1. What’s the Frequency Kenneth?
  2. Crush with Eyeliner
  3. King of Comedy
  4. I Don’t Sleep, I Dream
  5. Star 69
  6. Strange Currencies
  7. Tongue
  8. Bang And Blame
  9. I Took Your Name
  10. Let Me In
  11. Circus Envy
  12. You

https://youtu.be/jWkMhCLkVOg

I’ve been an R.E.M. fan since the mid-80’s. Yeah, I’m one of those guys saying, “You should’ve been there in the early days. Radio-Free Europe was the shit, man!” I try not to do that too often.

Nevertheless, the secret got out. Athens, Georgia-based bands like R.E.M. and the B-52s came above ground and established a foothold on Billboard‘s Hot 100, as well as the college rock charts. How many times did you hear “Love Shack” in the late 80’s?

There are times when I can’t get enough R.E.M. The CDs come off the shelf, and I’m awash in tunes like “Don’t Go Back to Rockville,” “Driver 8,” and “Swan Swan H.” The songs were blissful bits of college-driven indie, beholden to no trend or chart. This is just who R.E.M. was.

Things started to change when the band released Document in ’87. R.E.M. managed to do the unthinkable: they generated a hit with “The One I Love.” The band was able to move out of the clubs and into the theaters. It was only a matter of time before they would move into hockey arenas, a move solidified by the release of Green in the fall of ’88.

Now and then, my R.E.M. cravings take me past that “golden” era. There was plenty of music to enjoy, even if it was on commercial radio. “Losing My Religion” from Out of Time will always be a favorite. Still, by 1994, I had moved on, engrossing myself in the “Alternative” movement, despite the fact that R.E.M. had become full-on rock stars. This is ironic, since college rock bands like the B-52s and R.E.M. helped usher in that particular movement in the first place!

In ’94, R.E.M. released Monster. I bought it more out of loyalty to the band than anything else. A select few bands have earned that kind of clout in my collection. I played the album a couple of times, liked it, and shelved it. I remember thinking it sounded like R.E.M., but heavier in some places, with a touch glam. Cool.

A couple of months ago, Monster celebrated its 25th anniversary. I had long since downloaded my copy and sold off the CD. A stupid move. This seemed like a good time to revisit this mostly forgotten (by me) record. And that’s how a five-CD deluxe package wound up following me home.

The contents of the set are pretty straightforward. Disc 1 is the original album. Disc 2 is a collection of mostly instrumental demos. Disc 3 holds the album in remixed form. Discs 4 and 5 are a concert recorded in Chicago on the Monster tour in ’95. Disc 6 is a blue ray with next-level audio, video clips and yet another concert film. Worked for me.

There is also a detailed booklet documenting the band during this era and how Monster came to be. It is well-written and fills in more than a few historical gaps. As for the music, it breaks down like this:

Disc 1 is as straightforward as it gets. It’s the album as it was released 25 years ago. Lucky for fans, Monster has aged well. The music is edgy and distorted (in a good way), allowing us to see a (then) new side of the band. But rest assured, while the band kicks their music into a heavier gear, lead vocalist Michael Stipe remains a universal constant.

The demo disc is interesting, and led mostly by guitarist Peter Buck. While the rhythm section of bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry hold down solid grooves, Buck explores melodic and sonic possibilities for Stipe to sing over. The tracks are interesting, but not necessarily revolutionary. True fans of the band will find them enjoyable, to be certain.

Having collected more than a few Steven Wilson remixes of classic albums, I was prepared to hear the same album I was used to, with enhanced sound. But the Monster remix is NOT that. Instead, elements of the original album have been enhanced, altered, or removed altogether! In more than one place, it sounds like a completely different record. What a novel approach. My only complaint is that the mix sounds muddy in some places, like the band put blankets over their amplifiers and drums. That wouldn’t have been my idea for a sonic direction.

The Chicago gig has a distinctive “bootleg” quality. It’s kind of like listening to the music from the far end of a tunnel. The sound gets through, but just barely. Still, the songs are played with passion and conviction. I’m sure it was a good gig to catch live.

The videos no doubt made the rounds on MTV back in the day. They’re nice to have, but my world doesn’t hinge on them. The concert video, the previously released Road Movie, is another matter altogether.

Recorded during the same tour as the “bootleg,” but at various gigs, we catch R.E.M. in top form, with vastly superior sound! This is the gig I wanted to attend, assuming I got these versions of each tune. The once shy and introverted appearing Stipe had become a full-on rock star, working the room like nobody’s business, with the rest of the band firing on all cylinders behind him. This is a band in its prime.

The disc also contains Hi-Resolution, remastered, and 5.1 Surround Sound mixes of the album. How you choose to enjoy this music is up to you.

This is a great collection for R.E.M. fans looking to document their favorite band conquering the world. It would be nice to have another box set from an album like Document, that … well, documents the band as they made their way above ground and onto the charts.

For now, the Monster box set will do just fine.

#cirdecsongs

You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs)

My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers.

Would you like to have your album reviewed? Contact me at cirdecsongs@gmail.com

1 Comment

  1. Funny, I’m just like you when it comes to R.E.M. Indie snob that I was in the eighties, I cut R.E.M. off at the end of their IRS years (as far as buying the albums, that is). I did much the same with U2 right after The Joshua Tree. But you’ve convinced me to drop my stubborn snobbery and give their latter-years material a better listen — starting with Monster.

    Like

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