Sunday, 1 August 2021

An R.E.M. Summer: The REiMagined albums - part 1


When JC and I were working on the Singular Adventures series over at his place, one of the things that came up in the comments a number of times was how some of R.E.M.'s albums could have been better had they been shorter, or had alternative tracklists. It's certainly something I've mused over from time to time.

So after the Imaginary Singles, I thought it was time to reimagine a few of the albums to see if we actually could make them better. Now, the IRS years are pretty much sacred - even though I had considered discussing 'Lifes Rich Pageant'. I still might at some point. But there are four Warner Bros. albums that I think need to be examined. Obviously, neither 'Reveal' nor 'Around The Sun' are worth the effort - there's nowt you can do to make either of those even close to half-decent. Maybe an EP between them at best.

But here's the rub: anything I decide on is always going to be subjective and heavily biased towards what I think. So I thought it would be good to have another perspective, perhaps bring someone in who also has a lot of love and knowledge of the band, has written a blog post or two, and maybe who I've collaborated with in the past.

And so, this month, I'm teaming back up with my Scottish mate, the Blogfather himself, the one and only Vinyl Villain - JC!

Today, we're discussing 'Out Of Time'. Released in 1990, it was R.E.M.'s second major label album, their seventh in all. It was their big commercial breakthrough and its songs have become like family members to many of us - some beloved, some irritating and some we don't talk about.

I started out by sending JC my proposed tracklist for a newly REiMagined version of 'Out Of Time':

1. Losing My Religion
2. Near Wild Heaven
3. It's A Free World Baby
4. Half A World Away
5. Belong
6. Low
7. Texarkana
8. Fretless
9. Country Feedback
10. Me In Honey

So out go Radio Song, Shiny Happy People and Endgame, but in come It's a Free World Baby and Fretless. Total running time 42:16, a couple minutes shorter, and one track less, than the original but better. I'd probably play it more than I play the actual Out Of Time.

Over to you...

To which JC responded with the following:

SIDE 1
1. Half A World Away
2. Low
3. Radio Song
4. Texarkana
5. Country Feedback

SIDE 2
6. Losing My Religion
7. Fretless
8. Shiny Happy People
9.  Belong
10. Me In Honey

I've dropped Near Wild Heaven and Endgame. I do like It's A Free World Baby, but I just can't find a way to squeeze it on to this particular album without it interfering too much with the running order and knocking it out of sync.

Clearly, this was going to be a bigger task than I first envisaged. Some heavy discussions were needed.  JC continued with some of the thinking behind his version:

Half A World Away was such an inspiring start to the Unplugged show and would do the same here, helping to highlight the semi-acoustic nature of the new album.

Low stays where it is - a broody, threatening number for the chin-scratchers.

Radio Song - I can't bring myself to drop it, albeit it hasn't aged well. But putting in after Low makes for such a contrast in tone and tempo, mirroring the original album, that I think it works

Texarkana - one which harks back to the IRS days, and at this stage provides comfort when it's most needed to those fans of old who are not sure if they are liking the new material.

Country Feedback - well, if you heard this as the closing song of the first side of the new album, you'd definitely want to turn it over in a state of great anticipation. And if it's the CD you have... then Losing My Religion on the back of it just works really well!

The second side of the album (or Tracks 7-10 on the CD), to my ears, just seems to flow pretty well. I'm on record as saying Shiny Happy People is a great pop song, so I wouldn't drop it.

Looking at the overall picture, I think I've come up with two fairly balanced sides of an album, especially is the track listing on the back of the sleeve looks like this:

Now THAT is just showing off, isn't it? But for all JC's reasoning, I had my own thoughts to offer:

Radio Song is out as I simply cannot listen to it anymore. It is dated as you say, but also cringemakingly cheesy. Shiny Happy People is out too simply because it's another one I don't like anymore, although I fully accept why people feel it has its place on 'Out Of Time'. Endgame goes too because it's nothing more than a b-side.

I opened with Losing My Religion as for some reason I just can't think of a better place to put it. It's punchy and immediate, although in a very different way to previous album openers.

I dithered a bit with Near Wild Heaven. I didn't really want it so early in the tracklisting, but when I listen to it now, it seems to fit pretty well next to LMR and keeps the mood on a high.

Track three was always going to be difficult. I went for It's A Free World Baby over Low, but I do wonder if that was the right choice. Either way, Half A World Away has to come next. It lifts the mood again but in a very different manner. Not having it as an opener though! That's like opening 'Green' with You Are The Everything!!! (This will be our first big talking point I reckon!)

Belong closes side one because I think it sounds like a side one closer. I think I went for Low opening side two as It's A Free World Baby sounds a little too similar to Belong to have them back to back. Texarkana is another mood-lifter before we hit Fretless and Country Feedback. I only ever hear Me In Honey as an album closer now, it doesn't work anywhere else for me. It's the only thing we seem to agree on.

One final e-mail from JC:

Truth be told, I read your listing and thought to myself: "that’s great..easiest thing to do is agree and we are off and running."

But, having gone out on a limb for Shiny Happy People in three singles series, I have to stand by it! I actually started off by working out where best to place it and what to surround it with... kind of like taking the most difficult aspect of the project and, once that’s solved, let the rest fall into place.

I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that Half A World Away would have made the perfect opener.  I don’t think the comparison to You Are The Everything (in this instance) is valid as the songs have quite a different tempo and rhythm. As I said, listen to how it sets the tone and mood for the Unplugged show... makes me think the band had it lined up as an opener if they had chosen to play live shows back in the day.

So, we had to thrash things out once and for all to get a definitive tracklist we were both happy with. And that's where Zoom came in. Yep, we had a proper, old-fashioned discussion (albeit with the help of technology). It was great to see Jim "in the flesh" as it were, and as you'd expect, with two middle-aged men talking about music, it went on a bit but not in a bad way. I started by offering my thoughts on the opening song.

"I see what you mean about Half A World Away, but I just think the opening track needs to be a bit punchier." So I pulled rank here and, as JC said, got the hit single out of the way. "You can have Half A World Away as track 2 though," I offered.

We quickly agreed that track three needed to be a bit of a slower one and while I had It's A Free World Baby, we went with Low in the end. The first three were done and dusted pretty quickly then, as was the final track. No arguments here, both of us agree Me In Honey is the natural closer. But what comes in between?

"I think we need something a bit more upbeat to follow Low. You had Radio Song but I really don't want that."

"I kind of like it."

"It's funny because at the time it came out, so did I. It was different, but by the time it came out as a single I'd got tired of it."

"I think there wasn't a lot of that alternative/rap crossover at the time, so for R.E.M. to do it was something different. But it could have been better."

"I understand why they did it with KRS-One, with him being a very political artist, but yes, it could have been a lot better."

"OK so if you want something upbeat, how about Texarkana?"

"That would work. I actually also had a thought that I'd give you Shiny Happy People. I don't like it, but I suppose it does have its place. It's just what do I leave out? Maybe Near Wild Heaven? Of the two Mike Mills tracks, I prefer Texarkana."

"So do I. And Jonny will be happier..."

JC was particularly keen that I should consider Country Feedback as track 5. "I just love the idea of it being a closer. And then if you're thinking about Shiny Happy People, putting that next, I mean, that would really mess with people's heads!"

That was something I had to take away and try out, but I was intrigued by his reasoning. I love any excuse to mess with people's heads! So try it I did, and he's sort of right. Country Feedback does have a closing track vibe about it, but one which also leaves you needing more. I suppose in an ideal world I'd be able to create an extended 10-minute version with a Neil Young-esque guitar solo playing through to the end. Like the live version they recorded with, erm, Neil Young... Alas, I'm not nearly clever enough to pull that off, and it would make the album too long for a single vinyl record.

"I know we're thinking of this as an LP," JC chimes in again before offering yet another pearl of wisdom, "but I think of it as a CD as well, and I think if we go for Country Feedback here, we need to have a short gap at the end, five seconds of dead sound. If you go straight into the next track it might sound a bit jarring."

"So we still have Belong and Fretless, and I still want to find a place for It's A Free World Baby."

"Well Fretless you could drop in anywhere..."

"Back in the day I bought loads of bootlegs and I have one with some Out Of Time demos that includes both those songs, and I have to admit I've always preferred the demo version of Free World without the flutes and recorders."

"So put the demo on then. There's no rules that say you shouldn't."

Indeed, another excellent point by JC (he's full of them, fair play). And let's face it, the version of Country Feedback on the album is the demo. It was only recorded once and it remains possibly their finest four studio minutes ever. So nowt wrong with a demo. The Free World demo is a little bit messy, and perhaps a tad long too so I'll give it a little tweak to make it fit.

So side one is done, as is the beginning and end of side two. Now it's just about sequencing what's left. I did fear that It's A Free World Baby and Belong might sound a little too similar to each other being both bass-led. But on hearing them together, they actually work quite well as a pairing and not as similar as I originally thought. Fretless is such a sad song, it belongs where Country Feedback is on the original album - just before the lively finale.

And that's it - our definitive REiMagined version of 'Out Of Time' is a reality. It's a couple minutes shorter than the official album, but, perhaps even cleverer than JC's mirrored track titles, both 'sides' of our record are pretty much exactly the same length as each other! I've compiled it in a single-file MP3 for your listening pleasure (along with some effects for vinyl authenticity). Let us know what you think.

Out Of Time REiMagined
compiled by TheRobster & JC

1. Losing My Religion
2. Half A World Away
3. Low
4. Texarkana
5. Country Feedback

6. Shiny Happy People
7. It's A Free World Baby
8. Belong
9. Fretless
10. Me In Honey

Grab it here

3 comments:

  1. I think that I need to lie down after reading that!
    Excellent stuff

    ReplyDelete
  2. Bloody hell, Robster and JC! You have surpassed yourself. The inclusion of Fretless ups the Kate Pierson quotient, so gets my vote automatically but I honestly think her contribution and importance to the album is understated. I loved the post's focus on the "making of" this REiMagination and it reinforces what a labour of love this entire series has been, going right back to it's start on TVV. Truly inspiring.

    Like CC, I could do with a lie down but unfortunately I've got a long list of jobs to do, darn it!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is excellent stuff, the full creative process unveiled. I fully understand Robster's issue with Shiny Happy People, a song I could happily never hear again. On the other hand, I liked/ still quite like Radio Song.

    Out Of Time feels very much like a vinyl album- released just at the cusp of the CD takeover. Glad you kept it as one.

    ReplyDelete