R.E.M.'s Early Pop Had a Lasting Impact on Nirvana

This new record ain't so bad, either.

R.E.M. came out of the underground /alternative music scene. They weren't part of the American punk revolution, which is probably why I was a relative latecomer to their music. It was early 1988 when I heard their fifth album, Document, with the radio hit, "The One I Love." The band made an impact on Nirvana's work at the time. I liked their sound right away, and was drawn into the excellent pop songcraft. Peter Buck's guitar rings with a Byrds-like jangle. Michael Stipe's vocals and lyrics invite you into the music. Mike Mills is a classic melodic pop bassist. And Bill Berry played drums solid and straight ahead. They released Green in November of '88 with the smash hit "Stand." Like Document and the prior releases, Green was a good listen from beginning to end. R.E.M. had a consciousness. They showed that you could be a big band and promote an awareness about the world. At the time, Nirvana was into making weird punk /rock music. Things started to change course when Kurt wrote the tune "About a Girl." That song came out of listening to Meet The Beatles. I knew what to do with the bass line because of my new fondness for pop songs. I was listening to a lot of R.E.M. and the Smithereens. Pop bass is the low-end melody that walks between the guitar chords and vocals while locked to the kick drum. I've written about my favorite bass players in a past column. I feared leaving out some important players, which I did. Mike Mills should have been on the list. There are also too many R.E.M. songs with a great bass line to name in this column. Nirvana started working with producer Scott Litt because he mixed those great R.E.M. records. Though they're from Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. now have a big Seattle connection. Scott McCaughey of the Fresh Young Fellows is playing guitar with the band. (Ken Stringfellow, an excellent pop song craftsman in his own right, has also played guitar with the band.) And I don't think that R.E.M. could have found a better drummer than Bill Rieflin, a longtime Seattle musician. There's an excellent new R.E.M. record out. Accelerate has 11 songs for a total length of 34 and a half minutes. The songs are short (and that's pop), but if you listen closely there's a lot going on. The album is strong right out of the box with up-tempo songs with big choruses. Stipe is out front, leading the way for a great listen. Buck's guitar has that signature sound: big, with a jangly tone. The title track is a showcase for Buck's work. The song also includes some nice floor tom playing from Rieflin. Seven songs into the work, the tempo comes down, and "Until the Day is Done" shows R.E.M.'s folky side. "Mr. Richards" reveals a grasp of crafty pop from these longtime songsters. "Sing for the Submarine" is huge—great dynamics, big riffs, and Mills playing nice bass lines. For an R.E.M. fan like myself, listening to Accelerate is like seeing an old friend again. You recognize all the things you like in them, and you're happy to hear what's new.

 
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