R.E.M.: Up (CD+DVD reissue)

rem post bill berry, photo by david belisle

When R.E.M. released Up in 1998, long time fans were polarized. Some, expecting the trademark R.E.M. sound, were surprised and disappointed by the drum machines and electronic textures. Others, aware of the band’s necessary change in direction following the departure of founding member and drummer Bill Berry, listened with an open ear. I fell somewhere in the middle: I thought there were some outstanding tracks but overall felt that the performances were tentative and uneven. Now Rhino has reissued the album in a new 5.1 DVD mix (along with all of R.E.M.’s other Warner Brothers output), and with a new mix and seven years in between, I’ve got a new perspective on the album. Up shows a band in transition, but much more solidly grounded in their old sound than it seemed at the time—and writing some of their finest songs of their entire career.

Up’s sequence is probably the least satisfying part of the album. Opening with “Airportman,” a buzzing, ambient track with no discernable lyrics, the track is both unapproachable and unmemorable—not a good omen. But from there the album scales some serious heights, particularly on “Hope” and “Walk Unafraid.” The former remains a spine-chilling portrait of mingled hope and fear in the face of some unspecified grave illness. The latter may be one of the top ten songs R.E.M. has ever written, as shown by their electrifying performances of it on tour in 2003. So what’s the problem? With “Walk Unafraid” as track 9 of 14, there are five lesser tracks between it and the end of the album. Anticlimactic, for sure.

I approached the reissue hoping that it would clean up some of the fuzzy production and allow for the sort of revelations that hearing the material live provided. I got some of those moments—but few. The band really was feeling their way through new musical styles, and no amount of sonic wizardry can keep layers of drum machines and keyboards from dragging down some of the songs (“Diminished”). However, “Airportman” gains an increased sense of presence and menace and “Walk Unafraid” sounds more vital. And “At My Most Beautiful” reclaims some of its promise as a Brian Wilsonesque sonic tapestry (though the deaf-in-one-ear Wilson would have preferred mono to the 5.1 mix)—in particular, a gorgeous cello line that’s buried in the stereo mix pops to the front on the 5.1 version. It’s interesting that Elliott Scheiner, the producer on the remaster, opted not to clean up the original recording—the fractional second of studio chatter is still there just before the mandolin enters on “Daysleeper,” for instance, but if anything this humanizes the occasionally too-spacious sound of the 5.1 mix.

Hearing the newly reengineered songs opened my ears to them all over again. I think the slightly flat mix of the original release was partly responsible for my muted reaction. Up has now regained its place for me among R.E.M.’s top albums. More emotionally naked than just about any other release, and more sonically adventurous than any of their other later albums, this is a band confronting massive change head on and doing it with refreshing honesty and maturity.

A word about the reissue: fans looking for bonus songs will be disappointed, but that’s not to say there’s nothing new. The package contains a CD that is essentially identical to the original CD version, a booklet with excellent liner notes, and a DVD containing the 5.1 mix of the songs, a bonus video shot during the studio sessions with live-in-studio versions of “Daysleeper,” “Lotus,” and “At My Most Beautiful,” lyrics, and photos. There’s nothing revelatory in the video, unless it’s that the group was clearly thinking hard about live performances of this material even while the record was being made.

This reissue is one in a series of R.E.M.’s Warner Brothers albums to be re-released in CD+DVD format. Also available are Green, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Reveal, In Time: the Best of R.E.M. 1989–2003, and Around the Sun. (Linked titles point to BlogCritics reviews of the reissued albums.)

(Originally published at BlogCritics.)

Customizing bought furniture for electronics

new media cabinet

Have you ever noticed that very few people make stereo cabinets any more? All you can find in most stores is the “entertainment center,” big walls of wood or particleboard designed to hide all your equipment away. Those of us blessed with a nice big fireplace as the focal point of our small family rooms don’t really have a lot of places to put an entertainment center, though. Our solution, until this weekend, was to use the rolling metal cart that we bought when we were living in our Worthington Place apartment in east Cambridge. The cart fit the aesthetics of that apartment—big, loft-like, exposed pipes & brick—but not our 1941 Cape Cod-style living room. (The steel cart didn’t go well with the dentil molding under the mantel.) So we decided to start looking for a cabinet that would both hold our electronics and fit our aesthetics.

The trick was dimensions. If you stack all our equipment in one pile, it’s about 25 inches—but that doesn’t include the height of supporting shelves or air clearance for ventilation. More pressingly, most home electronics components are about 17 inches wide and 14 inches deep, with some, like our DVD player reaching as much as 22 inches in depth. There are very few cabinets available that approach those dimensions.

But we finally found one—at Crate and Barrel. They call it the Springdale Cabinet, but it looked like a stereo cabinet to us! The issues: the DVD player wouldn’t fit (too deep) and there were no holes to run cables in the back. Fortunately both of those were simple problems to rectify.

After assembling the cabinet, we loaded it with the components, without cables, to identify where each component would sit. We took into account a few key things, such as heat production and headspace, as well as the location of the one fixed shelf in the unit. That dictated the final placement of the components. I would have preferred to put the amplifier higher in the stack, since it produces the most heat, but the number of ways I could load the shelves in was limited. I did, however, make room for our turntable for the first time in about eight months, which was pretty cool.

I then took a pencil and marked the location of access holes on the inside of the cabinet. Some components, like the CD or the turntable, could get a way with a single one-inch hole through which power and audio cables could pass. Others needed bigger holes: the DVR needed a wide slot, the amplifier a large open rectangle, and the DVD needed a hole as wide and tall as it was so that the excess depth could extend through the back of the cabinet. Fortunately the back panel doesn’t provide a lot of structural support for this cabinet since I was cutting so much out of it.

I then cut the holes. For the simple one inch holes and the slot for the DVR I used a one-inch spade bit and simply cut the holes. For the larger panels, I used a smaller spade bit and marked the four corners of the hole, then went to the back of the cabinet and used a straight edge and a jigsaw to connect the holes. It was a little loud, but only took a few minutes to complete all the cuts.

Loading everything back in and getting the cables connected took the longest, but fortunately I had made notes about which inputs were connected to which and everything was pretty straightforward. We hooked it up and turned it on and it worked the first time. Sweet.

We now have a much less obtrusive AV cabinet that fits the architectural details of our room much better. The only compromise we had to make was TV placement—unlike an entertainment center, the cabinet left no place for our conventional 27″ tube, so we ended up sitting it atop the cabinet. When we pick up some additional income streams and buy a flat panel, we’ll be able to place it on the mantel and slide the AV cabinet further back into the corner—making it disappear that much more.

I took some pictures as I was loading everything in that show the holes we cut and the hidden extra airspace for the DVD player. You can see a little of the “before” in the first picture of this album.

Ten things I’ve done (that you probably haven’t)

It’s probably a sign of my impending intellectual bankruptcy that I’m succumbing to memeposting, but I like this one (via Todd at Frolic, who got it from EveTushnet.com, and who also points to these folks). Do I have ten things? Well…

  1. Been a state spelling champion. (What, you didn’t know there were state spelling champions? Only in Virginia.)
  2. Shaken James Michener’s hand wearing clothes that I had flown in the day before, since my luggage had gotten lost en route.
  3. Sung under the baton of Robert Shaw, twice—once at the Kennedy Center.
  4. Jammed—and recorded—with Dave Brubeck in the Washington National Cathedral.
  5. Fractured my sternum.
  6. Sung for President Bill Clinton and NBC anchor (and Wahoo) Katie Couric on the same day.
  7. Asked six or seven senior Microsoft executives when they were going to stop pissing off a substantial community of potential customers by calling Open Source Software a “cancer.”
  8. Helped build software that’s saving American lives and taxpayer money in places like Afghanistan—and supporting humanitarian missions in Cambodia.
  9. With the help of 15 close friends, sampled beer from more than 50 countries in one sitting.
  10. Driven cross country in four days.

What’s interesting to me looking back at this list is that many of the items are about my singing—which I haven’t really done since I got back to Boston. Time to change that.