R.E.M.: Chronic Town (40th Anniversary Reissue) (I.R.S./UMe) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Chronic Town (40th Anniversary Reissue)


Aug 24, 2022 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

It’s a sobering thought to consider that all of the surviving college radio disc jockeys of the early ’80s are a heck of a lot closer to their initial Medicare enrollment than they are to the release of R.E.M.’s debut EP. Chronic Town celebrates its 40th anniversary today (it was originally released on August 24, 1982). And if any of your gray-haired friends tell you they heard Chronic Town before seeing the band’s atomic bomb launch of the “Radio Free Europe” video on MTV in 1983, they are probably lying. The video finds Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills fumbling around Rev. Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. The video was also interlaced with fuzzy shots of roadside kudzu, that for anyone other than a bona fide Southeastener probably looked like some alien life form. Couple that with an equally otherworldly as well as welcoming sound coming from Buck’s chiming guitar and Stipe’s unintelligible vocals and you had the makings for lighting in a bottle.

Sure, many punk/post-punk/New Wave bands pre-dated our Athens, Georgia, heroes. You had The Minutemen on the West Coast, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü in the Midwest, Sonic Youth in New York, and DEVO doing whatever it was they were doing wherever they were from. But R.E.M. took college radio to heights unforeseen and in fairly short order. The jangly guitars, deeply embedded hooks, along with Stipe’s iconoclastic vision made for a compelling case onto which to hitch your wagon. Although The B-52’s and Pylon may have predated R.E.M. in the local arena, R.E.M. served to launch an interest in the jangle pop sound and similar sounding bands in and around the area started to garner interest: Guadalcanal Diary, The Swimming Pool Q’s, and Chronic Town producer Mitch Easter’s own Let’s Active.

If seeing the “Radio Free Europe” video naturally took you to the band’s first album, the expertly titled Murmur, further explorations could only lead you back to the source code of Chronic Town. Delightful in their own right, Easter’s extensive liner notes in this new 40th anniversary reissue (which require at least two listens to get through) share that Buck viewed an EP as a logical first start. In the event things were a bust then practically speaking not so much would have been invested and lost. Fortunately for the listener back then and for us now, there was something else to explore if you wanted to see what led to Murmur.

The opening “Wolves, Lower” encapsulates so much of the band’s future path in it’s first minute—Buck weaving a folky tangle of a guitar line through Berry’s rock steady drumming; Stipe’s mumbly mouth but wide ranging vocals and inventive lyrics (using “suspicion” as a verb well pre-dates Jeff Tweedy’s disregard for the rules of the written word); Mills’ inventive lower end; and just before the minute elapses Berry and Mills chime in with a killer harmony. The beautifully played “Gardening at Night” finds Stipe buried down in the mix, but listening to early R.E.M. today (or Kurt Cobain who followed) makes for a reminder that our ears just weren’t ready to hear what ended up being vocal approaches ahead of their time. The further tracks here just cement that the band was already making meaningful music with little regard for the way things should be played. Chronic Town makes for the whetstone from which the band carved their way up the indie charts for years to come.

The current physical release is from a remaster in 2014 and the EP is being released standalone on the “new fangled” CD format for the first time ever. Picture disc vinyl and cassette versions are available as well. Easter’s notes alone are worth the price of admission, particularly for any music tech-heads out there. (www.remhq.com)

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10


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