Looking back on the EP that helped introduce the world to R.E.M.
R.E.M.’s Chronic Town EP marked a decidedly auspicious debut for a band that would, in a remarkably short time, come to epitomize the sound and spirit of America’s college rock / alternative rock sound.
Although it contained a mere five songs, it established a jangly, pervasive and yet cryptic signature sound, one well established by a band that had formed only 18 months before. The group had already made its mark in underground environs, courtesy of its first single, “Radio Free Europe,” but Chronic Town expanded on that template and gave them credence nad consistency. Recorded at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio, which Easter originally operated out of parents’ garage in their Winston-Salem, North Carolina home, it was recorded in October 1981, released on August 24, 1982.
Ironically, Chronic Town has never been released as a stand-alone CD. It now makes its bow on compact disc, as well on cassette and picture disc on August 19, just short of 40 years since its initial offering on vinyl. It also boasts the distinction of including Mitch Easter’s extensive liner notes, which provide additional insight into the making of the original EP.
At first, the EP seemed decidedly out of step with the sound of album-oriented radio, which was so predominant at the time. Singer Michael Stipe’s characteristically indecipherable lyrics and muffled singing style added an intriguing touch, but still posed a challenge to anyone inclined to delve deeper into either meaning or motif. Likewise, Easter didn’t consider weighing in with any kind of familiarity factor, choosing instead to incorporate tape loops and off kilter effects in an effort to grant the band full artistic expression.
Ironically, initial concerns were expressed by those within the band’s orbit. The group’s manager at the time, Jefferson Holt, famously thought the band wasn’t ready for a full-length effort, compelling them to opt instead for the shortened format that an EP offered. So too, the heads of I.R.S. Records, with whom R.E.M. were newly signed, persuaded the band to drop one of the original songs slated for inclusion, “Ages of You” (later included in R.E.M.’s rarities collection, Dead Letter Office), and substitute instead the song “Wolves, Lower.” However, they also insisted on a redo of the original recording due to the fact that they considered the pace of the original to be much too fast.
VIDEO: R.E.M. “Wolves, Lower”
The result was a set of songs that remain both fascinating and fulfilling. Opening track “1,000,000” mimics the style of “Radio Free Europe” in its unfettered combination of energy and experimentation. It provided the adrenaline rush needed to mark a fateful beginning. “Stumble” continues that tack, a decided declaration of artful exuberance. The revised version of “Wolves, Lower” may have been slowed a bit, but the effusive intents remain intact. The skittish “Gardening at Night” became an R.E.M. stand-by, but naturally enough, still sounds decidedly esoteric. Closing track “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” conveys similarity inexplicable indulgence and some scorching aural additives, but still manages to convey the band’s bold, brazen intents.
It was hardly surprising that many critics and mainstream stations didn’t know quite what to make of Chronic Town on its initial release, although college radio seized on it almost immediately. It managed to sell some 20,000 copies its first year, and even achieved a second place ranking in the EP category of the Village Voice’s prestigious Pazz and Top poll that year.
Nevertheless, it was left to Easter himself to sum up its significance “One might fancifully say that Chronic Town was the sound of an expedition, ready for anything, setting forth,” he told one observer. “If R.E.M.’s ‘Radio Free Europe’ single was a signpost, the Chronic Town EP was the atlas.”
Indeed, we couldn’t agree more.
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