Cover Friday: It’s been ringing a long, long, long, long time

You know those Facebook quizzes that ask you to volunteer five answers to a list with a typically broad and hard-to-narrow-down heading? Top Five People I Want to Punch in the Face? Are we only talking about well-known people? What if you want to punch somebody just to see what the person would do even though you don’t wish the individual any ire, like Andre the Giant (RIP, Andre!)? And why only five?

My Top Five of any distinction is rarely ever a true top five for me. It’s more like the Top Five I Can Think of in My Twenty to Thirty Second Span of Attention I Wish to Give This Survey. So when Facebook asks about music, it takes a lot of willpower for me to step away from the computer to add a second, third, maybe tenth list to clarify how I feel about, say, My Top Five Summer Jams(z).

Take the ubiquitous Five Albums that Shaped Me. This is a toughy. For those who can honestly say that an album played a part in their development (and I’m not just talking about babies conceived to any Portishead album), the space of five seems grossly reductive. Might as well talk about the top five people who have contributed to your bizarre and beautiful existence.

Another pitfall is that you always forget about certain albums. Always. It was weeks after I took that infamous Facebook survey when I read that the smart people at Stereogum had compiled a free, dowloadable album of cover tributes to the 1992 R.E.M. album, Automatic for the People. Only then did I remember just how much that album affected me. It had probably already been out for two or three years by the time that 14-year-old me purchased it in cassette form. Like most people will admit about themselves (now, probably not then), 14-year-old me was a clueless freak. More pertinent to this confession – I was a clueless freak about music. I liked bands because other people told me I should like them, and even when I thought the Top 40 R & B ballad of the moment was total schlock, I shut my mouth and hummed along when the radio played it during art class. But when I heard the R.E.M. album, it didn’t leave my bedroom boombox for a few months. It was almost like I didn’t just feel that the album was really good. I knew it was really good.

These days, my musical ethicist believes that the overall quality of an album can never be a cold, hard fact. But if there’s a clueless 14-year-old freak still hiding somewhere in there, she’s totally elated that several others agree that she was right. Critics have called Automatic for the People R.E.M.’s greatest achievement. It has lyrics that make you stop short in whatever activity you’re doing because Stipe, Mills, Buck, and Berry have all leaned in to let you know, without any doubt, how well they know you. And it’s such a pleasing album to hear, with all the string instrumentation as well as Mike Mills more than proving his pianist chops on several songs. There are so many great singles on the album, but you do yourself a disservice by not hearing it from start to finish, from opening strains of “Drive” to the vivid imagery in “Find the River.” I may need to do another Facebook questionnaire when I’m finished writing this.

Rather than trotting out the usual suspects of songs, I’m going with one of the lesser-known offerings, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.” More than any other artist on the tribute compilation, Rogue Wave makes the melody nearly unrecognizable. Gone are the roving tempo and Michael Stipes’ spirited melodic shrieks. Rogue Wave clouds the sound during the verses to emphasize the wonderful oddness of the lyrics. However, Zach Rogue remains faithful where it counts and does not lose the near-incomprehensibility of Stipe’s voice as he speeds through the main line of the chorus. Thanks to Stereogum for giving me back this part of my past. It’s been a welcome wake-up call.

  • Rogue Wave ~ Drive XV: A Tribute to Automatic for the People ~ distributed by

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite


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