Coming up in the early part of next week is the 40th anniversary of the debut EP from R.E.M. called Chronic Town. The band is celebrating this momentous occasion/birthday with a re-issued CD, cassette, and vinyl picture disc that is releasing today. Featuring pop gems like The Smiths-esque “Gardening At Night,” to The Cure-sounding “Stumble,” and “1,000,000,” the five-track EP solidified R.E.M. as a name to watch in the early part of the 80’s. As lead vocalist Michael Stipe puts it on the detailed liner notes in the package, “We started like a lowly caterpillar, a pupa stage, then a chrysalis, into something resembling a pop band.” It’s a fairly accurate depiction of the sound that comes shining through the speakers on this endearing debut EP. You can definitely hear traces of where the band would take their sound on their debut LP Murmur that began to make R.E.M. a recognizable name.
The EP includes the guitar-charged “1,000,000” that features some straight forward, crooned vocals from Stipe over Peter Buck’s pop-flavored riffing. Drummer Bill Berry’s punchy percussion really stands out on repeat listens of songs like this one. “Stumble” starts off with the sound of some tape (the liner notes mention it was “Scotch 250”) being pulled out before the band laughs it off and launches into the tropical-sounding song. Stipe begins to really get his vocal footing on songs like this as his now-trademark vocal delivery sounds rich and powerful over the poignant rhythm section.
The true gem in the set comes in the form of the album opener, “Wolves, Lower” that speaks to just how in sync the band were with each other’s strengths at such a young, ripe age. It would end up being the first song R.E.M. recorded, and their youthful exuberance comes shining through the speakers like a burst of sunlight on an overcast day. “Gardening at Night” reminds me so much of The Smiths, that you would almost assume they had a co-writing credit on it. In the liner notes, the band shared “Peter recalls my parents driving up and right across the microphone cable while Michael was singing, and he made an on-the-spot lyrical modification to announce the event. I hope this is still somewhere on the multitrack tape!” The band looks back fondly on these sessions in the ultra-comprehensive liner notes/packaging of the album, and it’s easy to see why. They were onto something great on Chronic Town that would help them get the confidence they needed to put their best feet forward in their storied discography.