I spent a lot of time during the mid-to-late 90s and early 00s caught up in the alternative country movement, but it wasn’t until the other night that I connected the dots back to the one song that may have inadvertently kickstarted that period of my listening life. I was cooking dinner for my daughters and looking for some pleasant background music that my little ladies and I could agree on (they’re not the noise enthusiasts I was hoping they’d be by 2), and The Lemonheads’ alternative/pop classic It’s A Shame About Ray seemed like an excellent choice. It’d been a long time since I’d thrown it on, and they’d surely dig Evan Dando’s boyish power-folk charms, right? The fact that they didn’t demand “Elmo’s Song” once meant it was a great success.
Eventually we got to “Hannah & Gabi”, a dusty lovelorn gem late on the album and one of my favorite Dando songs of all time. It’s easy to see why this simple, virtually unadorned song has always been overlooked in the Lemonheads’ catalog – it’s surrounded by the title track, and “My Drug Buddy”, and “Bit Part, and “Rockin’ Stroll”, and “Kitchen” and all of those great songs that foreshadowed Dando as a near-miss rock star and perpetual under-achiever in the early 90s. When It’s A Shame About Ray came out I was about 16 or 17 and, like many others, needed a melodic alternative to grunge. Ray easily filled this spot. At that point I guess I’d probably heard and liked some country-inflected songs before, maybe some late 60s/early 70s Rolling Stones stuff or the stray Harvest-era Neil Young tune. But “Hannah & Gabi” was the first “modern” band I can remember with a countryish song, and it definitely opened the floodgates for Wilco, Son Volt, & The Jayhawks to dominate my speakers a few short years later.
Dando has explored the Americana side of his songwriting repertoire throughout his sporadic career since Ray, and he’s certainly penned (and covered) some great songs in that style since – “Big Gay Heart”, “The Outdoor Type”, “All My Life”, and his version of Gram Parsons’ “$1000 Wedding” spring to mind. Knowing what we do now about Dando’s continual struggles with addiction, it makes a lot of sense that his damaged, heart-on-the-sleeve lyrical and vocal style would be better suited with acoustic guitars and pedal steel guitars over the noisy clatter of The Lemonheads’ early days. But “Hannah & Gabi” doesn’t hint at the self destruction that’s always plagued Dando – it’s simply a pretty little song with themes of distance, movement, and gallantry in the face of heartache. Looking back at It’s A Shame About Ray, “Hannah & Gabi” holds the biggest sentimental place for me, and remains such an underappreciated highlight on a wider scale.
I realize that saying I greatly prefer the early to mid-period R.E.M. that favored mystery, myth, and beautifully evocative, often cryptic songwriting puts me in with the vast majority. Michael Stipe has proven to be an occasionally powerful songwriter in the straightforward, sympathetic self-help style he’s leaned on since “Everybody Hurts”, but I find most R.E.M. songs post Up that attempt to heal and save to be mawkish at best and, at worst, kind of unlistenable. It’s the biggest problem for me with the otherwise pleasant sounding Collapse into Now – a record that tries to resurrect virtually every creative idea they’ve had since 1992. But after about a half dozen spins this week, I want to like Collapse more than I actually do. It’s not that I doubt Stipe’s sincerity; if anything I admire his ability to approach his writing from such compassionate perspectives. I just find sentiments like “this place is the beat of my heart” (from “Oh My Heart”) and “that’s how heroes are made” (from “Every Day Is Yours to Win”) to be way too clichéd for someone who was one of the music industry’s most expressive writers for so long.
“Hairshirt” is a highlight from Green, R.E.M.’s 1988 major label debut. Musically, along with “You Are the Everything” and “The Wrong Child”, the song predicts their most successful period – the mostly acoustic Out of Time and Automatic for the People from 1991 and ’92, respectively. Lyrically the song is a precursor to the smeared, stream-of-consciousness style that marked some of R.E.M.’s best and most mysterious 90s songs – “Losing My Religion”, “Country Feedback”, “Nightswimming”, and “E-Bow the Letter”. Taken line by line the “Hairshirt” lyrics don’t make a lot of linear sense, but altogether they conjure strong feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and, ultimately, strength in numbers. As far as the latter goes, the song also foreshadows Stipes’ later fascination with empathy (“here I am, in your life, it’s a beauuuuuutiful life”) without ever approaching the cloying sentimental mushiness that mars so many late-period R.E.M. songs. There’s a thin line with life-affirming songs, for me, between ones that make me want to barf and ones that make me want to be a better person. This song, nearly unrivaled in my collection in terms of pure emotive force, makes me want to believe in all the clichés it so effortlessly avoids.
The kicker to all this though is that I wouldn’t change anything about modern R.E.M. if I could, despite the fact that I would undoubtedly like them so much more. The fact that Stipe has been brave enough to sacrifice so much of the band’s hipness and critical good will by indulging in this unquestionably “uncool” side of his writing is perhaps the most punk thing about modern R.E.M.
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"No, don't call me a hero. Do you know who the real heroes are? The guys who wake up every morning and go to their normal jobs and get a distress call from the commissioner and take off their glasses and change into capes and fly around fighting crime. Those are the real heroes."
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