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The mid-’80s may have been the peak of college radio not only because the major labels had not yet fully recognized the benefit of co-opting the underground, but also because a stack of extraordinarily fine albums formed something like a core curriculum in post-punk. Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen good-naturedly challenged each other with sprawling double albums, while the Replacements lit the barrooms with glory.
Through it all, R.E.M. was the 800-pound gorilla of the scene. Already able to fill 2,000-seaters, the kings of Athens, Ga., formed an outfit whose record sales, unlike those of many indie bands of the day, actually approached indicating the music’s importance. As with the Velvet Underground before them, R.E.M. prompted a fair number of those listeners to avail themselves of guitars and drums and cut parallel trails. Murmur and Reckoning encouraged scores of sensitive young men to cultivate their mystic sides. While they were at it, many figured, why not take a shot at the ringing guitars and murky harmonies that framed those perfect curses and reveries? Often it seemed as if their bands listened to little but R.E.M., ignoring Peter Buck’s Stonesmania, Mike Mills’ fondness for everything from Patsy Cline to Prince to Dixie-fried art-rockers Captain Beyond, and Michael Stipe’s embrace of Patti Smith as a versifying model.
It’s too reductive to dismiss every young band that jumped Stipe and Co.’s train as part of a blurry nationwide jangle, but the sound-alike brigade became an object of derision among the cognoscenti so quickly that by 1986 it was impossible to hear a group attempt a cover of an R.E.M. song even as a joking encore. At the same time, groups like Miracle Legion and the Connells tried, with mixed success, to move beyond their faint salutes and create their own styles.
In the ’90s, with R.E.M. possessing peak mythic and commercial clout, Pavement has acknowledged the band’s power and lovingly mocked it. “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” the Stockton, Calif., critical darlings’ contribution to the compilation No Alternative, found singer Stephen Malkmus declaring, “‘Time After Time’ was my least favorite song!” Their version of “Camera,” on the B-side of “Cut Your Hair,” was at once equal to the original in its tenderness and doubtful of the big-time rock world R.E.M.—and Pavement—live in.
It’s hard to imagine the current crop of Stipe disciples (for it is he they truly follow) muttering so about their hero. or contributing a “Losing My Religion” to the pop lexicon for the benefit of everyone from law-school Out of Time fans to “I Wish” rapper Skee-lo, or asking KRS-One to sit in, or jumping onto the disco floor as did Monster’s “King of Comedy.” For that matter, it’s hard, even allowing for For Squirrels’ tragic hobbling, to picture any of them nailing together enough half-distinguished songs for a follow-up disc.
For Squirrels’ Example had a news hook attached by the time of its release last fall. In another of the road tragedies that have dogged Southern rockers from Skynyrd to the Jody Grind, the Florida quartet lost singer John Francis Vigliatura and bassist Bill White to a van wreck. Given the quick turnover on modern-rock playlists these days, For Squirrels might well have achieved at least nine or 10 minutes of fame anyway. But who can resist an anthemic ode to Kurt Cobain sung by a dead man whose bass-playing cohort has also perished? “Things are gonna change in our favor,” sings Vigliatura over a radio-ready surge, and it’s hard not to be affected a little. But—even without the tragic framing—it’s also the kind of emotional move that R.E.M. would reject as too simple. When the veteran band remembered Cobain on Monster’s “Let Me In,” it instead went for a hive of buzzing guitars to back Stipe’s cries—and never issued the song as a single.
In a video cobbled together from shaky handheld-camera footage, Vigliatura resembles nothing so much as a Big Dude on Campus singing the music he knows and likes. And though Example occasionally drifts into generic alt-rock territory, its creators’ most obvious muse is R.E.M. The record borrows arrangement touches from a dozen years’ worth of the elder band’s platters. Example goes so far as to echo Murmur’s sequencing, placing “Orangeworker,” its homage to that album’s second track, “Pilgrimage,” in the same slot.
Here again, For Squirrels goes for the prettiness—and none of the murky depth—of its model. R.E.M.’s search might have been for a church, a club, or a car wash. “Orangeworker,” on the other hand, is a wide-eyed evocation of the grittiness that so many tremulous Stipe-alikes have copped for instant and cheap Meaningfulness—in this case, the plight of migrant workers dragging through the Squirrels’ home state. (That is, unless it’s a benevolent nod to jumpsuited highway repairmen.)
For Squirrels has announced its intention to carry on with guitarist Travis Michael Tooke out front. With Vigliatura gone, however, the small hints of better things on Example don’t carry much promise.CP