REVIEW: This IS Your Father’s R.E.M.

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[via PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER]

R.E.M.
Accelerate
(Warner ****)

Just when I’d concluded that R.E.M.’s three-legged dog don’t hunt no more, they turn in their most powerful and cohesive work since 1992’s Automatic for the People, a record brimming with all the things that made them great in the first place: clangy autumnal melodies, droney proto-emo vocals, trippy nuance, the haunted poetics of regret, the routine eschewing of the obvious and the familiar in pursuit of the sublime and the unexpected. This one goes out to the long-suffering superfans, the kind of people whose faces light up when you say that the piano on “Until the Day Is Done” reminds you of the glorious sun-kissed bridge from “The Flowers of Guatemala,” or that the stunning “Sing for the Submarine” has the same Ken Burnsian antebellum feel of “Swan Swan H,” or that the whole things rocks harder than their cover of Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic.” Call it their post-post-rock period, but Accelerate lives up to its adrenalized title with a handful of ripping, gutbucket rock-outs (“Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Mansized Wreath”) to balance the epic torch-folk balladeering (“Hollow Man,” “Houston”). And unlike, say, 1994’s Monster, Accelerate is not just loud, but hard, as if these songs were actually lived-in and jammed-on, and possibly even sweated over. Hooray for everybody! — Jonathan Valania

REM: Drive

NEW YORK TIMES: “We never do much rehearsal,” Mr. Buck, 51, the band’s guitarist, said over a ginger ale later at a dark, empty bar around the corner. “Sometimes having that little edge of not feeling comfortable with the songs gives it a little bit of energy. Terror will do that.”

remstipelonghair_1.jpgDespite spending 28 years together, at this moment a touch of fear is understandable for the trio. (The fourth member, the drummer, Bill Berry, left the band in 1997, following a brain aneurysm.) From its debut in 1981 until the mid-1990s R.E.M. was a definitive American rock band, but its sales and influence have steadily declined in the last decade. “Accelerate” is a very deliberate response to an internal crisis that Mr. Stipe, the group’s singer, described as major, and that they all agreed almost broke up the band.

Its last album, the hazy, somber “Around the Sun” (2004), took nine months to make and satisfied neither the musicians nor their fans. It didn’t crack Billboard’s Top 10 and sold less than 250,000 copies. The band members realized they needed to find a new way to work together or quit, coming to the end of a road that took them from this out-of-the-way college town to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Mr. Buck said he had few commercial expectations and was much more concerned about making fans believe in the band again. “Whatever we did on the last record didn’t work,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with it, and I don’t think anyone else was. Michael tends to think that the longer you work on something, the better it can be. But it doesn’t work that way for us. It just kept getting weirder and weirder and worse.”

“Around the Sun” came after other R.E.M. albums — “Up” (1998) and “Reveal” (2001) — that also received lukewarm receptions and were more atmospheric and keyboard based than the music that established the group. The band had fallen from its place as one of the biggest acts in the world to being unable to reach gold-record status. This downturn followed a record-breaking $80 million contract the band signed with Warner Brothers in 1996, a move that recently made Blender magazine’s list of the “20 Biggest Record Company Screw-Ups of All Time.” MORE

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ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: The Beatles of the post-punk era. While most rock snobs will fess up to a kudzu-covered copy of Chronic Town or Reckoning in their stacks of vinyl, others flat-out hate R.E.M. These are the people who don’t cry at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, and they are to be avoided at all costs.

REM: Imitation Of Life

PREVIOUSLY: Twenty years ago — let’s just pause and think about that for a sec, 20 years ago! — R.E.M. released Reckoning. It was the much-anticipated sophomore release by the underground’s then-favorite sons of the South. The album made good on the kudzu-crusted promise of the band’s bewitching and ultimately confounding debut Murmur, radiating a murky but hopeful aura to an alt-world grown weary of punk’s safety-pinned doom and goth’s spider web of gloom.

“I’m the sun and you can read,” they sang, or at least that’s what it sounded like–you never knew for sure back then, and that proved to be an awful lot of their charm. And in the jingle-jangle morning of Reagan’s America, we came following them.

reckoning.jpgReckoning was full of secret maps and sepia-tinted legends, the autumnal ring of Rickenbacker guitars and the mesmerizing moon-river moan of Michael Stipe, delivering the promised fables of classic rock’s stylistic reconstruction to a post-punk world of shattered expectations, asymmetrical haircuts and skinny black pants.

Reckoning contained multitudes, alluding to the Byrds and the Velvet Underground, mining the backwoods mysticism of Southern folk art and wedding it to love-beaded mid-’60s folk rock to create a new atlas of blue-highway Americana. All across the nation, red-eyed sophomores clustered Indian-style around the dim glow of dorm-room lava lamps, separating seeds from stems, trying to decipher Stipe’s cryptic utterances.
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Aside from the intriguing foray into electronic ambience and Pet Sounds exotica of 1999’s post-Berry Up, you could be forgiven for concluding, based on the albums that came after–the flat-soda pop of 2001’s Reveal and the unrelentingly midtempo mopery of the just-out Around the Sun–that the dog don’t hunt so good anymore.

Once you get past the lovely, elegiac folk-pop of the album-opening “Leaving New York,” Sun‘s first single, things bog down quickly. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Stipe, who lost his Delphic aura back in the late ’80s when he traded incantation for clarity and you could actually make out what the hell he was singing.

I liked him better when he just pretended to be deep instead of actually trying to be. Too many songs onremstipe_1.jpg Sun–all tastefully colored with piano tinklings, keyboard washes and gilded folk pluck, mind you–sound like the working script to some bad Sofia Coppola movie in which the hip young protagonists languish melancholically in fading romances set against an international jet-set backdrop of high-speed trains and chic restaurants. “Your rope trick started looking stale,” sings Stipe on “Boy in the Well,” and he could well be singing to the man in the mirror.

I’ve seen R.E.M.’s world up close, and it’s all five-star hotels that recycle and solar-powered limousines. And I’d never begrudge those guys the right to get stinkin’ rich from the high art they were capable of transmuting rock into when they were at the height of their powers–or even just stinkin’ drunk on airplanes. But they’re millionaires locked in a bubble of climate-controlled luxury, long removed from the heat and friction of ordinary lives that make for music worth listening to.

In the end you have to choose between the mansion on the hill or the art in the streets. And the only time the twain shall meet is when art is hung over the sofa in the mansion on the hill. That’s a gross overstatement, of course, but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that when you get to a certain tax bracket and the zip code that comes with it, you can’t go back to Rockville again. –JONATHAN VALANIA

REM: Radio Free Europe

MORE: The End Of REM As We Know It, And I Don’t Feel Fine [PDF]

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