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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Music Review: R.E.M. Accelerates in The Right Direction but Lose Momentum

R.E.M. -- three guys x four eyes

Music Review by Noah Mallin

The party line on R.E.M.'s new album Accelerate is that it's a return to classic form, something like U2's last few records in recapturing the sound that made them stars. They've even used Jacknife Lee, the producer of U2's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.

On first blush this trope holds up. Those stirring arrangements from the I.R.S. Records days featuring Mike Mills' plaintive vocals in the background counterpointing Stipe's singing, guitar-based songs, Mills' bass pushed up front again as a central component all say "Hey, remember?"

Then of course there is the loud short sharp shockiness of the songs, only 36 minutes worth of music with the amps at 11. It's both more and less self-consciously "rock" than their last "rock album" 1994s Monster which had some strange detours and much more delay and reverb.

Why they felt the need for a stripped-down back-to-basics affair is evident to fans and sales wonks alike. Their last album Around The Sun was an artistic and sales flop, a bloated overproduced affair. The album before that one, Reveal had glimmers of greatness particularly in the single "Imitation of Life", but too often felt mannered and lifeless. Up, the album that kicked off their current status as a trio with the loss of drummer Bill Berry, received wildly divergent responses. To my mind it's a fascinating album, and rewarding of multiple listens but not typical of what one would expect from the band.

The problem is that each of their albums, even the great ones that run in a gallop from 1983s debut Murmur through 1988s eclectic big label coming-out party Green found a way to tweak and transform their sound from album to album. Unlike U2, there really isn't a "classic" R.E.M. sound per se. To look at what most consider as their three artistic peaks is instructive -- Murmur is fuzzy experimental art rock with an insistent beat, Document is expansive punchy politicized protest rock, and Automatic For The People is a wounded but hopeful autumnal songcycle that uses shadings of folk-rock and even elements of light prog.

So Accelerate constructs a kind of artificial classic R.E.M. that, as many reviewers have noted, sounds closest to 1986s Life's Rich Pageant. Pageant has more shadings however, with barnburners like "Just a Touch" jostling with the achingly gorgeous "Fall On Me." Accelerate is so intent on "rocking" that it misses what could be some welcome coloration. There are a few changes of pace like the elegiac "Houston" and dour "Until The Day is Done" neither of which really go anywhere. Weirder "Sing For The Submarine" is more interesting and better for it, with an odd backwards-sounding chorus and curious lyrical namechecks of other R.E.M. songs.

There are some winners here, including the first three songs. "Living Well is The Best Revenge" romps around with Stipe's low growl (unlike the early albums he hasn't given up on enunciating), "Man-Sized Wreath" won't erase memories of "Exhuming McCarthy" but delivers pleasure just from hearing Mills and Stipe's voices together and "Supernatural Superserious" gets by on a nice lo-cal guitar riff. "Hollow Man" initially feels like an Automatic throwback before the monster chorus kicks in.

Eight tracks in we finally get to the one killer track, "Mr. Richards", a terrific spiralling hook of a song that chimes and rings in all the right places. It's a great melody delivered with just the right amount of guitar fuzz. "Horse To Water" gets a nice head of steam going and then the closer comes in, the lovably goofy "I'm Gonna DJ", a song that could have just as well opened the album.
If I seem underwhelmed it's because I am. This is a decent batch of songs but the biggest problem is producer Lee. The entire album is so compressed that there is little texture to any of the tracks. The chorus to Hollow Man ought to kick you in the gut -- instead it feels like someone turning on a faucet and then abruptly shutting it off. The weak songs suffer greatly from this and even some of the stronger ones sound samey. I guess this is in keeping with the kids listening to MP3's on crappy computer speakers but is that really R.E.M.'s audience? The overall feeling is stultifying and does the music no favors.

May I suggest that the next time the guys jump in a studio looking for a "raw" sound that they tap someone like Steve Albini (Pixies' Surfer Rosa, The Breeders' Pod, PJ Harvey's Rid of Me, Nirvana's In Utero)-- a choice that would have been oozing with cred and a guy who would have really stripped things down while letting them breathe. Hell, go with Scott Litt who blew Document up to glossy arena size while making sure it rocked hard and had lots of sonic details and texture.

That said this is still an improvement over Around The Sun and does mark a welcome return to fundamentals for what has been one of America's greatest bands. Hopefully this marks just the first step of a comeback trail. Trust me guys, call Albini.

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