Saturday, April 12, 2008

R.E.M. Are Back From Wherever They've Been Hiding

On the one hand, it's a lot of fun to discover that old favorites still have magic in them. For example, Bob Dylan in 1997 releasing Time Out of Mind, one of the great albums in rock history, after 22 years of wandering in a wilderness of sporadic inspiration. And now, Accelerate, about which it is easy to shout from the rooftop, "this is the best R.E.M. album in more than ten years!"

On the other hand, it does make you wonder - what the hell were they doing for the past ten years? Why did they see fit to release three mediocre at best, crappy at worst records during that time, and then go out and do all the same types of interviews, leading us to believe that these were, indeed, bonafide R.E.M. works? Now, I do have to admit that there were a handful of excellent songs on those CDs, but it's telling that off the top of my head, I couldn't tell you the names of any of them. For whatever reason, after the retirement of drummer Bill Berry, the band decided to go off and explore Brian Wilson Pet Sounds territory, and along the way forgot what they did well.

Being someone who likes to think of himself as a forgiving sort, I'm just happy that they finally remembered. The most important thing to say about Accelerate may be that it sounds like R.E.M. From the first chords of "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," you're reminded of what the band sounded like in its glory days. This is probably the hardest rocking R.E.M. album ever; what they probably hoped Monster (an album I liked a lot) was going to sound like. Michael Stipe sounds like he cares, and downright angry at times. You can almost see the smile on Peter Buck's face as guitars dominate song after song. When Mike Mills' harmonies slide into the background, you grin a bit, thinking "yes...that's what it sounded like back in 1987." And special kudos to drummer Bill Rieflin, who drives the songs in a way that Bill Berry was unable to, for whatever reason, on Monster.

By today's standards, the album is short - in fact, if it were any shorter, it would be a Ramones record. But that's O.K., because I'll gladly take 35 or so minutes of great music over 60-plus minutes of dreck any day of the week. I haven't gotten around to trying to decipher Stipe's lyrics, and I may not bother, because for me R.E.M. was always about the sound. If the lyrics sink in, great; if not, so be it. I understand that "Houston" is about Hurricane Katrina, and that's fine. All I know is that it sounds great, as do "Accelerate," "Man-Sized Wreath," "Mr. Richards," and "Horse to Water." The worst song on the album, and even it's not bad, is the longest - "Sing for the Submarine."

A recent article in Spin said it best - "for the first time in years, R.E.M. sound like a band again."

Amen to that. After all, they are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And they didn't get there by trying to re-create Pet Sounds.

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