R.E.M. | Accelerate (Warner Bros.)

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rem-accelerate.jpgWhat truly distinguishes Accelerate from its 13 predecessors is its live, raucous sound.

 

 

 

 

When I pose the question, "Who's your favorite band?" to people, I normally have to establish criteria to get an answer. Who do you listen to the most? Who can get you to trek to the record store on the day their new record comes out? Who can be on a magazine you never buy, and suddenly their cover issue is on your coffee table?

What I fail to realize is the daunting singularity of the question. Most people have many, many favorite bands. More still just listen to the radio. Some poor souls could care less. So, by asking the question "Who's your favorite band?" I'm really telling more about myself than anything.

I got into R.E.M. through my friend Brian. Up to that point, I'd largely ignored pop music. What I associated it with was the unfortunate hair metal cock rock of the late 80s (which I can enjoy now for novelty purposes, but at the time I altogether loathed it). I shared a room with an obnoxious older half-sister who played Def Leppard and their ilk incessantly, and my fifth grade rival loved crap like that, so conversely I hated, hated, hated it. When I was played R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, a whole new world opened up around my ears.

I spent my time after that not only obsessing over the band, but also discovering the rich and varied history of rock n' roll I was to that point totally unaware of. Okay, so I knew some oldies from car rides with my parents, but R.E.M. namedropped impeccably in their interviews, and I discovered the real shit the radio was never going to turn me on to: the Stooges, Patti Smith, Gang of Four, the Velvet Underground. Not only do I love R.E.M. for their music, but also for single-handedly crafting for me - through the press they did - my own private crash course in punk rock (or what I understand it to be, at least). For these reasons, I remain compelled to say with resounding certainty, "R.E.M. is my favorite band."

It hasn't been an easy decade to admit that, however. Bill Berry, drummer and one quarter of R.E.M.'s songwriting team, split in 1997. The guys soldiered on, making three more records with their decimated line-up. 1998's Up was a shocking about-face, an apparently deliberate refutation of their jangle rock legacy. For what it was, it was pretty damned compelling, and evinced further the versatility the band had exhibited with each release. 2001's Reveal was touted as a "classicist" "return to form" in the UK press; the US largely ignored it. Both sides of the pond were a little off the mark: while not up to vintage R.E.M. snuff, Reveal was chock-full of lush and dreamy pop, some of which soared, some of which sunk (side two of that album is a pretty tough listen).

What seemed to characterize these albums more than anything was their deliberacy. Whereas R.E.M. seemed previously to make their records with mystery and spontaneity, Up and Reveal were more like exercises, math problems, science projects. R.E.M. were trying to prove their mettle as craftsmen, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it didn't yield them their best records by any estimation.

Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, and Peter Buck. Click for a larger image.Matter of fact, it absolutely ruined their last one. 2004's Around the Sun was a dour slab of adult contemporary prosaic. While the songs themselves ranged from pretty good to tolerable on down to lamentable, the studio craft they were mired in obscured the qualities that made them identifiable as such. The fussy, meticulous haze that hangs over the album muted every nuance, every twist, to the point that none of the songs were memorable, likable. Live, however, the songs take on power and verve, to the point that some of ‘em are actually rollicking. Check out live versions of "Boy in the Well" or "The Ascent of Man" and tell me I'm lying. To the band's credit, they realized with hindsight that they had created their first certifiable flop. Coupled with the fact that the material on that flop actually translated well live, well, R.E.M. once more became a band with a mission: make relevant, compelling music again.

At the heart of Accelerate is that mission statement, and in that, the band has mostly succeeded. What truly distinguishes Accelerate from its 13 predecessors is its live, raucous sound. Regardless of the era, R.E.M.'s records have never been terribly indicative of what they're capable of live; while the records they made through the ‘80s were quietly revolutionary, that was in part due to the band's naïveté and lack of technical expertise. Once they started to court clarity with Lifes Rich Pageant, each new album became more assured, more professional, more polished.

Still, that live sound was never really captured in the studio, but that all changes on Accelerate, which was cut mostly live with the band augmented by their touring sidemen, drummer Bill Rieflin and guitarist Scott McCaughey. Infused with their undeniable prowess as a live entity, R.E.M. turns in a hard-hitting performance on the new album, sonically speaking. It's refreshing, but can grow tiresome, too. The songs feel clipped, and some run together. There's little room to ruminate, and the tunes roll by too quickly to notice the claustrophobia. This makes the overall record experience not as total as true R.E.M. masterpieces like Automatic or Document.

Taken on their own, it's business as usual with the songs: some amaze, some startle, some bore. That's basically legion for any band, especially one of R.E.M.'s stature and longevity. Where the band succeeds is in the aggressive, baiting political rants. "Living Well is the Best Revenge" opens the album with shocking bravado, swelling into sweet harmony at the climax of each chorus. Michael Stipe spits some fine vitriol, indicting the failures of politics and media, while assuring his own survival, "I see my in and go for it." "Horse to Water" boasts a sing-along chorus that belies more dissenter sentiment, and the title track exudes anxiety with buzz saw guitar, asking "Where is the rip cord, the trap door, they key?" "Man-Sized Wreath" can be best described as an anarchist's Christmas carol.

By far the best tune in this vein is the scathing, fantastic "Mr. Richards". Marrying a glorious Peter Buck guitar riff to a relaxed mid-tempo beat that occasionally breaks into a gallop, Stipe calls out an ailing political figure, reiterating their willful mistakes and raking them over the coals, "pay attention, pay attention." It's far less vicious than it sounds; Stipe's gentle about it. You can't help but feel a little sorry for Mr. Richards , but you also can't help laughing at him.

Stipe's development as a lyricist has been fairly tiered, and quite remarkable. His growing embrace of fame, in my opinion, has been largely detrimental to that development. I preferred his political misgivings veiled in obscurity. Their explicitness on Accelerate could easily alienate some listeners. Of more notice, though, is the clumsiness of some of the lyrics in their relation to the music. "Sing for the Submarine", for example, is a great slice of punk psychedelia, but the excessive verbiage renders it dismissible. The sentiment of "Houston" is understandable, but therefore ordinary, which also sullies an otherwise fine piece of music. "Until the Day is Done" is a lovely ballad, but its blatant liberalism can irritate in spots.

The music of Accelerate is the antithesis of Reveal, stripped of its lush aural coloring. The sounds are stark and grating, static, sometimes atonal. Buck's atmospheric guitar, its feedback expressively whining and undulating, shows what was really missing from Around the Sun. Mike Mills is also worthy of praise; obviously for contributing his signature choirboy background vocals, but also for turning in another great set of punchy, melodic bass lines. The instrumentalists of R.E.M. have always been underrated among their forebears and contemporaries; Accelerate demonstrates this well.

Overall I think the album still suffers from its deliberate nature. Its overtly political lyrics and over-the-top sonic reaction to Around the Sun produce some sublime moments, but they never gel into the cohesive whole that the best R.E.M. records are renowned for. Accelerate still has promise to appreciate well over time, what's more it shows that R.E.M. still has it in ‘em. For better or worse, I'm glad they're sticking with it. And I can still unabashedly call ‘em my favorite. B+ | Justin Crouse

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