Tuesday, March 22, 2011


So, the recent flurry of activity of reviews and touring schedule updates came to a grinding halt last week, largely due to a string of celebratory events tied to the 30th anniversary your blogger's birth. But, what do we do when knocked off our bead of momentum? Pick yourself up and climb back on the horse, which is what we'll do here by assessing the most recent release from the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, R.E.M.

Some music commentators seem to take special delight in bashing new work from established groups. And those reactions tend to fall into two directions: either the material hews too closely to the core of the group's sound and does not stake out enough new ground to demonstrate growth and maturity; or, conversely, new recordings are flogged for wandering too far afield of a successful and enjoyable palate that defines the catalog of an artist or band. Occasionally, a review will include both types of criticism.

And, to be fair, the R.E.M.'s mid-March release of Collapse Into Now veers more strongly to the former label than the latter. It's filled with the trademark jangly, Byrds-style riffs and progressions from guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills' high harmonies and piano tracks, and frontman Michael Stipe's ubiquitous lyricism, leaving no room to mistake the effort for anything but an R.E.M. album. And while some might argue that suggests a group who has run out of ideas, there is also inherent value in a cohort of individuals collaborating together over a number of years (and decades, in this case) to create and replicate an approach to music that becomes their own. Only the most cynical among us cannot appreciate the difficulty of coordinating the artistic vision, conflicting personalities and stamina necessary to sustain such a project over a significant period of time. To their credit, R.E.M. has largely accomplished that over a career now extending into its fourth decade. Declaring an individual track as an "R.E.M. song" bears with it true definition – as in only one group is capable of producing that sound in the same manner – much in the the same way U2 has done over essentially the same period.

Positioned somewhere in the group's sonic spectrum between 1991's Out of Time, 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi and the more recent Accelerate of 2008, Collapse Into Now compiles varying pages from the R.E.M. playbook into a cohesive compendium. Opener "Discoverer" is punchy and tangy, a functional bridge between the group's most raw and rocking product – 1994's Monster – and the late-career Accelerate. Hauling out the familiar delay and reverb pedals, Peter Buck again defines the number with his grainy figures aerating the track's 3:31 minutes. With all proper credit and respect due to the influence of Stipe and Mills, R.E.M. produces its best material when it is shaped by the distinctiveness of its guitarist. Few non-vocalist guitar players have the sort of impact on their bands as Buck imposes upon his, aside from his Irish counterpart in U2, The Edge. It's also one that has percolated up through the sounds of American bands for the past two decades, ranging from The Decemberists' The King Is Dead (which featured Buck himself) through the Americana of Wilco and Buck's own Tired Pony side project to the more poppy constructions of groups like Oh No! Oh My! and The Broken West (now Apex Manor).

Even more brash is the follow-up, "All The Best." Channeling Monster's "I Took Your Name," it's grainy delivery is punctuated by Stipe's staccato phrasing and is appropriately shorter at 2:45, reflecting a heightened sense of urgency. The same gnarly spirit reappears later in the collection on the suggestive "Mine Smell Like Honey" – which features fantastic backing vocals on the chorus from Mike Mills – the alliterative "Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter," accentuated by guest vocals from longtime compatriot Patty Smith, and "That Someone Is You." It is this quintet of rockers that point most clearly to the group's preceding Accelerate, and signals the arch of their gradual return to the heart of their milieu.

In contrast to the above electric guitar-driven set is the album's third offering, the acoustic "Überlin" – an ode to the rapid transit network of the German capital (which also features a corresponding subway map-inspired video). It's a fitting counterpart to previous R.E.M. acoustic-focused singles like "Ebow the Letter" off New Adventures in Hi-Fi and "Daysleeper" from the 1998 album, Up (which also was the first release following the departure of original drummer Bill Berry in 1997). Along those lines, the Buck-Mills-Stipe trio finally appears comfortable with its percussion situation after experimenting with a decade's worth of options behind the drumkit. Although the group has never – and likely will never – name a permanent replacement for the charter member Berry, former Ministry timekeeper Bill Rieflin manned the sticks on tour starting in 2004, following the uneven Around the Sun, which was released earlier that year. Rieflin has since recorded the drum parts for both Accelerate and Collapse Into Now. The relative stability provided by Rieflin has yielded a songwriting and recording process that appears to be more comfortable and accordingly more productive, as evidenced in the solid output in the most recent two records.

A couple of the more interesting ideas on the dozen-track album are the pairing of "Oh My Heart" and "It Happened Today" in the number four and five slots. The former struggles with Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans – although hardly a unique subject for songwriters and performers in recent years – as Stipe notes a "city half erased" and "storm didn't kill me / the government changed / hear the answer call, hear the song rearranged / hear the tress, the ghosts and the buildings sing / with the wisdom to reconcile this thing." Curiously, it's set to the musical backdrop of the soundtrack to a spaghetti western, with mandolins and accordions cresting atop the undulating melody. Meanwhile, the latter recalls the band's I.R.S. Records era – with nods to early classics like "Cuyahoga" and "Harborcoat" – with a touch more indie-pop flavor and Eddie Vedder blending with Mills on backing vocals.

At the same time, the late-appearing "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I" recalls the band's most popular hit, the iconic "Losing My Religion," with Buck replicating his signature mandolin and acoustic guitar chords from their standout Out of Time cut. The Out of Time nostalgia tour continues on "Blue," which is a chord-for-chord recasting of "County Feedback," albeit with Stipe penning new spoken word lyrics which rest atop the familiar instrumental cadence.

Come for: "Überlin"
Stay for: "All The Best"
You'll be surprised by: "Oh My Heart"

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