After paying their dues in small clubs and releasing the acclaimed Chronic Town EP (see my Dead Letter Office review for details), R.E.M. were primed and ready for their first full-length album. The timing was right, too, as fellow Athens, Georgia band the B52’s had signed to a major label (Warner Brothers) and were having some success, proving that the world was ready for something different at a time when foppish synth-pop was dominating the airwaves. Indeed, what Peter Buck said at the time still holds true for Murmur (we’ll ignore the fact that they didn’t have any other records at the time): “It didn’t sound like our other records, it didn’t sound like us live, and it didn’t sound like anything else that was coming out.” Taking the idiosyncratic appeal of Chronic Town and improving things on every level, Murmur was a brilliantly evocative effort whose charmingly low-key triumphs spawned and influenced an untold of amount of like-minded indie bands, none of whom had the matchless chemistry, artistic vision, fierce ambition, or songwriting skills of R.E.M (and R.E.M. was a true democracy when it came to songwriting, though singer Michael Stipe wrote most of the lyrics). Murmur is often noted for Peter Buck’s arpeggiated, jangly (i.e. Byrds-influenced) guitar and Stipe’s mumbled vocals (which can almost be considered a fourth instrument), and the album’s melanchoic atmospherics (perfectly produced by the then relatively unknown duo of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon) made them big college radio favorites and a hit with critics, even if commercial radio wasn’t quite ready for them. This album has a perfectly understated air of mystery about it, and though not every song here is substantial, these slightly psychedelic folk rock songs have an offbeat overall feel that’s unlike anything else in the rock spectrum. The album begins with the jumpy fan favorite “Radio Free Europe,” which was reworked and improved upon from an earlier Hib-Tone single. Next comes “Pilgrimage,” possibly my favorite R.E.M. song ever, which is highlighted by bassist Mike Mills’ brilliantly atmospheric backing harmonies. The light and airy “Laughing” and the more serious “Talk About The Passion” are gentle gems featuring two of Stipe’s prettiest and most affecting vocals ever, while a propulsive beat and a galloping chorus (with layered harmony vocals, a trademark of early R.E.M.) highlights “Moral Kiosk.” “Perfect Circle” brings back more beautifully subdued folk before “Catapult” delivers one of the band’s catchiest choruses, again with imaginative harmonies. Other high points include the groovy, rocking jangle folk of “Sitting Still” and “Shaking Through,” a quietly epic triumph that stands tall amid the album's lesser (but still quite listenable) later songs (the first eight tracks are pretty flawless). At its best, these cryptic folk rock musings can still have an entrancing effect on even the most jaded listener, and in many ways Murmur, which is an album that adds up to far more than the sum of its individual parts, remains R.E.M.’s most enjoyable effort ever. It’s almost certainly their most influential.
Reckoning (I.R.S. ‘84) Rating: A-
Another excellent effort in a similar vein as Murmur, Reckoning was a more varied collection that fell only slightly short of matching the elusive magical quality of its predecessor. Though jangly Rickenbacker guitars and Michael Stipe’s muffled vocals are still major elements of the band’s sound, Billy Berry’s sturdy drums and Mike Mills’ melodic bass have been elevated within a brighter, harder-hitting mix. This is immediately apparent on “Harbercoat,” which packs a bigger beat and a meatier overall rhythm, along with Buck’s great guitar work and the band’s trademark vocal harmonies on a catchy (albeit cryptic) chorus. Buck’s beautiful guitar then highlights “7 Chinese Bros.” (as it does most of the songs here), which has a memorably sad undercurrent (when Stipe sings “she shall return again” I can’t help but doubt it), while the superb “So. Central Rain” is a moody, mournful song about the loss of a loved one. Elsewhere, “Time After Time” is similarly subdued but for the thud of Berry’s militant beat and Buck’s ever-escalating guitar, while “Camera” is another sad song about loss. These songs show R.E.M. to be more emotionally available and musically accessible on this outing, though the album’s live, less produced feel (again masterminded by Don Dixon and Mitch Easter) was consequently less mysterious than on Murmur. On the faster, more rocking front, R.E.M. also deliver big time with “Pretty Persuasion,” while “Second Guessing” and “Little America” are other good fast-paced rockers that aren’t quite as impressive or distinctive. “Letters Never Sent” also kinda bouncily comes and goes, albeit in a perfectly pleasant way, but “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” is the flip side of that coin, being a brilliantly simple folk pop song with a great sing along chorus that’s all but impossible to shake. Anyway, it’s tempting to consider this album merely the slightly inferior sequel to Murmur, and there’s some truth to that, as Reckoning seems more like a collection of (admittedly really good) songs than the self-contained world that was Murmur. That said, though a couple of the slower songs (“Time After Time” and “Camera”) plod a bit and some of the rockers are merely solid, song-for-song this album is almost a match for Murmur, and I’d personally rate about half the album (“Harbercoat,” “7 Chinese Bros.,” “Pretty Persuasion,” and especially “So. Central Rain” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”) as all-time R.E.M. classics. As such, Murmur and Reckoning are both essential components of the R.E.M. experience (the former slightly more so, of course), and indeed there are many people who feel that the band never topped these enchanting first two efforts. Personally, I don’t quite agree with that school of thought (see my reviews of stellar later efforts like Out of Time and Automatic For The People as to the reasons why), but I can certainly see why it exists.
Fables Of The Reconstruction (I.R.S. ‘85) Rating: B+
For their third album legendary producer Joe Boyd is on board, proof positive that R.E.M. were headed for the big time. As such, this album differs from what came before it, with more ambitious instrumentation (including violin, cello, saxophone, banjo, and trumpet) and (unfortunately) less of their excellent vocal harmonies. Supposedly this album was made during a trying time for the band, and this is reflected in the albums darker overall mood. Still, R.E.M. remain largely impenetrable, as Stipe sounds more muffled than ever on these mostly mid-tempo evocations of Southern America. And though this somewhat depressing album contains more abstract and less distinctive songs than on their two previous albums, on the whole it still has a lovely overall mood. Songs such as “Feeling Gravitys Pull,” “Old Man Kensey,” and “Kohoutek” are heavy on atmosphere but light on memorable hooks, unlike the stellar “Maps and Legends,” which is similarly moody but adopts a more tuneful approach. Elsewhere, “Green Grow The Rushes” contains a beautiful Buck guitar melody, “Life And How To Live It” is a brighter jangle rocker with a good groove, and the less impressive but still solid if rather strange “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” is also fast-paced and groove-intensive, while “Good Advices” and the banjo-flavored “Wendell Gee” end the album with a pair of pretty if insubstantial folk ballads. The signature songs here, though, are the two tracks that are the most instantly memorable and catchy, namely “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There From Here.” The former is darker hued and evocative, the latter, perhaps best known for Mills’ memorable falsettos, is a quirky, funky, horn driven up-tempo ditty that sounds little like any of the other songs here. In short, this is a very solid, filler free album that rewards (and requires) repeat listens. However, only a few of these songs would be candidates for my eventual "best of R.E.M." playlist, and overall forward progress here was fairly negligible, making me feel that perhaps the band was in need of an energy boost.
Lifes Rich Pageant (I.R.S. ‘86) Rating: A-
With John Mellencamp producer Don Gehrman on board, this R.E.M. album features a cleaner, punchier sound, but without abandoning the band’s lush sonic palette. In particular, Michael Stipe has finally taken the marbles out of his mouth, singing somewhat coherent lyrics that reveal an emerging political conscience. R.E.M. as a whole seem re-invigorated here, and the end result is easily the band’s most rocking and most varied collection to date. “Begin The Begin” and “These Days” begin things with the band’s loudest songs thus far, delivering straightforward but extremely strong rock 'n' roll that unleashes Berry and Buck. “Cuyahoga” is an evocative ecological ballad with a memorable harmonized chorus, and “The Flowers Of Guatemala” is a lovely lullaby-like ballad about U.S. intervention in Central America that gets louder too and even has a soaring guitar solo. Elsewhere, atypical experiments that show off the band’s eclectic mindset include the Spanish flavored “Underneath The Bunker” (at 1:27 more an insubstantial segue than a song proper), the brief banjo break before the enjoyable up-tempo pop rock of “I Believe” (which has singable harmonies along with Buck's Byrdsy guitar), some pretty piano kicking off the solid if nothing special groove rocker “Hyena,” the fun if cheesy keyboards on the punk-ish “Just A Touch,” and the accordion that briefly brightens the somber Civil War ballad "Swan Swan H." "What If We Give It Away" delivers another pleasurably hooky mid-tempo melody, but the two must-have songs here for any R.E.M. playlist are “Fall On Me,” a gorgeous ballad about acid rain (and the first R.E.M. song I ever heard way back when), and the super-catchy sing along “Superman,” a cover song sung by Mike Mills that was originally done by an obscure band called The Clique. Then again, there are several other playlist candidates as well ("Cuyahoga," "Begin The Begin," “These Days,” “The Flowers Of Guatemala,” "I Believe," and “Swan Swan H” might make mine), and overall this was a far more upbeat and superior collection than its predecessor, in part due to the re-emergence of R.E.M.’s wonderful harmonies. Although it slumps slightly in its mid-section, Lifes Rich Pageant saw R.E.M. continuing to grow as a band, and though they were edging ever closer to the mainstream, they were doing so without any loss of integrity; the band’s commercial breakthrough soon beckoned.
Dead Letter Office (I.R.S. ’87) Rating: B
Compiled by Peter Buck and aptly titled “a virtuous compost, Being a Compendium of Oddities Collared, and B-sides Compiled,” Dead Letter Office is a "for the fans" memento that you should purchase only after buying all their other I.R.S. albums. It contains appropriately unpretentious and modestly enjoyable throwaways that were deemed unfit for any of their albums, including covers of Pylon (“Crazy”), Roger Miller (“King Of The Road”), Aerosmith (“Toys In The Attic”), and three Velvet Underground songs (“There She Goes Again,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Femme Fatale”). Unsurprisingly, the band fares far better on the entertaining Pylon and Velvet Underground covers than the easily skippable Miller/Aerosmith updates, and I could also live without the band’s mock heavy metal (“Burning Hell”) and barely bashed out instrumentals (“White Tornado,” Rotary Ten,” “Walter’s Theme”). Elsewhere, “Voice of Harold” is basically “7 Chinese Bros.” but with inferior vocals, while “Ages Of You” is a superior rewrite of “Burning Down,” which is also included here; both are jangly mumblers that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the band's early albums. Basically, the original version of this album is pretty hit and miss, and even the hits (such as the melodic, tuneful “Bandwagon”) are merely pleasant whereas some of the misses are pretty bad. However, the cd version of the album appends the excellent Chronic Town EP, which I’d give an A- rating to all by its lonesome. Originally released in 1982, the band’s fine first collection of songs contains moody, at times bouncy jangle pop (“Wolves, Lower”), as well as catchy up-tempo rock (“1,000,000”) and mid-tempo pop (“Stumble”). Highlighted by the evocative, magical “Gardening At Night” and the intense, propulsive rocker “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Car),” this EP reveals that R.E.M. had their stuff together right from the start. In fact, the mystery of Murmur wasn’t too far removed from Chronic Town, the inclusion of which makes this album a worthwhile purchase for big fans of the band.
Document (I.R.S. ‘87) Rating: A-
The first album released in what would become a long-standing relationship with producer Scott Litt, these songs are fairly straightforward, but with a beefed-up drum sound and shockingly clear vocals spitting out pissed off lyrics. Bouncy songs such as “Exhuming McCarthy” and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” the latter a karaoke favorite due to its breathless rush of words, show off the by now blatant political activism of the band’s lead singer, who himself described the album as being “about chaos.” Meanwhile, Bill Berry’s "drums on steroids" give strong album tracks such as “Finest Worksong” a nifty kick (dig those backing harmonies as well). Many people saw Document as an obvious courtship for mainstream success, and the band succeeded on that front, largely on the strength of the much-misunderstood single “The One I Love,” the band's first top 10 hit. Here a repetitive but striking mid-tempo melody carries darkly venomous lyrics (“this one goes out to the one I love, this one goes out to the one I’ve left behind, a simple prop to occupy my time”) that many listeners somehow mistakenly took as a sentimental love song! "It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” was a minor hit as well, a good thing as this brilliantly quirky and rocking song showed off the band at their very best. Despite taking strides toward reaching a broader audience, R.E.M. shows that they can still deliver wonderfully moody folk rock (albeit with a bigger sound) on “Welcome To The Occupation” (love the dramatic "listen to me!" ending) and “Disturbance At the Heron House” (which kinda comes and goes but does so in a pleasantly melodic yet intense way), while the band again nods to their punk rock roots with a catchy, up-tempo, upbeat cover of Wire’s “Strange.” Admittedly, the rest of the album is less successful, though some idiosyncratic and experimental touches showed that the band was still wonderfully weird despite their increased accessibility. For example, there's the sax melody that elevates the otherwise average "Fireplace," the catchy chants and cool tribal rhythms that offset Stipe's uncharacteristically annoying lead vocals on "Lightnin' Hopkins," and the Middle Eastern guitar that adds an exotic flavor to the melancholic "King Of Birds." The intense if plodding "Oddfellows Local 151" ends the album with a not bad but overly long downer of a note, but by and large R.E.M.’s rawest and most direct sounding record yet was a definite success, as it offered consistent quality along with a few classic songs ("Finest Worksong," “Welcome To The Occupation,” "It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” and "The One I Love"). Perhaps some of the mystery previously associated with the band was missing, and most of the songs on side two are more “interesting” rather than being songs that I would consider as album highlights, but the band's increased accessibility (on certain songs) and sonic clarity finally allowed them to escape the college radio circuit. Indeed, Document provided the band with their first taste of significant mainstream success, and it was their final I.R.S. release before moving on to Warner Brothers for obscene amounts of money.
Green (Warner Bros. ‘88) Rating: B
After R.E.M. bolted for Warner Brothers’ greener ($$) pastures, I.R.S. cashed in with the misleadingly titled Eponymous, an enjoyable but unsatisfyingly skimpy 12-song compilation of the I.R.S. years. R.E.M. then released their major label debut, Green, which was less than ecstatically received by both critics and fans, though in retrospect it was another strong album overall. The album certainly begins well enough, as the punchy “Pop Song 89” is an irresistibly catchy pop winner that immediately outlines the album’s primary themes (ecological concerns and politics), while “Get Up” provides a catchy, upbeat message of self-empowerment (the album’s other main theme). The album’s best known songs are probably “Stand,” an irritatingly infectious pop song that became the band's second top 10 hit and served as the theme song to Chris Elliott’s ridiculously silly but fondly remembered (at least by me) T.V. show Get A Life, and “Orange Crush,” an intense U2-esque arena rocker about the effects of Agent Orange. The surprisingly noisy "Turn You Inside Out" is another solid rocker, as is the darkly atmospheric “I Remember California,” but much of the rest of the album is devoted to richly emotional if melodramatic ballads such as “You Are The Everything” (the best such effort), “The Wrong Child,” and “Hairshirt,” which feature the type of baroque instrumentation (mandolins, cellos, accordions, etc.) that would be used even more prominently on the band’s eclectic next album. In fact, good though this album is, in retrospect it seems like a test run for its more successful immediate successors, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, as the pop songs are somewhat fluffy and the ballads tend to be a bit overblown. Not that you shouldn't own this one as well, as it contains other notable songs such as “World Leader Pretend,” a powerfully moody track with more embellishments (piano, pedal steel guitar, cello), and the charmingly upbeat and melodic 11th track. Still, that an untitled track is one of the album's best songs exemplifies how Green lacks a strong overall identity and truly classic tracks, and though it was another satisfying collection of songs, in the hierarchy of R.E.M. albums Green ranks as a worthwhile but hardly essential also-ran.
Out Of Time (Warner Bros. ‘91) Rating: A
With nary an electric guitar in sight, R.E.M. released Out Of Time, which became their big commercial breakthrough. Largely on the back of the evocative, haunting hit single “Losing My Religion” (and we’re talking about a massive hit this time, in large part due to its much-viewed video), Out Of Time made R.E.M. one of the biggest bands in the world (they had long been one of the best). Featuring eclectic instrumentation such as mandolins, piano/organ, and lush strings (beautifully arranged by Mark Bingham), this simple, low-key affair turns down the political posturing for a more personal lyrical approach. The album is basically comprised of a handful of brilliant pop songs surrounded by often-lovely if hard to remember at first mood pieces, and it’s also notable for a couple of Mike Mills lead vocals and high profile guest appearances from rapper KRS-One and the B52's Kate Pierson. Unfortunately, KRS-One’s annoying yammering somewhat sabotages the otherwise strong “Radio Song,” but Pierson’s charming harmonies greatly enhance the enjoyably upbeat anthem “Shiny Happy People” (which a lot of people seem to loathe but which I love for its mindless infectiousness) and the superlative sing along “Me In Honey,” which also contains one of Stipe’s best lyrics (an “answer song” to 10,000 Maniacs “Eat For Two,” it’s about an unplanned pregnancy from the male’s point of view). Elsewhere, bassist Mike Mills gets vocal spotlights on two of my all-time favorite R.E.M. songs, proving his mettle on both the ethereal beauty of “Near Wild Heaven” (whose layered harmonies, including Stipe, are what really makes it special) and the brilliantly dreamy, more up-tempo, strings-heavy “Texarkana,” which is also musically anchored by Mills' sturdy bass work. Elsewhere, “Low” is a stark keyboard and bass-led mood piece, while the largely instrumental “Endgame” delivers gorgeously lush, summery atmospherics, further demonstrating the versatile talents of a band in top form. After subdued spoken word verses, the jangly guitars and soaring chants of “Belong” again shows why this is among the band's best harmony albums, while the emotional keyboard and harpsichord dominated ballad “Half A World Away” and the aptly titled “Country Feedback,” featuring particularly intense and affecting Stipe vocals alongside some Neil Young-like guitar, are also well worth the price of admission (actually, after additional listens I’ve come to consider “Country Feedback” one of the band’s best deep album cuts ever). The end result is the band’s poppiest, one of their most adventurous, and one of their best overall outings, and it was a smashing success on every level despite its dearth of basic rock 'n' roll (this is a pop album through and through). This was more than compensated for by the consistently terrific music and the atypical approach taken by its now superstar practitioners.
Automatic For The People (Warner Bros ‘92) Rating: A+
Released a mere year after Out Of Time, this darkly brooding but beautiful album was R.E.M.’s absolute masterpiece. A quietly somber affair whose primary themes were death and mourning (and AIDS), it was a testament to R.E.M.’s loyal fan base and their own unquestionable integrity that this intensely personal album sold so well (14 million copies worldwide). Granted, I can see why some people find the album overly dreary and therefore boring, as it can be a little slow going at times, but overall I think it's a beautifully conceived album that's greater than the sum of its parts. Besides, it does contain a couple of quirky R.E.M. rockers in “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” (dig this clever tribute to The Tokens) and “Ignoreland,” which musically recalls late-period Who and lyrically sees Stipe in political rant mode (though it's rush of words aren't quite as extreme or as imaginative as those on "It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”). Then again, fine though those songs are, they sound a little out of place amid all the surrounding sadness, and where the album really achieves its already classic status is on several brilliant ballads. On “Try Not To Breathe” an old man holds onto what little time he has left with a quiet dignity, while “Everybody Hurts” (the album’s biggest single, again greatly boosted by a memorable video) offered a universal statement of togetherness and hope that everybody could relate to, connecting in a direct (almost corny) manner that R.E.M. would never have even attempted earlier in their career. This may be elevator music, but it's really good, intensely emotional elevator music, and by and large these are really good songs, most of which feature the spiritual sounds of a Hammond organ, brushed drums, acoustic guitar, and the occasional classy string section (tastefully arranged by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones in a most surprising but spectacularly successful collaboration), electric guitar interjection (as on the memorably mournful "Sweetness Follows"), and/or more exotic instrumentation a la Green and Out Of Time. Saving the best for last, this expertly sequenced album (for example, "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" is a nice fluffy change of pace after the draining heaviness of "Everybody Hurts") builds powerfully towards the last three songs, all of which are among R.E.M.'s very best. “Man On The Moon” is a whimsical ode to the late comedian Andy Kaufman and Elvis Presley that features mellow verses and a brighter pop chorus, while the atmospheric “Nightswimming” is a brilliantly evocative and majestic piano ballad (with beautiful oboe/clarinet as well, not to mention some cello and viola here and there) before “Find The River” ends the album with another timeless, musically gorgeous ballad, this one boosted by melodica accompaniment, airy harmonies, and poetic lyrics like "watch the road and memorize, this life that pass before my eyes." Really, after that fantastic late album climax (arguably the finest final three songs on any album ever) I can hardly remember some of the less inspired earlier songs and, together with Out Of Time, these albums barely edge out the band's earliest recordings (Murmur and Reckoning) as representing R.E.M.'s career peak, certainly so if artistic merit and commercial impact are considered.
Monster (Warner Bros ‘94) Rating: B
Feeling they had taken their recent mellower direction as far as they could and wanting to create some songs that they could play live in the large arenas they would play to on their subsequent world tour, their first in over five years, R.E.M. switched gears by turning up the electric guitars and making a loud rock album. This was R.E.M.’s grunge album, which made them seem like followers rather than the leaders they had always been, grunge being all the rage at the time (though theirs is a decidedly glammy take on grunge). Also, though the band remained capable songwriters with plenty of personality, that personality is too often buried beneath a murky mix. Still, the primary problem with Monster is in its lack of variety: most of these songs feature Buck in super cool fuzzed out guitar mode (heavy on the tremolo effects), with Stipe’s restrained vocals (which sometimes sound as if they're being sung through a megaphone) mixed way back behind solid but unspectacular Mills/Berry grooves. Whereas Automatic For The People was an album that was greater than the sum of its parts, Monster is just the opposite. Songs such as "Crush With Eyeliner," "King Of Comedy," Bang and Blame," and "I Took Your Name" would sound good as stand-alone singles on the radio, but the one-dimensional nature of these songs and others makes Monster monotonous over the long haul. I also miss the band’s harmonies, which appear here only in rare instances, and the songwriting is the band's weakest in some time as well. For example, though I appreciate the up-tempo riffs and overall groove of "Star 69," the hooks aren't as easily graspable as they could've been. Likewise, "Let Me In" and "You" establish pretty cool moods up to a point, but neither song offers much in terms of memorable songwriting (though the former song is emotionally resonant due to its subject matter – Kurt Cobain); the feedback-fueled "Circus Envy" also too often thrashes about with no real sense of purpose, though I do like the song’s more upbeat chorus. Fortunately, "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" is better, with a subtle, nuanced vocal from Stipe that sticks and a welcome lowering of the decibel levels. Additional highlights include “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” the album's stellar, hard-hitting first single which had fans breaking out their long dormant air guitars (the backstory behind the song is fun as well), “Strange Currencies,” which showed that epic Automatic-styled balladry was still alive and well, and "Tongue," an organ and piano-based ballad that featured an appealing r&b-based falsetto vocal from Stipe. On the whole, Monster is notable for featuring some of Stipe’s most sexually explicit lyrics, and it admirably sees the band stretching out beyond their comfort zone. However, despite having its fair share of good songs the entire effort seems somewhat forced in the hands of R.E.M., who simply aren’t a hard rock band at heart. Note: The subsequent world tour was a disaster, with calamity upon calamity befalling the band, the most serious of which was Berry’s life threatening brain aneurysm.
New Adventures In Hi-Fi (Warner Bros. ‘86) Rating: A-
This ambitious album was recorded across America while on tour, sometimes during sound checks and in dressing rooms, and it therefore has a raw, live feel that's most welcome after the overly processed Monster. My biggest issue with the album is that R.E.M. finally succumbed to the rampant cd-era problem of overly long albums. Indeed, at 14 songs and 65-minutes this is R.E.M.'s longest album to date by far, and it would’ve been better at around 10-11 songs and 50 minutes (or thereabouts). Still, though a few so-so songs drags the overall album down a bit, New Adventures In Hi-Fi nevertheless contains some of the band’s very best and most unique songs. Sure, it was a relative commercial failure, but my theory is that this was a belated reaction to the disappointment of Monster, which had been a #1 hit and had shifted mega-millions before the complaints started coming in. Anyway, strong album opener “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us” sees Stipe in evocative storyteller mode, a pretty acoustic/electric melody and breathy vocals mark the excellent “New Test Leper,” and “Be Mine” is a simple yet epic semi-ballad with a restrained vocal, a romantic lyric, and some impressively escalating guitars. Elsewhere, the first single may not have been a commercial success, in fact it was a complete flop (in fact, you could argue that, commercially speaking, the band never quite recovered from its failure), but the Patti Smith collaboration “E-Bow The Letter” is flat-out brilliant, matching her haunting backing vocals with a brooding melody to devastating effect, while the churning power drill riffs (or siren calls; take your pick) of “Leave” propel an awesomely surging groove that lasts for over seven intense minutes, another R.E.M. record. This often-atmospheric album contains many a well-placed keyboard part, but there’s also a fair amount of loud electric guitars on fine riff driven rockers such as “The Wake Up Bomb,” “Undertow,” and “Departure,” all of which see the welcome return of Mike Mills' harmonies as well. Other stellar songs on this well-rounded record include "Bittersweet Me," which features mellow verses before the nasty riffs kick in that lead into an intensely rocking chorus, and "Electrolite," an excellent finale whose lovely melody wouldn't have sounded out of place on Automatic For The People. Alas, this song props up what is otherwise a weak ending to the album, and had R.E.M. better edited their material they might've had a major classic on their hands. New Adventures is still a really good album that's among R.E.M.'s most underrated efforts, as it combines the melancholic eclecticism of the band's early '90s albums with a louder rock edge, only these rockers are more cleanly recorded and accessible than most of Monster. That the end result doesn't sound like a compromise but often instead gives fans the best of both worlds is a testament to the band's talent, and this album closed the book on the Bill Berry era in fine fashion.
Up (Warner Bros. ‘98) Rating: B
R.E.M. had always promised to break up if any members left the band, but when Bill Berry amicably parted ways with the band they decided to continue on without him as a trio. Up was R.E.M.’s first album minus Berry and also longtime producer Scott Litt, who was replaced by Pat McCarthy. The band’s unique solution in replacing the dear departed Berry was to make the album a largely drum-less affair. Also, Mike Mills actually plays guitar and keyboards (which are the albums dominant instrument) more often than his typical bass duties, which are more often than not played by lead guitarist Peter Buck. Alas, like the previous album only more so this one is way too long at 14 songs and 64 minutes, especially since few of the individual songs are memorable. Rather, Up sees R.E.M. attempting to create a consistently lovely overall mood rather than concentrating on individual songs, the best of which are “Suspicion,” a nice Air-y ballad, “At My Most Beautiful” which is R.E.M. at their most beautiful (and of course mention must be made of the song’s charming “doo doo” backing vocals), “Daysleeper,” an emotional, memorable big ballad, and "Falls To Climb" another lovely keyboard-based ballad with one of Stipe’s most heartfelt and dramatic vocals on the album. On the flip side of that coin, "Lotus" received some airplay and was a rare song here that could even remotely be described as "rocking," but personally I find Stipe's overly affected vocals on this track annoying. Elsewhere, there are other good songs (“Sad Professor” and “Walk Unafraid,” for example), some of which are decided “growers,” but there's also a fair amount of songs that seem interchangeable or which drift pleasantly by but I can’t remember a single thing about them afterwards. Don't get me wrong, these dreamy, at times almost ambient mood pieces make Up a good, relaxing album to go to sleep to, but the majority of this album is comprised of background music, and as such it can get pretty boring if you're giving the album your undivided attention. Also, Stipe generally uses a somber, sleepy tone that's too often bereft of emotion, though the band remains resourceful musically, using Buck’s collection of old-fashioned rhythm machines and analog synthesizers to litter unusual electronic effects throughout the album’s 14 atmospheric songs (remember, "electronica" was all the rage in 1998, and “Hope” is an enjoyable groovy genre experiment in that idiom). All in all, the album proved that, artistically speaking (it was another commercial disappointment), R.E.M. remained a creative force to be reckoned with, with or without Bill Berry, but it nevertheless contains few songs that I'd deem essential (probably only "At My Most Beautiful" and "Daysleeper"), and it's fairly disposable when one considers the many better R.E.M. albums available.
Reveal (Warner Bros. ’01) Rating: B
Continuing in the mellow, understated style of Up, only even more mellow and one-dimensional, Reveal is of a similar (perhaps slightly lesser) quality, though it’s thankfully shorter at 54 minutes, which you’ll know is a good thing if you read the previous two reviews (and even then this album is still too long). “The Lifting” immediately sets the album’s lush, summery tone, and “I’ve Been High” contains a moving vocal from Stipe, even if musically this electro-ballad is about as bland as a Phil Collins ballad. The melodic, dreamy next track “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna be a Star)" is the album’s catchiest and best song along with “Imitation Of Life,” one of the rare songs here that actually ups the tempo and the energy level. Most of the rest of the strings and synthesizer-laden songs here kinda come and go, though the majority of them are perfectly pleasant while they’re sticking around, even if it’s hard to get overly excited about any of them. Still, given the band’s extensive back catalogue I’d argue that it’s all gravy at this point, so if they want to play mellow “old people music” and dabble with their various electronic toys while delivering approximately four or five memorable songs plus pleasant fluff per album, well, haven’t they earned that right 20 years into their absurdly productive career? Anyway, the best of the rest are probably the gently melodic “Beat A Drum” and “I’ll Take The Rain,” a beautifully evocative ballad that starts simply but eventually builds into something of an epic. Other songs such as "The Lifting," “She Just Wants To Be,” and “Chorus And The Ring” have grown on me as well, but again it is the albums relaxed, soothing ambiance that one remembers rather than individual songs, too many of which are nondescript or boring for me to give this album any more than a moderate recommendation. The album’s overly glossy production (again overseen by McCarthy) doesn’t do them any favors, either, but on the plus side the band’s songwriting remains strong for a bunch of old geezers, and Reveal is an effective "mood album" provided that you're in the proper mood for it (think lazy Sunday mornings rather than Friday or Saturday nights).
Around The Sun (Warner Bros. ’04) Rating: C
After another should've-been-better "best of" compilation, In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003, R.E.M. officially slid into easy listening irrelevance on the weak Around The Sun. Simply put, most of these sleep inducing songs are horribly nondescript and lack any kind of sonic punch, though the first single, “Leaving New York” (an affecting ballad with an excellent Stipe vocal), “I Wanted To Be Wrong” (another ballad, surprise surprise), and maybe one or two others are at least above average. In all honesty, I’m too bored with this album to attentively listen to it again to try to point out interesting details about individual songs. On the whole, most of these songs are musically built around acoustic guitars and bright synthesizers, with the occasional overdone synthetic drums (which serve only to irritate) and electric guitar (along with Mike Mills’ bass, of course). I just don’t get the feeling that this album needed to be made, and though effort is occasionally apparent in a song such as “High Speed Train,” the album lacks the attention to detail and cool noises in the background that at least made Up mildly interesting. The album’s absolute nadir is ”The Outsiders,” which features a guest rap (what, KRS-One almost ruining “Radio Song” wasn’t enough?) from Q-Tip as the band tries to stay hip. Instead, they come across as desperate and maybe even a little pathetic, which is no way for one of the best bands of the past 20 years to be. Here’s hoping that R.E.M. either regroup and stage a surprising late career comeback or that they toss in the towel and regain a little bit of lost dignity, albeit an album too late.
And I Feel Fine… The Best Of The I.R.S. Years (1982-1987) (EMI/I.R.S. Records) Rating: A
As mentioned previously, R.E.M. had previously released a couple of compilations, and this one essentially replaces the previous Eponymous collection since it focuses on the same time period but digs considerably deeper, containing 21 tracks as opposed to the 12 offered up on Eponymous. Essentially, this album takes four songs apiece from Murmur (“Radio Free Europe,” “Talk About The Passion,” “Sitting Still,” “Perfect Circle”), Reckoning (“Pretty Persuasion,” “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” “7 Chinese Bros.,” “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” Fables Of The Reconstruction (“Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There From Here” (single version), “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” “Life and How to Live It”), Lifes Rich Pageant (“Begin The Begin,” “I Believe,” “Cuyahoga,” “Fall On Me”), and Document (“Finest Worksong,” “The One I Love,” “Welcome To The Occupation,” “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”), while also adding “Gardening At Night” from Chronic Town. I could lodge a few complaints, like the absence of a few personal favorites like “Pilgrimage,” “Superman,” “Maps and Legends,” and “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars),” and the seemingly random sequencing (I think sequencing the set chronologically would’ve better showed their artistic growth and stylistic changes over the years). These amount to minor nitpicks, however, given how stellar the vast majority of these songs are, as most of the tracks picked were the obvious yet correct choices to represent the band’s I.R. S. era, which produced some of their very best stuff even if they had some terrific material later on as well. Note: This album is available as a single CD (my preferred version which is therefore the one I’m reviewing), a less consistent 2-CD set (42 tracks in all), plus a third version which adds the When The Light Is Mine DVD to the 2-CD set.
Accelerate (Warner Bros. ’08) Rating: B+
To continue where I left off on my Around the Sun review... Fortunately, the band decided to stage a surprising comeback, consistently rocking out on a smartly concise 11-track, 35-minute album that sound-wise recalls mid-'80s albums like Lifes Rich Pageant and Document. I wouldn't quite put this album at that high level, but it is the band's best post-Berry album to date, as a re-energized R.E.M. obviously heard the critics of their recent output and decided to emphasize the guitars again at long last. Stipe too sounds much more engaged this time out, and Mills' long-lost harmonies often reappear as well and are always welcome. On the downside, some of these songs, such as (the still quite good) "Man-Sized Wreath," sound a little too familiar, and the album lacks the all-time classic R.E.M. songs of their very best albums. That said, Accelerate is extremely enjoyable from start to finish, and is all the more so since it seemed unlikely that I'd ever say that again about an R.E.M. album after the dispiriting failure that was Around The Sun. Among the hard-charging, riff-driven highlights are "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" (dig its music and its lyrical conceit), "Supernatural Superserious" (the album's first single and a damn good one at that), the moody, intense, rocking title track, and the anthemic, air guitar-worthy “Mr. Richards,” while mellower entries such as "Hollow Man" (whose more upbeat chorus is rousingly self-lacerating) and especially "Until The Day Is Done" (which has the instant feel of a classic R.E.M. ballad) are impressive as well. The rest of the album is less impressive, but the sparse keyboard-led semi-ballad “Houston” and "Sing For The Submarine" (a comparative epic at 4:50) are winningly atmospheric, and the short last two tracks, the punk-ish "Horse To Water" and the annoyingly silly but still sort of fun “I’m Gonna DJ,” at least add some needed variety. New producer Jacknife Lee recorded Accelerate with minimal fuss, a smart strategy after their overly labored last few albums, while drummer Bill Rieflin and multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey (ex-Young Fresh Fellows and current The Minus 5, which also features Buck) help flesh out the band’s sound, which is agreeably aggressive and stripped-down, as R.E.M. on the whole seem reinvigorated.
Live At The Olympia (Warner Bros. ’09) Rating: A-
R.E.M. have pretty much done it all: consistently very good and occasionally even great albums, a slew of classic songs some of which were major hits, and a reputation for being a solid live band. Really, the only thing that they haven't done is deliver a great live album - until now that is. Recorded at Ireland’s Olympia Theatre in 2007, this 39-track, double disc live album is a big improvement on their prior such attempt, 2007’s R.E.M. Live, as the performances are energetic, exciting, and consistently rocking. The lively crowd is into it too, even on the many then not yet released songs from Accelerate, some of which (most notably “Supernatural Superserious”) had yet to find their final form. The majority of the songs are from their ‘80s I.R.S. albums, and the set list is definitely for the dedicated fan rather than the casual fan who knows them from their radio hits, none of which you’ll find here. Rather, this is a “for the fans” memento, as most of the selections here are comprised of deep album tracks, some of which I wouldn’t have picked myself but the overall effect is extremely impressive and shows just how rich and varied the band’s songbook is. Whether delivering songs from Chronic Town or Reckoning, or later Warner Bros. albums like Monster or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, in this live setting the songs throughout the band’s career all seem of a piece with one another, and it is coming to this realization while listening to Live At The Olympia that is arguably the album's most impressive achievement. Again, the song selection is occasionally questionable (a few quintessential R.E.M. hits would’ve been nice), I could live without Stipe’s at times uncomfortable between song banter, and the performances, though consistently strong, are a bit more straightforward than I’d like (plus there’s not so much as a single cover song). Still, this is a really good live album that shows why R.E.M. are one of the best American rock bands of all-time. Note: After one more album, Collapse Into Now (2011), the career of R.E.M. officially ended when they amicably called it quits.
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