R.E.M.: All You Need To Know Right Now (more to come)

09Apr08

R.E.M. is back.

 

 

OK – so 12 days later, here’s what I know now: Accelerate isn’t just reminiscent of one of those classic R.E.M. albums that you consider from time to time, pull off the shelf  and even play all the way through to remind yourself how they once existed. It is one, which is to say they exist again — on day one I played Accelerate about five times, which is about as much play as I ever gave their last three albums put together. Those who convinced themselves to like thoughtful experiments like Up or earnest half-measures like Around the Sun will have a harder time getting it, either because they don’t want to get fooled again or because they don’t want to admit how easily they give in, but I feel vindicated. Fine, even. (The one that sounded most promising to me was Reveal , which I never got around to playing a second time, which says all you need to know.)

  There’s even a song about not giving in too damn easy, “Horse to Water,” which Michael Stipe has known he’s not at least since 1984’s “Second Guessing.” If he’s generally not so clear about exactly what he’s not giving in to, well, what else is new — if that bothers you so much you never fully got over not being able to make out all (hell, most) of the words on Murmur, and there’s no hope for you now. Jon Dolan in Blender is bothered that Stipe hasn’t suddenly evolved into a more astute observer of the issues that plague us, rather than spouting off about what’s got him rankled this morning. But while Stipe’s sometimes been on the money — ahead of the pop crowd’s new environmentalism with 1986’s “Cuyahoga,” nailing Dan Quayle succinctly on “World Leader Pretend,” released Election Day 1988, eerily portraying some combination of Donald Trump and some pre-Rove operative in Document‘s “Exhuming McCarthy” — usually he just indicates where he stands, which usually you already know, and how he feels about it, hopefully with a few choice phrases, and more to the point with Stipe, superbly nuanced vocals. So I’m just glad he sounds rankled again. I’m not delighted that Dolan pointed out that “Mr. Richards” isn’t about anybody more important or sinister than the guy who played Kramer and then roared a few unscripted comedy club n-words. But as with Stipe when he’s on, the venom is transferable, and he’s rarely sounded this pissed-off.  Peter Buck combines his tuneful Byrdsy patterns of ’82-’84  with his bruising riffs of Life’s Rich Pageant  and Monster for some of his best work, and post-Bill Berry tour drummer Bill Rieflin assures that there’s as much headlong onslaught here as on any of their previous albums. It’s true that the tunes take a while to make you feel them, which was also true on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, their last worthwhile album. But in both cases, although for different reasons, there’s enough reasons to keep playing until you’re convinced they don’t need them, and then you hear the tunes anyway.

  In fact, I got so excited that for a while I was planning this as part of an extensive look at the state of the influence of original punk/new wave in four new albums, but in the end none of the others deserved to be in the same post. Most obviously connected is the B-52s, the first band to put Athens, GA on the map (what, you thought Pylon?). I’m not familiar with every B-52’s album, including their last one. But that was 16 years ago, so anything halfway decent gets called a comeback anyway, and this is more. The grooves are no better than 50-somethings striking a balance between their history and their notions of currency. The hooks don’t rise up the way their kind of music usually needs even more than R.E.M.’s kind of music. But the words on at least 7 of 10 songs on Funplex parade a generosity of spirit and wit, tossing off three poignant-if-silly catchphrases per song where some other party band would try to get with one, or zero. If the hooklessness is a flat-out failure of imagination, the abundance of words isn’t just showing off or compensation, but key to the reason they say they made the album in the first place, which is that they wanted some fresh material for their stage act. That the recorded work is there to support the live show demonstrates why their albums never lived up to their concept, and that really always were a “tacky little dance band,” and also that they regard their purpose not as escapist but as life-affirming, so that even if the lead cut didn’t detour (vaguely) into goings on “down in Washington” you’d know that “Keep This Party Going” refers to life itself. Best of all, Fred, Cindy and Kate embody this by singing their asses off start to finish.

  Winding back up to 40 years in age (B-52 and two-time Michael Stipe duet partner Kate Pierson (whose New Jersey B&B Cele & I considered staying at a couple years ago) turns 60 April 27, while the band this paragraph concerns formed in college in 2006), we have Los Campesinos!, who combine the giddiness and glee of the B-52s while employing the driving rhythms and guitar orientations of the punks that also enthralled R.E.M.  However, after spending a lot of time with Los Campesinos!’ new album Hold On Now, Youngster, the words that stick in my head aren’t the opening lines or mid-album title quoted by Christgau, but “I cherish with fondness the day before I met you.” Now, I usually don’t mind the young, loud and snotty, but without some evidence that they’re referring to someone more important and sinister than Michael Richards, all I can respond is that I’m glad I haven’t met them. Like the above two in 2008, they also have trouble with tunes, which here especially means trouble distinguishing one tune from the next — more than once I had to check to make sure I hadn’t accidentally loaded the same song twice onto their album’s ipod playlist. So in the end I prefer 2007’s 16-minute, 5-songs-plus-fragment Sticking Fingers Into Sockets, which I originally pegged as too quizzical to make much impact at such brevity. But one advantage it has is that their hookiest tracks,  the sweet and self-deprecating and gleeful  “You! Me! Dancing!” and the sweetly rueful “Don’t Tell Me To Do The Math(s),” both on both records, take up of course a far higher proportion of time on the EP, and that the EP’s third-best, “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives,” is almost as good as “Drop It Doe Eyes” or any of the other second-level tracks. So check it out — their quizzical impact turns out to be that 16 minutes is all the attention they fully deserve right now.

    The fourth album I’d planned to include here is Vampire Weekend, which isn’t about vampires as far as I can tell — just a semi-random reference like Arcade Fire I figure. But while it also has its roots in music 30 years old, all I can say about all its nice breezy tunes is that their main antecedent isn’t Talking Heads or anyone else who sometimes shares their sometime interest in African rhythms, but XTC, circa Drums & Wires, which I haven’t heard in years and can’t seem to locate at the moment (the attic, must be.) Still, a good reminder that slash-and-burn and new ways of partying wasn’t all that the late-70s music revolution was about.

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