The legends of Athens, Ga., have returned to remind us that they have always been here: you know, that band in the shadows, the one lurking on half the radio's dials, the one with, like, 20 hit singles. Remember?
Before the macarena, R.E.M. had folks hopping around all goofy in the late '80s with their Stand album. Oh, the golden years of MTV.
Michael Stipe and pals are not exactly the "shiny happy people" of years past these days; this year's election results have likely rendered them a bit defused. Stipe, along with bandmates Mike Mills and Peter Buck, joined Pearl Jam, James Taylor, Dave Matthews, the Dixie Chicks and Bruce Springsteen for 36 five-and-a-half-hour pro-Kerry shows in an October swing through 12 swing states, to no avail.
Though not necessarily a politically driven band lyrically, R.E.M., or Stipe more specifically, has often turned up in the spotlight to speak out on various current events. Thus, though Bush's re-election likely comes as a disappointment, upcoming shows will not suffer from the blow.
The band's first release since 2001, Around the Sun, continues to hold top spots on most European music charts and a foothold near the top 50 on U.S. charts. Around the Sun marks more than 20 years of consistent releases from the post-punk alt-rock pioneers of guitar pop.
R.E.M.'s latest 13-song offering captures the band in yet another evolution of its sound, style and technique. Initially critiqued by many as the band's worst album to date, Around the Sun has come full circle to complimentary reviews and critical acclaim. As is the case with many great artists and albums, a second or third listen to the material opens new doors and yields previously inaccessible gifts. The fourth rotation of Around the Sun is kind of like unclasping a latch on a vintage metal lunchbox to reveal a glowing, sweet red apple and some candy.
Stipe's inimitable vocals on these new tracks tiptoe around in a meandering path: sleepy, low key, soft, sedate. There are no cacophonous swipes at the guitar or loud outbursts of emotion; everything's Vaseline-lensed and dreamy. The primary lack of engagement on a listener's part may be attributed to certain continuity in tone and cohesion of the album as a whole. Around the Sun will go down on the books as a period piece for R.E.M. -- one soft rung on an eclectic ladder of sound, much like Beck's Sea Change.
A primary factor of the band's new sound is R.E.M.'s relatively recent shift in song conception, due to geographic factors. Buck now resides in Seattle, as Stipe and Mills hold down the traditional fort in Athens. Most of their songs are created individually as instrumental demos then passed over to Stipe, who adds the lyrics. Rarely will the future sound of R.E.M. be birthed from the studio as a group la early years.
(R.E.M.'s Denver show is sold out.)
-- Matthew Schniper
R.E.M. with Charlie Mars
The Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson St. at Colfax
Saturday, Nov. 27, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $55 general admission plus service charges; age 16+, SOLD OUT
Call 520-9090 or visit www.fillmoreauditorium.com