Monday, July 23, 2007

I'm not one to sit and spin, but living well's the best revenge...

In my "later years," I've realized that being a huge R.E.M. fan means I have to also be a huge critic. Even their older songs need to go under the microscope, because to really appreciate them, and not just be a blind disciple, you need to recognize their missteps to appreciate their beauty. And I think this guy does a great job of that. But I think their newer stuff, especially, makes it easier to be a critic. In fact, their newer stuff largely renders them irrelevant even to fans such as myself. They were never the world's most dangerous band, and seemed to relish releasing singles based on mandolin lines and largely hookless songs held togther by stunningly subtle and beautiful bass lines ("E-bow the Letter"), but they were capable of some jaw-droppingly gorgeous moments. Hell, a lot more moments on one album than most bands could claim in a whole career.

So at the beginning of this month, R.E.M. performed five "working rehearsals" in Dublin, working out their new material. I downloaded the new stuff here, and they are what you'd expect froma bootleg: muddled sound quality, the audio picking up conversation in the audience. But from what I can make out, the shows really capture a band willing to make up for lost time. I'll go to bat for Up in a second, but Reveal and Around the Sun are, for the most part, pieces of shit. I think losing Bill really dealt a blow to their dynamic; Up is an interesting album because it was the band trying to find their way after the first real drama (besides the medical problems of the Monster tour), and that's why I defend it. Michael said something during that recording period along the lines of "a three-legged dog needs to figure out how to walk." And they tried. But the other two post-Berry albums are the sound of a band settling, without ever really deciding their new sound.

But one thing they had was their live shows. R.E.M. will never be U2 or Springsteen, but they put on a show, and a lot of their stuff benefits from the live setting. Songs like "Walk Unafraid" and "The Apologist," while fine on record, are different animals live, capturing the stridency and menace that both songs deserve, but didn't achieve as recorded. (At the same time, when I saw them on the Vote for Change tour, nothing could save "Leaving New York" or "All the Way to Reno.") And the new stuff really captures this, revealing a band that I think recognizes the extra charge their stuff gets when performed live. It sounds like it's going to be a rock album and will hopefully be more "These Days" than "Bad Day." It gives me hope for the first time in a while.

Besides Bill, I think the loss of Scott Litt as producer was also a huge blow. He could weave together disparate sounds into a cohesive whole, downplaying some parts that lesser producers would have driven into the ground, while given all elements their due. On first glance, I saw the choice of Jacknife Lee as producer was a last-ditch grab at relevance, and maybe it is. I really don't think his work on A Weekend in the City is anything to be proud of, but he could prove me wrong. I lived with the belief that Jim O'Rourke ruined Superchunk's Come Pick Me Up until I heard his work on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and realized Superchunk had just written a bunch of middling songs. God bless Lee if he takes these songs and fleshes them out while still capturing some of the live passion (and leaves the electronic sound effects to the Pat McCarthy era). At this point in the game he may have his work cut out for him, making R.E.M. relevant again, but who cares about relevance? For someone who ranks R.E.M. above Springsteen and the Stones as his favorite band, I just want him to help make them relevant to me again.


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