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SXSW Dispatch #4: R.E.M. is back (well, sort of)

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Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M. perform on "Austin City Limits" on Thursday Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman

Once upon a time, up-and-coming bands came to SXSW in the hopes of leaving with a record deal. Since the industry as it once was is essentially in its death throes, bands on the rise now come with the hope of building regional success and Internet buzz into broader success by playing for booking agents, managers, the people who place songs in movies and TV shows and of course the dwindling number of professional DJs and critics.

Established bands and superstars come for the same reason they’ve always come: To try to relaunch their careers. And the major act with that goal at SXSW XXII has been R.E.M., which played a highly anticipated showcase at Stubb’s on Wednesday.

Just as the t-shirts here read “Keep Austin Weird,” the New Jersey city where I spent my formative years trumpets “I Remember Hoboken When Hoboken Was Hoboken.” I first saw R.E.M. perform at Hoboken’s venerated rock club Maxwell’s when I snuck in as an underage teen in 1983, not that long after the release of its first EP, “Chronic Town.” So I remember R.E.M. when R.E.M. was R.E.M. And for my money, the band hasn’t been since the mid-’90s.

“Monster” (1994) and “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” (1996) had moments, but this was clearly an artistic entity running out of gas. By “Up” (1998) and ever since, it’s essentially been R.E.M. in name only –though every album in the last 14 years has been greeted with claims from diehards boosters that “R.E.M. is back” and “they’ve finally made a rock record again.”

Once again, “Accelerate,” the band’s new album due for release on April 1, is prompting those claims. Because I wanted to wait until I saw the band live in Texas, I haven’t spun the disc yet, so I can’t say if the enthusiasm is warranted. But the hour-long set I witnessed Thursday afternoon as the band taped an appearance to run on “Austin City Limits” in May definitely was better than all of the shows I’ve witnessed since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry.

Now a quintet with founding members Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills augmented by second guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin, the group played most of the songs from the new album, with the rollicking openers “Living Well's the Best Revenge” and “Mansized Wreath,” the single “Supernatural Superserious” and “Hollow Man,” the sole new ballad, emerging as the standouts.

At times during the intimate ACL show, it did indeed seem as if R.E.M. might be recovering a measure of former glories. But when the band turned to some classics from its catalog – “So. Central Rain,” “Drive” and especially the heartbreakingly gorgeous “Fall on Me” – you realized that while the new material is better than much of what it’s released of late, it still isn’t as good as the group’s best from 1982 to 1992.

Sure, we can give the band a partial pass for the fact that it’s just warming up, and its Austin shows really were just soundchecks for a major tour expected to come to the United Center in June. Yet for this longtime fan, the sure sign that all is not yet right was how little the core members interacted: Stipe and Buck exchanged a few whispers but barely looked at each other, and neither ever looked at Mills.

Buck used to like to tell the story of how R.E.M. opened for the Police at Shea Stadium in 1983 and were aghast to see Sting and his bandmates all arrive in separate limos; his group would never be like that, Buck promised.

These favorite sons of Athens, GA, may be enjoying playing with each other again. But the jury is still out on whether or not they like each other any more.

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5 Comments

I was a diehard R.E.M. fan until I rediscovered the criminally overlooked Australian band, namely, The Church. The latter have a dreamy, haunting, ethereal and surreal sound. The Church are a hybrid of The Byrds, Pink Floyd, U2 and Radiohead. Lyricist and vocalist Steve Kilbey is a mixture of Syd Barrett, David Bowie, John Lennon and Jim Kerr. Church masterpiece CDs include "After Everything Now This", "Hologram of Baal", "Forget Yourself", "Priest=Aura" "Uninvited Like The Clouds" and "Starfish". Their "Under The Milky Way" hit single was a prelude to greater songs that they have composed in the past 15 years. The Church supplanted R.E.M. on my modest CD player.

As a fan I would agree with your assertion that R.E.M.'s best music was from 1982 to 1992, the other argument that could be made was that no other band could claim to have released so much great material over that same stretch of time.

I have disagreed with your points about a couple of R.E.M.'s albums particularly Monster, which was very different than anything that was being released at the time not a grunge record by any stretch of the imagination. I think that Up is also an album that is worth sinking your teeth into. Reminiscent of Fables of the Reconstruction the album is very muddy and feels a way to be incomplete as if the band had no idea how to replace Bill Berry. However, the end product relays that emotion to the listener. It is an album that took me a long time to really get into but at some point it began to click.

I think the last two albums the band seemed to have been going through the motions. I think that R.E.M. has always been a band that has always been about their convictions and their beliefs and there really didn't seem to be any. I seem to have remembered an interview you did with Peter Buck after Around the Sun where as far as the "Status of R.E.M." at the time that Peter felt the band could not just break up because of the office staff, etc. that worked with them. It sounded like a person that was not actively engaged with what he was doing.

Honestly, there were a lot of things that I believed in 1983 which are different than what I believe now. I think the question of whether "R.E.M. is back or not" is whether there is still that passion and conviction to make music together.

Jim, I understand that for a teen coming of age in 1983, R.E.M.'s "demise" has been one of the sadder chronologies of your adult life. I don't see it that way. You can rip on "Up" and "Reveal" all you want, and you can say "Around the Sun" was a sleepy record, but R.E.M. is still for me in the company of only Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and projects featuring Tim DeLaughter: artists whose records I always anticipate greatly. Seldom (except for "Monster," which remains for R.E.M. what "Under the Red Sky" is for Dylan) has R.E.M. completely misfired. I mean, would you say "I'll Take the Rain" is a crappy ballad, or that "Imitation of Life" isn't yet another brilliant jangle-pop single, or that, in its weirdness, there isn't something genius about "Hope?"

I'm not saying that everything by the band is awesome. I AM saying that their back catalog would be enough to prove their greatness, but that their latest outings have been plenty good to keep me coming back for more.

Well, they look like they are having fun and enjoying each other's company here.

I've heard the new record, and regardless of how it may stack up in the canon, it's the most fun record they've ever made.

They've made better records (Murmur, Automatic) and other rock records (Life's Rich Pageant, New Adventures) but this is the most out and out fun record I can remember them making - see MAN SIZED WREATH.

And HOUSTON and LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE would fit very nicely on Life's Rich Pageant or Document.

Good to have them engaged and plugged in again.

Jim,

You nailed it. Having grown up in Nashville I have followed REM since the Radio Free Europe HibTone single which i bought on Elliston Square from a friend who was working at a local record store. They were the gold standard during my college years and have had very good fortune to see many of their shows through the years. There is a cohesiveness and unity as a rock band that is MIA and has been since the early 1990s. In short, there's no passion-no rock left in them. It's somewhat depressing as while it is certainly harder to "rock" as you get older and succesful-whether as a fan or a band. It can be done if even somewhat sporadically. I can't count how many bands I've seen that are now 20-30 years old that still can bring it. Radio Birdman last year or heck Iggy with the Stooges being prime examples. The difference? Probably not living quite as comfortably as REM so perhaps more hunger but definitely more passion. I'm frankly surprised that they get off as easy as they do. Good and honest call on this one. You should go to whatever forms as heaven for rock critics. Until then I will continue to wait with you for the return of the REM we remember from our youth and that just like when Neil Young destroyed on Saturday Night Live after all had counted him out that we can breath a sigh of relief and say they are back, even if just for a fleeting second.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on March 14, 2008 2:06 AM.

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