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[whitespace] R.E.M. Classical Athens--Georgia, That Is: On its new album, R.E.M. continues to 'Reveal' why talent matters.

Photograph by Anton Corbihn

Fabric of Our Lives

R.E.M.'s sound has permeated our sonic landscapes

By Gina Arnold

FORGET FOR A MINUTE those teeny-bopper bands--beautiful boys and skinny girls all dancing in unison. Forget hute-rock, rap-rock and rock en español. Those genres are certainly getting the lion's share of CD sales these days. Turn on the radio, however, and chances are high that you'll hear mid-tempo music with a lot of pretty chords and a male tenor voice singing about sensitive and deep subjects.

In short: music that sounds either a little bit or a lot like today's most influential act, R.E.M. Because its members are incredibly low-key, R.E.M. isn't the band that jumps instantly to mind when one thinks of rock & roll. And yet, over the last decade, the group's sound has stealthily permeated the sonic fabric of our lives--taking over movie theme songs, car ads, sitcom introductions and almost every type of radio format.

It's not R.E.M.'s music that's so inescapable but the sound the band invented--that airy, whooshy, jangly sound that someone once described as "sky-blue bells ringing out." Luckily, I like that sound a lot, but it must be hard not to become a parody of yourself when the main ambition of so many bands seems to be copying your style. Of course, most acts don't face such a dilemma, but then, R.E.M. isn't most acts.

Some 20 years into the band's career--a number that makes the members older than almost every other modern-rock act--R.E.M. is extant and churning out an LP about every two years with no obvious break in skill, interest or quality control.

Reveal (Warner Bros.) is the band's, uh, 15th LP (including Chronic Town and excluding several of the best-of and compilation records). Although not the band's best effort (or even in its top five), Reveal still beats hell out of the new releases by Lit, Travis, Semisonic, Matchbox 20 and a host of other R.E.M.-influenced acts.

In truth, R.E.M. really has no peers in terms of continuity and consistency. Why? Is the band so very talented, so head and shoulders above the throng? I guess the answer must be "Yes." The band doesn't seem like it in person, or even if one isolates any given song, but no other explanation for R.E.M.'s incredible longevity really works.

Granted, Reveal will not blow away the critics (like 1999's Up) or earn the band a host of new, young fans. But it will be played with pleasure by most people over 25, who will add all 12 songs to the soundtrack of their lives.

AT FIRST LISTEN, Reveal is all texture and lyrics. R.E.M. is never exactly unmelodic, but immediately catchy tunes are not in evidence here. You do hear a lot of organ and atmospherics of the type often associated with U2 (and indeed, parts of this album were recorded in Dalkey, Dublin, where Bono lives).

Musically, Michael Stipe's voice is the most prominent feature on the record, and his lyrics are, as always, graceful, if somewhat oblique. The guy has never been known to write an embarrassing couplet (or even a couplet, per se).

But even so, he sometimes has trouble conveying a clear emotional meaning, relying instead on a sort of overall frisson built up from an accumulation of words. The opening track, "The Lifting," is slightly reminiscent of "Daysleeper" (from Up) in feel, invoking high-tech times with vague references to seminars and conference rooms. The new single "Imitation of Life" is said (by Stipe himself) to be a critique of Hollywood and filmmaking, but if so, it has no bite: "That's sugar cane, that tasted good, that's cinnamon, that's Hollywood" is hardly a polemic.

"All the Way to Reno" displays more guts, as does "She Just Wants to Be," which is a rare R.E.M. song with an actual narrative--and a nice acoustic guitar hook.

My own favorites are "Disappear" and the beautiful "Beat a Drum," which contains some of Stipe's most evocative writing to date ("A blue jay hectors from the felled catalpa tree"), but a number of other songs--"Summer Turns to High," "I'll Take the Rain" and the elegiac "Beach Ball"--seem to be solely about the weather.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The weather is a perfectly good subject for a band as evocative as R.E.M. can be. Indeed, every time I listen to a new R.E.M. record, I am reminded of a minor miracle: after all, they are possibly the only American band in existence that has never once not been arty. How in the hell did a band that doesn't write love songs ever get this popular?

DESPITE ITS undoubted superstardom, R.E.M.'s record sales have diminished considerably in recent years--the natural consequence of going up against all those imitators and trendy young things. Even Up was considered a disappointment, saleswise, despite its good reviews and a rare summer tour.

A few weeks ago, R.E.M. guitarist Pete Buck was arrested for air rage on a jet to London, an incident that was singularly out of character (as anyone who saw him hawking Minus Five CDs at the Bottom of the Hill a few months ago can attest); last week, Stipe (finally) came out of the closet in Time Magazine. These may seem like typical rock-band-with-a-new-CD-to-promote tactics, but R.E.M. is not typical, and don't you forget it.

In fact, R.E.M. has undergone a giant transformation in recent years. When the band began, its members were arty-hippie-punk rockers who lived and worked in sleepy Athens, Ga., and whose music (very untrendily then) hearkened back to '60s acts like the Byrds and the Velvet Underground.

At the time, everyone else either sounded like Iggy Pop or was English--when New York City seemed like the only possible city in which to rock out. R.E.M. single-handedly turned its fans' eyes toward small-town America, and I don't think the implications of that can be underestimated.

I know in my own case, before I'd heard R.E.M., I was obsessed with New York and London; and that after, I began to think seriously that towns like Minneapolis and Austin and Seattle sounded kind of neat in their own right. I discovered what R.E.M. dubbed on one song "Little America" (after the restaurant on Highway 80 in Wyoming). And I wasn't the only one who did. San Jose, Chapel Hill, Amherst, Oakland--thanks to R.E.M., all these cities began to seem like feasible places for artistic bands.

Since that time, however, little America, with its cheaper rents and mellower lifestyle, has grown bigger and stronger and less romantic--and so has R.E.M. Gradually, the band has become less delicate and more universal. And now that the band's sound can be heard everywhere, it's hard to remember what was so damn special about it in the first place. R.E.M. is like double cappuccinos and email: not exciting anymore, but when I look back at a time without them, I think how poor a world it was.

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From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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