R.E.M.’s “Accelerate” (2008) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-07-11 23:30:34. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  5 / 5 stars

Raw energy, often the domain of a young band, is that elusive intangible that surges and passes and that, even when it is present, cannot always be tamed.  Sadly, it can be lost in veteran bands, and replaced though it may be with the polished products that come with years of practice, it is a poignant loss.

On Accelerate, R.E.M. recaptures this element for the first time in years with some of the most engaging recordings of their career.  Considering that their discography stretches a quarter of a century across fifteen studio albums, it is significant to claim Accelerate as one of the strongest albums in the R.E.M. catalog.

And it is.

Barely passing a half an hour in length, Accelerate — true to its name — attacks numerous focal points in politics and society with distortion guitars and biting lyricism.  Somehow, the band manages to strike a balance across the eleven tracks, including slower, more introspective tracks like “Until the Day is Done” and “Hollow Man” in what is otherwise a full-on alternative rock assault.

A less seasoned band might have forgotten to take the time to breathe.

The aforementioned tracks are not the standouts, but they are the pillars of the album.  “Until the Day is Done” is a thinly veiled protest song, thumping out the thematic pulse of the album as a whole.  Michael Stipe sings of “an addled republic, a bitter refund” and warns that “the verdict is dire, the country’s in ruins.”

Written near the end of George W. Bush’s time in office, Stipe’s references are crystal clear.  How have we responded to our state of affairs?  “We’ve written our stories to entertain these notions of glory and bull market gain.”  He goes on to conjure an Orwellian society as he sings, “An easyspeak message falls into routine.”

This is a stark vision, punctuated as it is with the self-doubt of questions like “What have I done?” and “Where are we left to carry on until the day is done?”

Lest this album be represented as preachy or whiny, it stands to be noted that there is just as much self-reflection woven into these tracks.  Consider “Hollow Man,” a song which finds Stipe reflecting on “saying things I didn’t mean and don’t believe.”

The voice that Stipe takes on here is one quite familiar to many individuals in a modern age driven by so-called ideals of productivity and consumerism: “I’m overwhelmed, I’m on repeat.  I’m emptied out, I’m incomplete.  You trusted me, I want to show you I don’t want to be the hollow man.”  It might be easy to overlook the reflective aspects in Stipe’s lyrics amidst the more scathing remarks, yet the album’s greatest strength is its balance between pointing out external as well as internal inconsistencies and failings.

Taking this heart on one’s sleeve approach into consideration, these two tracks in particular, may serve to bring the remaining nine tracks even more sharply into focus.

R.E.M.'s "Accelerate" (2008)

R.E.M.'s "Accelerate" (2008)

“Living Well is the Best Revenge” is an excellent opening track; the instrumental components are reason enough to set this song on repeat, driven as it is by Peter Buck’s gritty guitar parts, Mike Mills’ frenetic bass line, and Bill Rieflin’s breakneck pacing on drums.  Stipe’s vocals set the tone for the other songs to come, spewing out lines about poison spinning into “the life you’d hoped to live” and lashing out with epithets like “you weakened shill.”  Likewise, “Living Well is the Best Revenge” serves up the first round of religious allusions, Stipe singing of lambs to slaughter, “sad and lost apostles,” and asking “the gospel according to…who?”

This is followed up by “Man-Sized Wreath,” which boasts lyrics on par with the best Stipe has ever written.  The song opens with a continued reference to the media (think: “camera three” from the previous track, in addition to numerous later lines), “Turn on the TV, what do I see?  A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me, wow.”  It would seem from these lines that the “man-sized wreath” is the metaphor for those news anchors and other television personalities who contribute their “empty gestures” to the “pageantry” of the boob tube.

Later, Stipe sings that our “judgement [is] clouded with fearful thoughts,” but by the end of the song, he asserts that “I am not deceived by pomp and odious conceit.”  This song could be a call to buck the system – “Throw it on the fire, throw it in the air; kick it out on the dance floor like you just don’t care” — or a tongue in cheek request to join in the “festivities” that so many seem so comfortable to be a part of — “Give me some…”

Either way, there is something quite sad about the way in which Stipe states, “I’d have thought by now we would be ready to proceed.”

It doesn’t get much darker than three tracks later on “Houston,” as they kick off the song with an opening organ barrage that sounds like a cross between industrial noise and a funeral dirge.  Stipe fires off with “If the storm doesn’t kill me, the government will,” although he quickly adds, “Gotta get that out of my head.”  For all his harsh words, there is still hope and beauty in the places that Stipe sings of — Texan cities: coincidence? — as he clarifies that the “meaning has not been erased.”

By “Mr. Richards,” the frustration lurking underneath “Houston” is directed at one man, to whom Stipe asserts, “You can thump your chest and rattle, stand in front of your piano, but we know what’s going on… we’re the children of the choir.”  This is a shift from the perspective of “Man-Sized Wreath” — whereas before it was Stipe against the world, now it seems that there is a sense of unity with his audience.  Mr. Richard’s “camp moved on” and “the public’s got opinions,” “we’ve begun to bridge the schism.”

Progress is being made.

Stipe is practically cheery by the next track, “Sing for the Submarine,” reassuring that “It’s all a lot less frightening than we would’ve had it be.”  Here, “lift[ing] up your voice” is the way to fight the machine: “we’ll pick it all up and start again.”  Still, the instruments and even Stipe’s vocal delivery belies the hope expressed in his words:  the drums plodding, the bass playing ominous, and the guitar haunting.

In “Horse to Water,” Stipe notes, “I could have kept my head down.  I might have kept my mouth shut…  You lead a horse to water and you watch him drown.”  This firmly establishes “Horse to Water” as a statement on the album as a whole, particularly with Stipe following up in the chorus by singing, “It’s not that easy.  I am not your horse to water.  I hold my breath, I come around, round, round.”

In the special edition lyric booklet, a full two page spread is devoted to the final line of the song: “this run around… IS BOUND TO POUND THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF YOU.”  Bottom line?  The state of affairs that Stipe and company have cut a path through to expose and expound on are very real.  Earlier, on the title track, Stipe sings, “I’m not alone, a thousand others dropping faster than me,” so Accelerate is clearly an album that calls for community.

It is primarily an album that digs into the uglier aspects of our private lives and the least sunny undercurrents of our society, and yet does so with a sense of unabashed honesty and even, at times, levity.  Take the single “Supernatural Superserious,” which deals with identity via the metaphor of the “humiliation of your teenage station.”  “I’m Gonna DJ” is only the second outstanding end-of-the-world rocker that R.E.M. has cooked up, and it’s perfectly placed as the closing track.

It’s saying something when a song about the end of the world is a welcome, light respite from the topic matter of the first ten tracks.

Throughout, R.E.M. succeeds in handling the topic matter with the perfect sound and a fitting sense of the greater scheme of things.  Even the booklet is branded with the caption “This book will fall apart.”  Aside from the fact that they’re not kidding (seriously: it’s tied together loosely with some thin thread), this is a nuanced manner of adding to the overall theme of decay.

The chorus of the title track, itself situated at the heart of the album, says it best:  “Where is the rip chord, the trap door, the key?  Where is the cartoon escape hatch?  No time to question the choices I make.  I’ve got to fall in another direction.  Accelerate.”  The message seems clear enough, a call for change that is desperately needed.  Read this as you will, either as a personal statement or as an indictment of the nation.  Regardless, the determination to be realistic and forthcoming is a quality we all too often lack when faced when crises come creeping into our lives.

It is human to see “the future turned upside down” and it is oh so very Prufrockian to “hesitate.”

If I read Stipe right, hesitation simply is no longer an option.  The solution seems to be to change direction and… you guessed it: accelerate.

Music Review: R.E.M.’s “Live at the Olympia in Dublin: 39 Songs”

Originally posted 2009-10-30 17:25:25. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

RATING:  4.5 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

Sometimes, the big publications just get it all wrong.

In his Rolling Stone review of R.E.M.’s Live at the Olympia in Dublin, Will Hermes writes, “This two-CD/one-DVD document captures intimate, occasionally great performances.”  He goes on to add, “If Michael Stipe sometimes sounds like he’s reading lyrics off his computer, it’s because, well, he actually was.”

If I have to read one more cleverly phrased review bestowing a mediocre rating upon a release I love, I swear I’ll lose it.

Live at the Olympia in Dublin spills over with positive energy, the kind of energy that leaves fans breathless and voiceless after a night of singing, screaming, and giddily laughing.  Stipe’s voice is hardly robotic, as Hermes might have you understand.  His vocals alternate between smooth and clear deliveries at some points, alternately cracking in all the right places at others.

And the computer is hardly a crutch.  It’s more a means of on-stage schtick for Stipe and the band.  It is apparent that he is getting a kick out of reading others’ interpretations of his eighties-era, admittedly very mumbled lyrics.  (He has since come over to the good side, including lyrics in all R.E.M. booklets since Up.)

And it’s genuinely funny to hear him reading them, reflecting on them, and moving on to the present day, namely his evolved sensibilities and more recent material.

What really gets me is that Hermes refers to the tracks I had most looked forward to — the Accelerate outtakes — as “solid.”  This is an overstatement.  I was far from impressed with the outtakes, and although I had so hoped to tout them as the forgotten gems of their 2008 sessions, I simply had to admit to myself, Well, I suppose these guys knew what they were doing when they assembled Accelerate.

And that is precisely what has renewed my interest in R.E.M.  I’ve always liked Stipe’s attitude, and I’m continually drawn to R.E.M.’s unique, raw-but-refined instrumental sound.  And yet I’ve been hard-pressed to find any albums that stand out to me, certainly not enough to stand up to some of the great albums of all time.

Then, along came Accelerate.

R.E.M.'s "Live at the Olympia in Dublin" (2009)

R.E.M.'s "Live at the Olympia in Dublin" (2009)

Their 2008 studio album — their fourteenth at that — is a tremendous record.  There are catchy electric hooks, acoustic underpinnings, great lyrics, and Michael Stipe’s perfectly ragged vocals seasoning and binding it all together.  What truly distinguishes this record is the energy that simply oozes from the seams.  And this doesn’t come across as some aging group of rock and rollers embarking on a pitiful attempt to recapture past heights — after all, R.E.M. never was known for being all that rocking a band.

Watch the music video for “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” and you’ll immediately observe the youthful, creative force of a group of men who love what they do.  The song is performed while driving around in a car, acoustic guitars squeezed into the small vehicle, the steering wheel converted — while driving, mind you — into the percussion instrument of choice.  It looks like they’re having a lot of fun, and that comes through more than anything else on the record.

Rolling Stone reviewer Hermes apparently longs for the days when “Stipe’s vibrato-seizure vocals and Rorschach-blot ‘lyrics’ clung to songs exploding at the seams.”  He comments that, instead, “The stitching is tighter now, and drummer Bill Rieflin often holds things together too neatly.”

Say what you will about Rieflin’s drumming — and it’s not groundbreaking or award winning, but it gets the job done.  I draw the line at his allusion-dropping, not-so-subtle riff on Stipe’s vocals, as if to imply that something has been lost.

If that’s true, then something has been lost on me.

R.E.M., as Live at the Olympia in Dublin continues to suggest, is more alive and well than they have been in a good long time.  If living well is truly the best revenge, then Stipe, Mills, and Buck are bound to have the last laugh.  Their on-stage personas, musical chemistry, and ability to dig deeply into their catalog to populate their shifting set lists — never mind their willingness to exercise their unfinished work during live, recorded performances — continue to breathe new life and vibrancy into all their work, both past and present.

If you’re ready to live in the moment, then you should really give these guys a listen.

One of a Kind: An R.E.M. Retrospective

Originally posted 2011-10-18 23:48:48. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Ben Neal:

(Written 9/30/2011)

When R.E.M. announced that they would be calling it a day as a band last Wednesday, it produced a plethora of reactions from hard-core fans of the band, from casual, now-disaffected fans, and really anyone with a pulse who lived in the 80s or 90s. For many it was a visceral reaction to a band they have cared about forever was disbanding, but for many the reaction has been less about the band itself, but for what they represented to so many people: an undying institution that defined so much of the last three decades and brought music to a brave new world.

R.E.M. was an odd success story. Most legendary rock bands have a sex symbol lead singer, a generous amount of tabloid fodder, accessible power ballads, and embrace the height of their success; R.E.M. had very little of any of that. During their early 1990s vast popular successes of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, they weren’t interested in touring, their music was always obscure and abstract, and discounting the time Peter Buck mixed sleeping pills and wine aboard a trans-Atlantic flight, R.E.M. never really made headlines for the typical rock-band reasons.

Starting in the early 1980s, the band became a mainstay of college radio and hipsters around the world with singles like “Radio Free Europe” and “Gardening at Night” which ultimately culminated in the band’s first two albums Murmur and Reckoning. The albums initially garnered better reviews than commercial success, but the band quickly developed a cult following in college towns and on the East Coast. The music, already quite abstract, was made the moreso by lead singer Michael Stipe’s trademark mumbling (in the pre-internet era, fans of the band were fond of debating with one another what the lyrics to early songs actually were). A mere two years after Murmur, the band released the surreal, gothic Fables of the Reconstruction, which thematically was an exploration of the mythology of the American South and mostly featured songs on local eccentric figures of Athens, GA.

By this time, Stipe had thankfully been convinced to sing more clearly, but the band was by this point unable to break out of their college radio niche. With Life’s Rich Pageant the band really found its footing, with clearer lyrics, a decidedly and increasingly political agenda, and a sound like we hadn’t really heard before. A continuation of the post-punk movement that combines strong elements of the New York-based New Wave with a healthy dose of Americiana, they were The Byrds crossed with The Velvet Underground crossed with Springsteen.

A couple more indie records (and finally, some mainstream radio play with the often misinterpreted songs “Fall on Me” and “The One I Love”), and noticeably less mumbling from Stipe provided the band a launching point and after 1987’s Document, R.E.M. left their indie roots for a lucrative contract with Warner Bros.

By the time their WB debut, Green, was released in 1989; it marked their sixth album in a mere seven years and being an album that was heavily hyped, and initially was underwhelming to some listeners, but still packs quite the punch. “Orange Crush,” in particular, with Bill Berry’s recognizable drums at the on-set was an innovative song and still holds up well today. This record, also known for the impressive “World Leader Pretend” and R.E.M.’s first foray in touching GLBT issues with “The Wrong Child” in some ways represents, along with their final album Collapse Into Now, the best “sampling” of the variety of music R.E.M. produced. However, their next album really sent them into a stratosphere by themselves: Out of Time a fairly non-commercial folk-country album that produced two of their biggest hits, the disowned by the band “Shiny Happy People and the surreal “Losing My Religion,” but the real heart of the record were songs like “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana.” To date, this record represents their largest commercial success, and is, the two hits aside, one of their most non-commercial records.

Their next album Automatic for the People is generally considered their best album and continued their popular and critical successes. While some would have expected the band to follow up Out of Time with a faster, more upbeat album; R.E.M. went the other direction with a slow, somber album that largely dealt with issues of death, mortality, and tackled the AIDS crisis head-on. The album produced “Everyone Hurts,” an anthem for the chronically depressed, and glorified long forgotten and tragic entertainers like Andy Kaufman (“Man on the Moon”) and Montgomery Clift (“Monty Got a Raw Deal”). To date, no album makes me feel more at home on a rainy day.

In 1994, they released their follow-up, Monster and the critical and commercial success that had come so easy to them their entire career was suddenly hard to come by. Maybe it’s because they had reached such high peaks that they were doomed to be “repeating themselves” or being “not as good as they once were” in many people’s eyes. Monster was a significant success, but left many people disappointed and cold, and in some ways that was the band’s fault. The album was a glammed up mock-rock record (many people didn’t get the joke) with singles like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Crush with Eyeliner” that lampooned celebrity, sex, and love. During the Monster tour, drummer Bill Berry suffered an aneurysm on-stage in Europe and later left the band in 1996 for a simple life on a farm near Athens. For many casual fans, it gave them permission to move on from the band; for critics it gave them an easy narrative to dismiss the band and say they should have followed Berry’s lead. Indeed, had they called it a day in 1996, their legacy would be something of mythological proportions (like The Clash), but they did the right thing and kept on making high quality music.

Berry’s final album is the woefully under-rated New Adventures in Hi-Fi, an album composed of songs recorded on the ill-fated Monster tour. The album also proved to be quite controversial and alienated some of their middle America following with songs like “New Test Leper” where Michael Stipe declared that he couldn’t say that “I love Jesus” and begged those who judged his lifestyle to “call me a leper.” Still, it’s a fascinating album that produced a great number of back catalog tracks like the aforementioned “Leper,” “The Wake-Up Bomb,” and “Bittersweet Me.”

After Berry left, the band, innovators always, increasingly gravitated towards technology. With 1998’s Up, the band relied on a synthesizer that made the album sound more like Radiohead than R.E.M., but still produced extraordinary songs such as “At My Most Beautiful” and “Hope.” The somber Up, gave way to the sunny Beach Boys-esque Reveal, which features “Imitation of Life” (stealing the title from the long-forgotten Douglas Sirk 1950s film), perhaps the band’s best single and the optimistic tracks “I’ll Take the Rain” and “I’ve Been High.” Their contemporary [U2’s] Bono declared the album to be some of their best work and to this date I’ve yet to find a better album to listen to on a sunny July day by the pool.

Next came their much maligned 2004 effort Around the Sun—an album that certainly has its flaws, but from the haunting lead single “Leaving New York” to the Carvaggio-inspired “Boy in the Well,” I’ve always found the album to be a perceptive, yet somber assessment of the immediate post 9/11 period. Where Around the Sun tried to find hope in dark times, their 2008 effort Accelerate was an angry indictment of the Bush administration with biting songs like Mr. Richards and Houston, but also beautiful tracks like “Hollow Man” and “Supernatural Superserious”, which 15 years earlier would have surely ruled the top of the charts. Accelerate was a true return to form for the band, with an aggressive sound not heard from the band for nearly 20 years and generated solid reviews.

This spring their final album, Collapse Into Now was a mix of the slow, somber songs that populated Around the Sun and the hard-rockers of Accelerate and generated the band’s best reviews since Berry left the band in ’96. Highlights included the beautiful New Orleans-ode “Oh My Heart” and “Discoverer.” As I re-listened to Collapse a few days ago, it’s truly a very poignant and very R.E.M. record. The closing track “Blue”, a stream-of-consciousness track with a cameo by Patti Smith, makes a perfect end to a great career. Stipe sings (or speaks) “This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive….20th Century collapse into now.”

R.E.M. had contemporaries to be sure—U2 chief among them – but few other bands were as successful for as long, nor did many bands have the impact that four—and later, just three guys who call Athens, GA home – did on our musical world. But R.E.M. was just different from any other rock band. The guys were, well, weird; Stipe increasingly embraced his role as a prominent “queer artist,” and they did things on their own terms. Unlike other rock bands of similar stature, R.E.M. never really strived to be the biggest band in the world; they became so successful oftentimes in spite of themselves. They wanted to be successful, sure, but where U2 or the Stones might take pride in playing the biggest venues—R.E.M. didn’t. Similarly, many bands (oftentimes sincerely) think of themselves as bands with a global conscience, but so many of these bands’ (many of which I love) songs with a global consciousness are songs like “Peace on Earth” or other vague songs with obvious themes. R.E.M. always went a step farther. There were no songs with a generalized “war is bad” message, but rather a litany of songs about Latin American politics, acid rain, pollution, AIDS, corporate downsizing, and so on; and they did so in non-obvious and abstract ways that treated their audience like adults who could read between the lines. Whereas many bands’ bread-and-butter songs were about love and relationships, not many R.E.M. songs were—rather they made songs about a town on the Arkansas-Texas border, on forgotten tragic entertainers, and eccentric senior citizens.

More than anything, what made R.E.M. tick and what made their fans love them is doing things on their own terms. They, inexplicably, refused to tour the two biggest albums—not because of contract disputes, but because they simply didn’t feel like touring. Immediately after signing the biggest contract in music history, they went out and made an inaccessible album like Up. R.E.M. were trailblazers, and showed the music world, and aspiring musicians throughout the world, that an indie sensation and making music for a major label were not incompatible. Before R.E.M., bands had to choose between the two, but R.E.M.’s breakthrough cleared the way for acts like Nirvana, The Decemberists, and Arcade Fire to reach mainstream success while still making the music they wanted to make—all while inventing the genre of alternative rock as we know it.

Their break-up announcement (the decision was made earlier in the summer, yet their label was not informed until just hours before the announcement) was likewise classic R.E.M. A quiet statement on their webpage that stated it rather matter-of-factly: there would be no farewell tour, or a tearful talk show interview; they were just done as a band. For fans, it came as both a shock and resigned expectation. Their lyrics recently had made it clear they were afraid that they would “overstay my welcome” (“All the Best”) and of always being “on repeat…and incomplete” (“Hollow Man”). Ultimately, the band members lived thousands of miles apart and the band had become a side project for the members who all had their own pet projects. This coupled with label politics (the end of their WB contract and new management at the label they had called home for over 20 years), made it seem like a natural end for the band.

R.E.M. was a truly one of a kind band. Every album was singular: from the 80s jangly rock of Life’s Rich Pageant to the folk-alt-country of Out of Time to the glam mock-rock of Monster to the Radiohead-esque Up; each R.E.M. album was an event and a singular work of art. As a recent tribute said no band was as good for as long as R.E.M., and few made the impact they did, both musically and commercially. Few bands come along that have had their impact and done so many things on their own terms. Yes, their production slowed down (10 albums in their first 13 years, compared to 5 in their last 15) and admittedly the product suffered some in later years, but they remained innovators and perpetually fascinating musicians till the end.  As Stipe sings in the beautiful “Oh My Heart” off their final album: “It’s sweet and it’s sad, and it’s true.” That’s R.E.M. in a nutshell.