R.E.M. accelerates back into the spotlight, but it’s not really a ‘return’

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:: R.E.M. ::
:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: June 3 ::

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By Chris Castaneda

In 2008, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills are finally on the same page about R.E.M.’s direction.

Since 1997, R.E.M. has been struggling to find a voice for itself, ever since the band’s drummer, Bill Berry, exchanged the spotlight for farm life. The lines of communication between the remaining members, both personal and musical, have been, at best, shaky over the course of three post-Berry albums. Now, Accelerate, the band’s fourteenth album, lays to rest the question of whether or not R.E.M. could figure out how to be a band, again.

At 49, bassist Mike Mills is enjoying R.E.M’s latest chapter. “Accelerate is R.E.M. in 2008,” said Mills in a recent interview with The Marquee. “People have been trying to say, ‘Is it a return?’ or, ‘Are you looking backwards?’ I say, no. We don’t look backwards and wouldn’t know how to if we wanted to. So, this is strictly us in this year, in this moment.”

For many fans and critics, the R.E.M. everyone knew ceased to be after Berry’s departure. While Berry’s impact continues to be talked about and analyzed, Jefferson Holt’s role as manager during R.E.M.’s rise in the ’80s and ’90s has become trivialized. On the eve of being re-signed for a reported $80 million with Warner Bros., Holt’s tenure with the band ended over alleged sexual harassment charges in 1996. However, the wounds of his alleged actions are not forgotten. Stipe no longer sings the line, “Jefferson, I think we’re lost” from “Little America.” Instead, Holt’s name has been replaced with “Washington.”

On top of that turmoil, some of the band’s most enthusiastic attention in recent years came in the form of tabloid fodder. In April 2001, Buck was arrested in London after unruly actions aboard a British Airways flight and faced a trial that hung the possibility of two years in prison if convicted. He had been accused of attacking two cabin staff and covering them in yogurt, knocking over a flight attendant trolley and trying to steal a knife. Buck, and his attorney claimed the combination of taking a sleeping pill and drinking “small amounts” of wine had caused a reaction known as “non-insane automatism,” and he had not intended to commit the offenses.

Although Buck was cleared of the charges exactly one year later, R.E.M.’s public image took a hit. Instead of the band’s music as the central issue, Buck’s airplane experience became material for terrible “When Rock Stars Attack” lists. What was going on with R.E.M.?

On November 22, 2005, Warner Music Group filed a $5 million settlement with then New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer after an investigation into Warner Music’s business practices uncovered instances of payola being used in the promotion of its artists on the radio. Although the settlement states that Warner Music neither admits nor denies the allegations made by the Attorney General, it does acknowledge “that some of its employees pursued improper promotion practices.” In that settlement, R.E.M.’s song “Leaving New York,” from 2004’s Around The Sun, is cited in a series of internal Warner Bros. e-mails. Sure, the fans never cried in an uproar over the news (given the lackluster response to the album), but the simple fact that R.E.M.’s music was even spoken in the same breath as a case as this was out of place for a band that never wanted to deal with that kind of industry nonsense.

Nothing seemed to be making sense in the R.E.M. world anymore. 1998’s Up documented a band trying to forge ahead with a fragile identity. 2001’s Reveal attempted to score studio pop majesty with heavy production. Around The Sun sounded like a band growing tired of the studio and the music. All three albums contained good ideas in spots, but the execution of those ideas were lost along the way.

Obviously, Accelerate has been received as the “back-to-basics” album, marking R.E.M.’s return to sanity. That very notion doesn’t go unnoticed, or get much appreciation by Mills. “Well, it’s really lazy journalism, to me, because this theme has sort of been broached and everybody’s been really quick to jump on it because it’s an easy angle,” said Mills. “Those records were not universally despised when they came out, and I’m very proud of those records. I just think people have seized that as their theme for their reviews (on Accelerate) and that has just been self-perpetuating. But I’m very pleased with our career, in general, and with this record in particular.”

During a five-day residency last summer at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, R.E.M. played perhaps five of its most important concerts in its current incarnation. Dubbed as “The Working Rehearsals,” for the first time since 1995’s Monster tour, the band performed new material in front of a crowd; 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi is the last album featuring songs developed during a tour. “What I realized was that back in the day when we were touring constantly, we would write songs and work them out on the road. So, when we went to the studio they were fully formed. On the last few records, I’d realize when we’d play something off of Reveal or Up or even Around The Sun, I would play a bass line or sing a background vocal and go, ‘Man, I wish I’d done that on the record.’ There’s something about the live show that really focuses you on your parts,” Mills said.

The shows quickly appeared on YouTube and file-sharing sites like Dimeadozen.org. For the first time in quite a long time, excitement was brewing among fans over the musical phase R.E.M. was entering. “It was kind of thrilling to, pardon the phrase, expose ourselves to the fans like that,” said Mills. “Normally, as an artist — I don’t like the term artist, but, for lack of a better word — you don’t want to show people unfinished things. The two things you don’t want to watch being made are laws and sausages. Well, sometimes, I would add records to that. It was exciting to go out there and know that you were going to show people things that weren’t finished. We really enjoyed it.”

Taking a back seat on Accelerate are the keyboard textures that dominated most of Around The Sun. The band’s decision to keep the songs more guitar-bass-drums structured meant that Ken Stringfellow’s (The Posies) role wasn’t necessary this time around. Guitarist Scott McCaughey, now a fourteen-year veteran with R.E.M., and drummer Bill Rieflin remained as core members. Prior to Rieflin, the drummer’s seat was filled by Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees) and later, Joey Waronker (Beck). The band was not oblivious to the Spinal Tap-esque luck with its drummers (though, no one ever exploded on stage). Bill Berry will always remain the right drummer for R.E.M., but Rieflin has certainly become a great fit since first touring with R.E.M. in 2003. Accelerate finally showcases the ex-Ministry drummer’s talents and injects a stomping force. “He has such a mastery over the drums,” said Mills. “In other words, he can play just like Bill Berry on the songs where he needs to, but we can also give him his space and say, ‘Play what you hear,’ and it’s invariably fantastic. He’s just so accomplished as a musician. He’s a powerful drummer.”

What can’t be emphasized enough is the work Peter Buck brought to Accelerate. If anyone had doubts that Buck could thrash with rhythmic precision anymore, look no further than songs like “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” “Horse To Water” or the album’s title track. “When Peter and I write songs, we try to make them interesting before we ever hear any vocals on them,” said Mills. “I think that’s one of the strengths of R.E.M. Peter and I have to be satisfied with our songs, instrumentally, before we even show them to Michael, and I think that really gives us a head start.”

The result of the Dublin shows meant a faster recording process with producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee at the helm. “We tried not to have too many extras this time,” said Mills about choosing songs for Accelerate. ‘“Staring Down The Barrel of The Middle Distance’… that could have easily been on the record, but our whole point of this record was concise, short. We were taking out verses and choruses right up to the very end of the mixing process. We were just shortening everything. It’s really fun to let things go like that.”

The December 1987 cover of Rolling Stone declared R.E.M. as “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band.” It’s a title that doesn’t fit them in today’s musical landscape, but it’s a title that yesterday’s R.E.M. never sought to reach. Despite the walls R.E.M. has slammed into over the years, it always found a way to overcome the odds.

R.E.M. may not be America’s best rock band anymore or most popular, but it’s definitely still one of its most vital.

:: R.E.M. ::
:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: June 3 ::
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