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June 6, 2008

REM Xcel

Listening to REM in the 1980's and the early 1990's was a simple joy. The boys from Athens, Georgia could no wrong. They somehow combined jangly guitars, wonderful haunting harmonies and lead singer Michael Stipe's simple yet evocative lyrics into one musical masterpiece after another. If they didn't invent alternative rock then they certainly perfected it. For a decade or so they spoke for a generation and found themselves in the unlikely position of being rock superstars. Then the wheels started to fall off the track.

It began with 1994's overwrought Monster, and continued two years later with what was to be drummer's Bill Berry's swan song. Success was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to the band. Without a drummer the three remaining members soldiered on. The result was a string of albums that could at best be described as interesting and at their worst bland. They were a band in name only, however, and the fire was long gone.

Enter Accelerate the new CD from REM. It is perhaps the best thing they have done in 16 years. It's fast, and furious and doesn't have a drum machine or synthetic sounds (thank god). REM bring this new-found energy and tunes on their world tour. They made a stop in St. Paul on June 5th. Perhaps it was the fact that Stipe, an Obama supporter was playing in the same arena that only two days before saw the democratic nominee accept the party's assumed nomination, but the band was clearly energized. The first few songs were blistering and full of focus. Stipe was in fine form, striking playful poses and singing his heart out. And the crows loved it. We were all on our feet. I felt like I was witnessing the rebirth of REM. Somewhere in the middle of the set they took their eye off the ball just a bit (blame guitarist Peter Buck) who picks the songs for each night's concert. One too many slow songs in a row crept in and stole the momentum before the band finally put things right near the end and went out with a bang. With such a great back catalog do we really need to hear Auctioneer? Still, the band played cuts as far back as Murmur and a bunch from the new disc.

The next CD from the band may determine whether the three-some has found their footing again or whether it was a last gasp. My firm conviction is the former. Now if they can only perfect their already great live show with better song selection and sequence then fans will really have something to shout about. For the time being we'll have to content ourselves with the fact they they're singing a decidedly different tune.