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Signs of life for R.E.M.?

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I watched R.E.M. on David Letterman last night. They performed “Bad Day,” which is one of the new songs from their upcoming disc: “In Time: The Best of R.E.M 1988-2003″.

For the record, I’m of the opinion that the actual “Best of R.E.M.” all happened before 1988 and that, in general, the band has sucked since 1992 (“Automatic For The People”).

So I didn’t expect much more than a cure for my insomnia when I pulled the Letterman show (which aired sometime last week) up off the PVR at about 1 a.m.

The pride of Athens surprised me.

First off, “Bad Day” is a damn good, old-school R.E.M. song. According to Pete Buck, the song has been around in a rough form since “Life’s Rich Pageant” (c.1986), which explains its lack of sucking (and the Bill Berry writing credit).

And, being as “In Time” is a best-of record containing just two new songs, Stipe doesn’t have the chance to turn this release into the kind of downer record he’s shaped most recently.

But more significantly, Buck, Mills and Stipe actually seemed to be enjoying pounding out the classic R.E.M. brand of rock.

That Buck would be enjoying being an actual rock-n-roll guitarist is not surprising, seeing as he spends his spare time playing poorly-attended gigs alongside Young Fresh Fellow/unofficial R.E.M.er Scott McCaughey in their side projects The Minus 5/Tuatara. At the Atlanta Minus 5 show a few months back, Pete was selling t-shirts and making change after the gig. He’s a rocker.

But Stipe and Mills have not shown much desire of late to be rock guys. Stipe’s brought the mood down to atmospheric jazz levels on four of the band’s last five records, and Mills has seemed content to go with the flow, play what Stipe wants to play and cash his checks.

That he could easily have been replaced by a drum machine on “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” helped push Bill Berry out the door.

In fairness, the boys are 23 years into this gig. That’s an eternity in rock-n-roll, and signficant evolution and change has to be expected.

And come January, Buck will be 47, Mills 45 and Stipe 43. So they deserve some slack there.

On Letterman, however, Stipe and Mills were ready to rock. R.E.M.’s website features a video of rehearsals for the current tour in which the fellas relish the rock of “Maps and Legends” and “Get Up”.

The video for “Bad Day” is a cheeky poke at TV news – complete with a mock website – that seems more the speed of Weezer than the old men of R.E.M.

And on Tour ’03, R.E.M. has been liberally mixing in rockin’ old tunes such as “Sitting Still” to go with the obligatory “Losing My Religion”, “End of the World” “Man on the Moon”, etc.

These are all good signs for fans of the old-time R.E.M. such as myself.

I doubt I’ll buy “In Time”, seeing as I don’t like most of the 1998-2003 “best of” tracks; and I have no intention to shell out $47 – $67 to see them live. I hate big-venue shows, so the one and only time I saw R.E.M. live was at the Saenger Theatre down in New Orleans – 1985, I believe.

But for what it’s worth, based on what I’m seeing with “Bad Day” and their live stuff, my opinion of R.E.M. is swinging back toward the positive.

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About Capn Ken

  • Eric Olsen

    Very fine job Ken, and my opinion of the band is almost identical to yours. Thanks and welcome!

  • http://resonation.ca Jim Carruthers

    I saw that REM set on Letterman, and it was enough to render me incoherent (or maybe I was already that way, and it was just the catalyst).

    I’ve never been an REM fan, never disliked them either, just never really got on board. Saw them once opening for The Beat when Stipe had hair in his face.

    I’ve liked their Buck-inspired rockist stuff, but the song on Letterman seemed forgetable, and what was up with the freshness stripe on Stipe? Was it a salute to nutso football fans?

  • http://fando.blogs.com Natalie Davis

    I saw REM live dozens of times between the mid ’80s and 1995. I love ‘em. But I have no need to see them again unless they do something extraordinary. What I saw on Letterman didn’t come close. But indeed, I will give them props for longevity. And Peter Buck… he is an inspiration.

  • Eric Olsen

    I like rocking R.E.M. best also, other than their “Pale Blues Eyes” from Dead Letter Office, which I like even better than VU’s

  • http://www.particleman.org/ Particleman

    It is an interesting phenomenon how a band that once rocked will lose fans once they get old and chill out. I for one like most of the new material, i see it as another facet of the REM talent. A band that can morph its sound and retain its identity gets a thumbs up in my book.

    I also disagree with the concept that Mills and Stipe have lost their nerve to rock out or that Mills is just in it to “cash the checks.” I sense some negative undertones there. What makes you think that it’s only Stipe and Mills that are the impetus of the chill songs? Do you have some information that points to Buck’s lack of involvement in these songs?

  • http://eastatlanta.blogspot.com Ken Womack

    Addressing the roundup of comments:

    – Whether you think “Bad Day” is a good song, as I do, or not; my point was that it’s old-school R.E.M. (the song dates back to 1986) and I was happy to see the boys pick it rather than some sappy “Reveal” type song as the new song and single from the greatest hits record. That says to me they realize that the early- to mid- 80s work was their best; and also that it’s what fans want to hear.

    – I’m a fan of the music a band makes, not the band itself. So if the music they begin to make does not interest me, I’m not going to be a fan of it. There are plenty of acts – The Replacements and Elvis Costello, for instance – who grow more introspective and mellow through the years, but who still made music I found interesting. And R.E.M. was never a “hard rock” band. Listen to “Perfect Circle” on Murmur. It’s a slow and mellow song, but had emotion and feeling that the songs of the more recent R.E.M. discs lack.

    – I don’t think Stipe is just cashing checks; he’s used R.E.M. as a political platform. Pete Buck, as I mentioned, still travels the U.S. in a stinky van with Scott McCaughey playing honest rock-n-roll, experimental jazz, etc. Bill Berry quit the band once they were mired in Stipe’s boring music. Mike Mills is the one guy who seems to just be there for the money. And if that’s the case, I don’t have a problem with it. Money is a good thing. And Mills is a good guy; still lives in Athens; loves the Braves; hangs out in little Atlanta clubs. All I was saying is that in the Letterman performance, all three of the guys seemed to be more energized, maybe because they had pulled “Bad Day” out of a more interesting period in their career.

    – Stipe’s aqua-fresh stripe? I have no idea what that’s about; other than Stipe being Stipe.

  • http://www.particleman.org/ Particleman

    I didn’t say that Stipe is just in it for the cash, reread my comments. You make it sound like you personally know the band and their motivations. Mills already has all the cash in the world. Why would he bother touring for the millionth time just for money? Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t add up.

    Either way, you ought to give one of their current shows a chance. If you’re looking for energy, they definitely had it when I saw them in Austin two weeks ago.

  • http://eastatlanta.blogspot.com Ken Womack

    You’re right; I misread that comment to think you said Stipe was just around for the money.

    I don’t think my post or comments make it sound like I’m coming from a position of inside knowledge. These are my observations based on who each of the guys were before they were famous, how they have evolved and what they are doing now. I do know people who go back to the beginning with the band and as an Atlantan who pays attention to the music scene, I think I bring slightly more insight than a random fan might, but these are just my opinions and observations. Discussion and disagreement are a good thing.

    And as I said, I’m all about money. Bill Berry has plenty of cash, but less now than the others. He was content to retire in his early 40s and be a farmer. If he’s happy, I’m happy for him. He did good for a kid from Macon.

    If I were in Mills’ shoes, I’d probably stay with the band, too. He gets his pieces of that $80 million Warner deal when new albums are delivered. So I can understand him sticking around. It’s a damn good job to have.

    When this contract is up, the band is not likely to get such a deal again, given what has been solid but not blockbuster sales. It’ll be interesting to see if they stay together after that.

    As for their tour; they are here in Atlanta tomorrow night. But I am not a fan of arena shows, so I won’t be there. Plenty of seats are still available in their home state, though.

  • http://online-web-detective.com detective

    I am sorry if you are not willing to spend some money to see one of the best bands of the 20th century. I was fortunate enought to be in the third row for the 10/4 Madison Square Garden Show. Beyond the shock and awe of seeing “Party Monster” Macauly Caulkin enjoying himself, they rocked. Michael and company proved once again why they still are going strong. Sure they have made some different choices along the way, But I challenge anyone to do the same thing with the same people for over 20 years and still remain intresting.

  • Eric Olsen

    I wish them only the best and hope they can come up with something really great again. My problem is that Murmur, their very first full-length album, is my favorite and every single one since then has been lesser in one way or another. That’s a lot of time and a lot of music since they “peaked.”

  • http://eastatlanta.blogspot.com Ken Womack

    Agreed, Eric. I might argue that Chronic Town is at least on par with Murmur, but the best was done by 1984.

    And the arena show issue isn’t about money, detective. I just don’t enjoy big-venue shows. I’d much rather see Pete Buck’s side project in front of 125 people than see R.E.M. in front of 15,000.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    …a note that is just barely related to REM: last night i was pawing my way through some used record bins and happily discovered two Let’s Active records.

    the relationship? they opened for REM when i saw them on the Murmur tour at the university of maine.

    here’s what i remember:

    Stipe seemed so introverted that he could only occasionally face the audience.

    Mitch Easter played “Classical Gas” during the Let’s Active set.

    the first warmup band was B. Willy Smith, who opened their set with “My Baby Does The Hanky Panky”.

    how does this crap get lodged into my brain anyway?

  • Eric Olsen

    Athens, dig it. Don’t forget Pylon and the airplane hair-do’s

  • http://eastatlanta.blogspot.com Ken Womack

    And don’t forget Mitch Easter (of Let’s Active) produced or co-produced all of R.E.M.’s stuff from Chronic Town to Reckoning. The Chapel Hill scene never broke out like Athens, but there were great bands up there. Let’s Active, the dBs (whose leader, Peter Holsapple was for a time “the fifth member” of R.E.M.), The Connells, The Flat Duo Jets, etc.

  • http://www.particleman.org/ Particleman

    Ken, I do agree that areana shows are not nearly as enjoyable as club shows. I went to school in Austin and spent a good amount of time seeing bands in clubs with a max capacity as low as 200. Those were some of the best shows i’ve ever seen. But when it comes to REM, I guess I’m willing to shell out the cash and forfeit the intimacy of a club show. Few bands can drag me to an arena.

  • Eric Olsen

    One of the measurements of the “size” of a band is their ability to fill various sized venues, not with people or sound (although those are a minimum requirement) but with their spirit, or whatever you want to call it. Can they make the place feel intimate.

    On the “Animals” tour, Pink Floyd made Cleveland Stadium feel intimate to me, and so on.

  • http://www.kalyr.com/weblog Tim Hall

    Interesting you say that about the “Animals” tour, considering Water’s well documented hatred of that tour; it was the inspiration for the whole ‘Wall’ concept. And that certainly *wasn’t* an intimate gig…

  • http://www.arguewithsigns.net/mt/ bryan

    You heard one of the only good parts of the “best of…” record that came out this week. The rest of the cheaper version (sans b-sides and rarities) only serves to remind me of how little “best” R.E.M. has been doing since 1988. The B-sides record is actually much better in spots.

  • Jayant Kapre

    old tired and jaded??? but lets remember the crap the stones wrote in roughly the same decade..