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The original alternative
R.E.M. remain on the cutting edge in the digital age

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck looks up at the TV in his hotel room during a phone interview and sees that a cable entertainment show is taking a phone poll on "Which song makes you feel good?" The contenders include "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles, "Beautiful Day" by U2, and. . . yes, "Shiny Happy People" by R.E.M. Buckís response? "I probably wouldíve taken the U2 song. ĎBeautiful Dayí is really great."

If any more proof were needed, the poll in question is a reminder that R.E.M., who come to the Tweeter Center this Sunday, October 5, are very much a part of the mainstream. While their oldest fans still hold fond memories of the early small-club shows, itís been more than a decade since R.E.M. moved out of the clubs and on from cult stardom to regularly scoring hit singles and selling out arena tours. In the process theyíve lost their drummer (Bill Berry quit in 1995 after recovering from an aneurysm) and changed their addresses. None of the three remaining founding members ó Buck, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills, and singer Michael Stipe ó still resides in Athens, Georgia, full-time, though their office is still based there. Mills and Stipe live part-time in Los Angeles; Buck is permanently settled in Seattle.

To some extent, R.E.M. will always be competing with their own legend. If you were old enough to be buying records when the Chronic Town EP and the Murmur album came out (in 1982 and 1983 on IRS), R.E.M. probably play into your warmest, indie-rock memories ó not just because the music was great but because the band became so familiar. They played your favorite clubs, hung out in the audience afterward, maybe even crashed on your floor. And when R.E.M. started getting big, it felt like the right kind of music was finally getting through. I recall an Orpheum show in July 1984 when R.E.M. opened their set with an especially spectral version of the Velvet Undergroundís "Femme Fatale," just when everyone expected them to play a barnstormer. It was a sublime moment in itself but also felt like an overdue vindication of everything the Velvets stood for.

Itís hard to compete with memories like that. And Mills knows it. "Thatís the double-edged sword of past success," he says in a separate phone interview. "Yeah, itís great to hear weíve had a positive influence on people, and I certainly understand if people want to hear the songs theyíre familiar with. There are probably several bands where I like their first record best as well. But that canít stop you from continuing to create, and we do feel pretty excited about what weíve yet to do."

Buck too is aware of the situation. "I talk to enough people who say the first three R.E.M. records changed their life," he says. "But then, a lot of people feel the same way about our mid-period stuff. So weíve been pretty lucky in that regard. We donít have just one album that everybody tends to focus on. It definitely matters to us that our work is still as good as it can be: at our age, we need to make good or great records. And I am guardedly optimistic that we rode out the heavy-metal idea of what alternative was supposed to be. It gives me hope when I hear the White Stripes on the radio now, or the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. It makes me feel not quite so out of touch."

Of course, if you had talked to Buck 20 years ago, heíd be saying the same thing about Black Flag and the Dream Syndicate. So his personality ó and his musical taste ó hasnít changed all that much. And he still sounds as bemused by R.E.M.ís success as some of the bandís fans are. "I tend to forget that weíre a part of the culture," he notes. "Unless weíre rehearsing, the only time I ever listen to our music is when Iím in a car or a restaurant. My wife and I were at Disneyland with our kids recently when ĎAll the Way to Renoí [from the last studio album, 2001ís Reveal] came on while we were having lunch. And I thought, ĎGod damn it, this really is a good songí."

Which it is. But it wasnít a hit song. And thatís one reason R.E.M. have found themselves at a turning point, just in time for the release of In Time (Warner Bros.), the bandís second greatest-hits album, later this month. Their previous compilation, 1988ís Eponymous (IRS) found them at a very different crossroads: they were leaving the indie label IRS for Warner Bros., wrapping up their underground years for good. The studio album that followed, Green (Warner Bros.; 1988), would be certified double platinum. Yet the band didnít reach their commercial peak until 1992ís Automatic for the People (Warner Bros.), one of the bandís more challenging albums, with its haunting tunes, mournful sentiments, and AIDS-era subtext. The album had no obvious singles, unless you think that folk-rock songs about dead comedians qualify as such. Yet during a year that was theoretically defined by grunge, R.E.M. held their own with the closest thing to a fully acoustic album they ever made.

Itís only more recently that R.E.M.ís willfully non-commercial albums have struggled on the charts. The two discs theyíve released since Berryís departure, Up and Reveal, both de-emphasized drums and guitars in favor of keyboards and studio-generated soundscapes. While the two discs are hardly alike ó Up is strange and elliptical, while Reveal tends toward a lusher, gentler pop approach ó both will likely be lumped together as the bandís "experimental" period. To these ears, theyíre great albums that were sabotaged in the studio. When R.E.M. have played songs like "Lotus," "Daysleeper" and "She Just Wants to Be" in a live setting with more traditional instrumentation, theyíve each stood out as some of the bandís strongest material in years.

But as anyone who watches VH1ís Behind the Music knows, commercial slumps are always followed by big comebacks. So itís no surprise that the next R.E.M. studio album, which isnít even fully recorded yet, has already been floated (in a Los Angeles Times article that their label publicists are sending around) as the bandís return to glory. Not that the band members themselves seem too concerned. Their responses are about the same as they would have been 20 years ago: "Iíd love for it to be a large commercial success, but we have so little control over that, that we donít even think about it," says Mills. "Thereís no direction, but there never is one ó weíve got a couple of psychedelic rockers and a couple of slow songs, but beyond that itís too early to tell."

Meanwhile, In Time is quirky enough to stand as a proper R.E.M. album. Itís one of the few greatest-hits sets that leaves out some actual hits ("Shiny Happy People," "Pop Song í89") in favor of better, non-hit album tracks ("Electrolite," "Nightswimming"). And the two new songs, especially "Bad Day," bode well for the bandís future. "Bad Day" is essentially "Itís the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" rewritten as a serious protest song. As in many of the topical lyrics Stipe has written, it deals in rapid-fire images. Yet phrases like "Teflon whitewashed presidency" and "Weíre tired of being jerked around!" leap out of the mix.

More explicitly political songs are likely to turn up on the next album. The anti-Bush "The Final Straw" was posted online after the Iraq war was declared, which raises the question of whether R.E.M. will be the next band to get the Dixie Chicks treatment. "Hell, Iíll say it," Mills responds. "I canít stand Bush and I donít care who knows it. I canít stand him or the people who surround him. I think theyíre dangerous and evil people. We donít get played on the radio anyway, so what are they going to do?" Adds Buck, "A song like ĎFinal Strawí just addresses what itís like to live in America: when it was written a majority of Americans said they didnít want to invade Iraq without UN approval. I didnít think we were going to change anybodyís minds with it ó itís more about telling people theyíre not alone in wondering what the hell is going on."

If youíre wondering how Iíve heard the as-yet-unreleased "Bad Day" ó not to mention a live encore of the pre-Murmur demo "Permanent Vacation" that was just performed on their current tour, and many dozens of live rarities besides ó itís because R.E.M. have quietly made themselves one of the most easily downloaded bands in rock. Theyíve allowed an archive of rare recordings to be available on the Napster-style site WinMX. It takes a special log-in to get there, but the instructions are right on the R.E.M. fan site murmurs.com. Once youíre in, you can download virtually everything except the regular studio tracks: complete live shows from every era, shows from two weeks ago, the Paradise show from 1983, fan-club Christmas singles, even live material by bands that R.E.M. are either connected to or friends with (Wilco, Radiohead, Pearl Jam). Some bands have grudgingly endorsed downloading, and most jam bands allow taping and trading. But R.E.M. are giving away so much rare material ó possibly pre-empting future live albums and limiting what will be available for any boxed sets ó that it really is unprecedented.

Which is probably why, even though the site makes it clear that R.E.M. have given their blessing to the project, Buck and Mills both claim they donít know much about the arrangement. "I wouldnít exactly call it a blessing, but weíre not going to sue over that kind of thing," says Buck. "We donít put out live albums, so weíre fine with people getting whatever is available." Adds Mills, "It was probably something I signed off on that I donít know much about. I donít mind file sharing in terms of getting that hard-to-find rare track, or the live song that you really want, just as long as it doesnít make people too cheap to buy the next album. And as long as they donít mind hearing the mistakes." In other words, through it all, R.E.M.ís maverick spirit has remained alive and well. I have a stack of freshly burned CDs to prove it.

R.E.M. play the Tweeter Center in Mansfield on October 5. Call (617) 931-2000.

Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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