Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Back in Gear

Album release day is a holiday of sorts. For music fans it's a culmination of a journey, beginning when you first hear that one of your favorite bands are back in the studio. The waiting game begins... New songs are being written! They're moving to another studio! The demos are adventurous and edgy! The song list has been finalized! Sequencing and mixing are complete! Artwork! We have artwork! When release day finally comes (and you've gone through the self-discipline of refusing to listen to leaked versions on torrent sites) it can be like getting an extra birthday - and one that sometimes can even come several times a year. The quality of that gift can vary of course. Sometimes the gift takes a band that you had a middling interest in, and launches them into the stratosphere of musical giants (see: Z.) Sometimes it treats you like an out of touch aunt, taking something you once held sacred and making you now feel like a fool (see: Make Believe.)

Or sometimes, like today, the gift simply offers a reminder about how we are drawn to bands in the first place.

For the past decade or so, R.E.M. fans have watched the band ceremoniously fall from grace. The commercial failures haven't been that important, although it never went without notice that suddenly their 1980's counterpart U2 was suddenly once again the "biggest band in the world," after two inexplicably sub par albums. But U2 could get away with that. When you're as desperate to remain famous as Bono, you can convince people that you're still relevant, whether the music backs your point or not. R.E.M. did not have that luxury. They never wanted to be rock stars, they just wanted to be a band. The flaw with this mindset, however, is that when the music is uneven (as Reveal was) or just adult-contemporary swill (Around the Sun), you have nothing to fall back on. They couldn't keep shoving a horrible single down people's throats via iPod ads because they had always been a band selling music above image, so when the music doesn't hold up, you just have four normal looking guys from Athens, not..well...this guy.

But the R.E.M. resurgence begins with Accelerate, and thus far reviews seem to be solid. It's not an earth-shattering sonic overhaul, but neither is following the lead of resting on past laurels. It's simply a welcome reminder that the band actually can make a great album without Bill Berry (something that since 1999, I've thought would probably never happen again.)

My all-time favorite R.E.M. clip is from 25 years ago, and it's my favorite for several reasons.
  • It shows how different late night shows are today when compared to 1983. This was their 2nd song of the broadcast, which you would never see today, especially with the host interviewing the band in between songs.
  • On that same thread, what band plays an untitled, not yet recorded song on their national TV debut? This is what happens when bands decide what they should play, as opposed to record execs.
  • It's a reminder that Michael Stipe was once actually camera shy, as he hides behind Peter Buck, piping up only to name drop Herschel Walker.
  • The awkward banter is nothing less than compelling. Letterman really wants to get to the bottom of what's going on in Athens, and will not accept "Nothing" as an answer.
  • A young Mike Mills still has "rock star" written all over him, doesn't he?

3 comments:

Ross McLochness said...

Anyone else notice that of all the people mentioned on that cover of Time - Arafat, Ariel Sharon, Daniel Pearl - only Bono is still alive?

We're stuck with his U2ness for a while it seems.

Dirk Calloway said...

Technically, Sharon is still alive, although in his state I don't think he'll be hanging with the Gates family anytime soon.

Ross McLochness said...

Wow, what a jerk I am.

I knew about the stroke, but I could have swarn he ended up dying. I need to quit confusing Ariel Sharon with Robert Goulet.