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Sound Check

History says that it's been only five years since R.E.M. mined quadruple-platinum with Out of Time. Looking back, though, that mammoth stage in the group's evolution hasn't aged particularly well, especially in the considerably more ambitious shadow of their latest, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. On Monster, Hi-Fi's immediate predecessor, R.E.M. waved its reverbed guitars in the faces of the skeptics who claimed (inaccurately) that the band had misplaced its rock edge -- or, perhaps, never had one to begin with. And while that 1994 effort was largely inspired by the group's desire to get back on the road, Hi-Fi taps the road for inspiration even as it deftly swerves to avoid road-release cliches.

Steering away from the "in concert" tour souvenir route, the guys in R.E.M. have worked up a richly varied batch of new songs. Hi-Fi's miscellaneous moods and textures smack of a broad-based experimental autonomy that recalls 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction. But this time, the exploration seems bred out of healthy curiosity rather than (as with Fables) the anxiousness that often accompanies a third-release identity crisis.

Ten of Hi-Fi's 14 tracks were recorded on last year's Monster tour, some in front of an audience, others during sound check and one -- the disarmingly tender instrumental aside, "Zither" -- at an informal dressing room session. The remaining four tunes were laid down at Bad Animals Studios in Seattle. Not surprisingly, the songs knocked out by the band on-stage are Hi-Fi's most gruff rockers. The sheer locomotive force of "Departure," Hi-Fi's most glaring tribute to mobility, feeds off of the positive energy of its Detroit audience. Ditto with "Undertow," its murky forward momentum captured in performance at a concert in Boston.

Prettier, more atmospheric moments came about in the sanctuary of the studio, and they are spread throughout Hi-Fi in a manner that defies any obvious thematic logic. The CD begins tentatively, for example, with the esoteric, trip-hoppy number "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," setting in motion an awkward ebb and flow that's apparently representative of the bumpy aesthetic ride the band was after. Upon repeated listens, that slapdash quality turns sublimely sensible.

Negotiating his way gingerly through Hi-Fi's disjointed itinerary is Michael Stipe, who suffuses his strained whimper/wail with spoken verse, flitting back and forth instinctively between coherent fragments and metaphoric, profound sounding gibberish. His delivery implies a state of perpetual restlessness that, like the music on Hi-Fi, mirrors the turmoil that dictated R.E.M.'s 1995 tour, a tumultuous blur of sold-out arenas, hospital stays (bassist Mike Mills and Stipe) and a near-death experience on-stage (drummer Bill Berry's aneurysm).

R.E.M. makes an admirable attempt to organize the mess with the gorgeous, refined finisher "Electrolite." As the song's tidy pop melody resonates and fades, Stipe declares matter-of-factly, "I'm outta here."

You have to think that he's just making idle conversation, though. Everything about the extraordinary New Adventures in Hi-Fi indicates that Stipe, Mills, Berry and Buck plan on sticking around for a while. (****) (Hobart Rowland)

Like overripe cheese, few things offend as mightily as aged teen angst. Especially when you can't even dance to it. The misnamed New Adventures in Hi-Fi is neither new nor adventurous, but a preening collection of big chords and lyrical drivel that will no doubt sell as handsomely as any R.E.M. release since 1988's Green.

Bands that don't have anything to say usually either attack only their instruments or holler to cover their shortcomings. Michael Stipe takes a different approach, offering faux-poetical snippets the ear has to strain to catch, while the connectors are lost behind Peter Buck's repetitive strummings. R.E.M. fans may mistake such evocative song titles as "New Test Leper" and references to Maria Callas, William Greider and Steve McQueen for cool profundity, but it all has a hipper-than-thou reek.

On the other hand, maybe it's better that the band throws a few words into the mix. R.E.M. was at its instrumental best in the early '80s as a throb-rocking bar band wringing sweat from writhing bodies in small East Coast clubs. The further Stipe and his mates move toward slow, trancelike songs that actually require listening, the more its collective choplessness intrudes. Through the guitar and synth fog, it's hard to tell whether the occasional sprinkle of acoustic instruments adds to or soothes the pain (but take the sickly "Zither" with its sorry autoharp backdrop ... please).

Alas, you can't go backward in the music business, and maybe all the overtones of anguish, despair and plaintive meditations on fame that dominate Hi-Fi reflect the sad truth of soulless stadium concerts and the other inescapable claws of success. R.E.M. could break apart tomorrow and retire to the fat farm, make movies, whatever. But the band has less chance of returning to its clubland roots than this CD has of actually living up to its name. (*) (Bob Burtman)  

More like Consistency Revisited. R.E.M. is now at that stage of its career where the predictably accurate keywords in any release review are "tasteful" and "craft." We know, we know: R.E.M. doesn't make bad albums. But the question raised by New Adventures in Hi-Fi is: can they still make a good one?

Two points of small, and relative, interest. The minimalist piano pattern and ambient funk bass line of "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" sounds happily less like an R.E.M. song than the sardines lined up behind it, and "Leave" cranks through a weird siren-y whiplash on its way to standardization. Everything else -- including "E-Bow the Letter," with a wasted background vocal appearance by Patti Smith -- does only what R.E.M. has come to do so well (with increasingly diminishing rewards), which is sound like R.E.M.

And what's increasingly defining the band's sound is Peter Buck's tub o' limitations as a guitarist. Buck has never been much on six strings, but you might expect him to pick up at least a few new tricks over the years. Nope. Not unless you count "Be Mine," wherein Buck sounds like he's trying out his three chords through a new Candlebox effect, and who needs more than five minutes of that? Half of the CD's 14 tracks clock in at this length, and all it sounds like is lazy, since there's no traveling in those time spans, just repetition.

If you want to think about something while these "tasteful" and "crafted" numbers are droning on, there's the fact that some of this stuff was recorded live on the Monster tour, while other bits emerged from a studio setting. This two-things-at-once approach (tour and write, studio songs and live songs) is supposed to be some sort of Big Creative Project to create the Seamless Whole out of Disparate Elements. Drummer Bill Berry is quoted in the band's press material as admitting, by way of establishing the challenge, that "we've never been able to make a record and tour at the same time." Well hooray, now R.E.M.'s done that.

Next? (**) (Brad Tyer)

New Adventures in Hi-Fi reminds me a lot of the new James Bond BMW convertible. It's cute, it was wildly popular before it hit the market and it has absolutely no relationship whatsoever with my personal reality except as a peripheral part of the passing landscape.

There are times when I take comfort in having missed large chunks of the last 15 years, and this is one of those times. Not that my opinion will matter an inkling in the platinum-plated scheme of the stadium rock universe. So here I am, feelin' like Admiral Stockdale at a vice presidential debate, unconvinced that anything I say is relevant in the face of this CD's inevitable success. But the hell with it, here goes.

Hi-Fi has a lot of hypnotic, droning synthesizer that almost drowns out some interesting piano work; Michael Stipe exhibits repeatedly that he can sing fast, loud and coherently. There's not much evidence anyone in the band can write lyrics, so that's a talent that goes underutilized. "The Wake-Up Bomb," and "Binky the Doormat" are among a surplus of formulaic stadium anthems; it's easy to visualize the concert video clips of dancing maybe-teenage fans lip-synching in the aisles to about half of this release.

To tell you the truth, these are not lyrics a sorta-teenage fan would have a hard time memorizing. In particular, there's a gloomy, angst-ridden wail of self-pity called "Bittersweet Me" that I'm sure will go over big with whatever age group is currently convinced they invented the metaphor of "chewing off my own leg" to describe ending a relationship. About the only track where it sounds like the band is having any fun is "E-Bow the Letter," which features the CD's best prose, anguished nonsense that's strongly reminiscent of '70s-vintage Dory Previn poetry. Sadly, though, the result is still lost in space, but if vocal guest Patti Smith wants to MIDI-fy herself into the middle of the next century, she's got the pipes and the credentials to keep the machines in their place.

New Adventures in Hi-Fi's most unsettling example of machines-gone-mad is on "Leave," which for some reason features a repetitive, high-pitched pinging noise that's a dead ringer for a Soviet echo-ranging sonar that I've heard once before -- in unpleasant circumstances -- and will never forget. What it's doing here baffles me, except as a reminder that one person's high art is another person's pretentious scribbling, and that while vast hordes will surely drink deep from this well, it probably won't do most of them much harm. (*) (Jim Sherman)  

***** Monumental excursion
**** Ride to remember
*** Worth the gas
** Danger of highway trance
* Don't bother fueling up


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