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New Advantures In Hi-Fi by R.E.M.

 

 

 

It may not be Dead Letter Office II, but New Adventures in Hi-Fi is the most self-referential album R.E.M. has ever made. Despite (or maybe on account of) the band members' geographic dispersion, they have fallen back on familiar patterns. And that's okay, because those patterns were effective ones.

For instance, the first single, "E-bow The Letter" (which features a guest vocal by Patti Smith), is reminiscent of parts of Out of Time's "Country Feedback." "Departure" has enough bop-shoo-ba's to evoke Time's "Belong," and cops the guitar riff straight off of Document's "Strange." "Wake Up Bomb" sounds like R.E.M. trying to cover the Stooges (as they recently did on the live b-side "Funtime"). "Electrolite" could have been recorded at the Green sessions that produced "World Leader

Pretend," and "New Test Leper" is just as pretty, while evoking Life's Rich Pageant's articulate proclamations. (It even makes Michael Stipe's singing about L.A.'s Mulholland Drive forgiveable.) Then there's "Undertow" -- originally performed on the Monster tour -- with its water imagery and keening vocals, it would have fit nicely on Automatic for the People.

And interestingly -- and typically -- Stipe's lyrical contributions are once again largely indicipherable, but that dreamy uncertainty has always been one of this band's strengths. Meanwhile, Smith's appearance here is oddly appropriate: On her own recent album Gone Again, she solved a problem that often nags veteran artists -- how to rock with maturity. She mixed her dust-kicking with her moods and meditations, and Stipe and company have hit on the same wisdom here. In a sense,

New Adventures is a well-blended mix of the visceral strength of Monster and the subtlety of their mid-period work. So what if it doesn't break any new ground? Because it draws so heavily on the band's past, and because that past is indeed worth drawing on, New Adventures is a sterling work. A creative vein is a vein worth tapping, and R.E.M. shows no sign of running dry.

- Eric Flaum

 

And another one:

R.E.M. reinvents itself with each album, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi is no exception. Resembling neither the polished elegance of Automatic for the People nor the crude and crunchy hooks of Monster, Hi-Fi is the band's darkest record ever, a moody growl of a disc with none of the expected commercial sweetening. Of course, the album's odd conception determined its anything but "hi-fi" sound -- the tracks were recorded on tour in nine different cities, often at soundchecks and even in a Philadelphia dressing room. This decade's Running On Empty? Perhaps.

The muddy sound is an initial turn-off, and probably explains the disc's sluggish sales performance. Guitars and bass blend into a single gritty groove, and the keyboards used (Mellotron, ARPs, piano and organ) are daringly primitive. Michael Stipe's voice lacks some of its usual luster, but blame that on the fatigue of touring.

But what the record loses in refinement it gains in immediacy. Rockers like "The Wake-Up Bomb" and "Departure" moan with power, while reflective moments like "Electrolite," "Be Mine" and "New Test Leper" burst with soul. "Bittersweet Me," "Binky the Doormat" and "So Fast, So Numb" land somewhere in the middle, and are just as impressive. Of special note are "E-Bow the Letter" -- an epic ramble with a striking Patti Smith cameo -- and "Leave," a seven-minute demon with a speaker-exploding synthesizer loop. Not surprisingly, Stipe's lyrics reflect his tour experiences -- several tunes suggest the open road and/or travel, while others muse about the repercussions of fame and idol worship. Typically, it's a remarkably unified set of songs.

This is R.E.M.'s longest release ever (a hefty 65 minutes), and there's not much fat to trim here. That singular feat is enough to suggest that this band, which released its first EP, Chronic Town, fourteen years ago, is still leading its field.

- Eric Broome