Sunday, January 25, 2009

Album Review: "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" by R.E.M.

Evocative stuff.

(Yes, another really late update. And it's not even a requested review. JUST DEAL WITH IT.)

I'm glad I have now heard New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I guess I have Mr. Adam Spektor to thank for that - if he had not generously given me this album as a Christmas gift, there is a decent chance that I would not have ever listened to it, at least not for a long time.

Why? Well, I couldn't stand Monster after its first two tracks, so I was under the impression that after 1994 R.E.M. just decided to completely lose it for a good decade or so until Accelerate came out last year. Yeah, I knew "E-Bow The Letter," and that was kind of a cool song. Yes, I had heard positive reviews, but I heard plenty of positive reviews for Monster too, and well... y'know. So I was wary of New Adventures, and rightly so.

There are some traces of Monster present in this album. I'd say that I could comfortably divide most of Adventures' tracks into two categories: Monster-esque tracks with better production, and pretty old-school R.E.M. tracks updated for the 90s. Naturally, I enjoy the latter more, but the rockers here are surprisingly cool and much more enjoyable than the glam-macho confusion found on Monster; songs like "The Wake Up Bomb," "Departure" and "Binky The Doormat" are nice riff-driven rockers, despite some unusual spoke-sung Michael Stipe vocals. "Undertow," despite having some weirdly funky bass-driven opening that I'm not in love with, features a killer anthemic chorus. And "So Fast, So Numb" and "Low Desert" are a couple slower rockers on Side Two that really grow on you, despite being not quite as distinctive as the previous tracks.

But the pretty songs, man - that's where it's at. Thank God R.E.M. ditched the lame "alt-rock" of Monster for this one; beautiful songs like "New Test Leper" and "Electrolite" are good reminders of why people love R.E.M. in the first place. "E-Bow The Letter" features Stipe's least obnoxious spoken-word vocal delivery on the album, with a Patti Smith guest vocal that lends it a sweet, mysterious air. I also love the slow, moving "Be Mine," which despite its over-five-minutes running time always lifts my spirits when that lovely chorus hits. Even the more unusual songs, like the creepy opener "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" and the instrumental "Zither" are very enjoyable. This is a much, much more amiable R.E.M. than on Monster and, presumably, the non-Bill Berry albums that proceeded it.

Yes, Michael Stipe's occasionally-awkward vocals sometimes bring the album down a bit. But he also sings quite a few of these songs in a low croon, which I have always really liked. New Adventures in Hi-Fi, to me, is a very confident, solid R.E.M. record. As it should be - I mean, at this point, they had tried everything they could to create their own sound for the 90s (folk-pop on Out of Time, dark-contemporary on Automatic, fuzz-alt-rock on Monster); it's only appropriate that, by the middle of the decade, they had finally figured things out. It's a shame that Bill Berry had to get all brain-frozen right after and move to a farm or something! Man, things got weird. But I haven't heard much of R.E.M.'s stuff between New Adventures and Accelerate, so what do I know? They could all be underappreciated masterpieces for all I know.

My advice: if you want a good estimation of what R.E.M. were driving at in the 90s, New Advenutres is a decent place to start. Nothing shocking, nothing new. But solid! A little long, though. If you have the patience to sit through all seven-and-a-half minutes of "Leave," you are a better man than me.

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