Listen: It's clearly R.E.M. Music: In its sounds and sensibility, new album is connected to all the band has done before.

September 10, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

As much as the Beatles were celebrated for their inventiveness -- the way they flirted with exotic instrumentation and dabbled in dozens of styles -- in some ways the band's greatest achievement was how the band held onto its musical identity. Sure, the psychedelic opulence of "Magical Mystery Tour" may have had little in common instrumentally with the lean, four-piece sound of "Please Please Me," but each was unequivocally and unmistakably a Beatles album.

Few bands since have been both as creative and consistent, but R.E.M. undoubtedly belongs in those ranks. "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" (Warner Bros. 46320, arriving in stores today) sounds no more like the raucous, rollicking "Monster" than "Monster" echoed the brooding melancholy of "Automatic for the People."

Yet "New Adventures" not only seems of a piece with the other albums, but actually comes across as part of a logical progression. Granted, even the most insightful listeners would have had a hard time predicting that the triumphant guitars of "What's the Frequency Kenneth" would ultimately lead to the squalling feedback that caps "Undertow," much less the pounding two-beat guitar hook that powers "Departure."

Like the Beatles, though, R.E.M. grasps the difference between a change in sound and a change in sensibility. And as much as "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" finds the quartet working with a broader sonic palette, the attitude behind that sound is essentially unchanged.

Start with "How the West Was Won and What It Got Us." Stylistically, it's a hodgepodge, layering stabbing, staccato piano chords over fatback drums, dub-style bass and spaghetti Western guitar.

But rather than come across as just a jumble, what those diverse elements convey is anxiety and unease, emotions that tie nicely into the muttered resignation of Michael Stipe's vocal. So even though the specifics of the arrangement may be new to R.E.M., the feel is remarkably familiar.

It helps, of course, that R.E.M. -- particularly Stipe -- has always emphasized the intuitive aspects of popular music. For instance, even if you know that the e-bow referred to in the song "E-bow the Letter" is a hand-held electrical device that allows guitarists to get an effect not unlike bowing a violin, figuring out how the word fits in with the rest of the title takes some doing. Maybe it's a pun on "e-mail"; perhaps it's a private joke only the band members get.

Ultimately, though, what the title means doesn't much matter. What makes the song work isn't the wordplay (though I do love the line "Aluminum tastes like fear") but the languorous, melancholy music that swirls around Stipe's lyrics. In that sense, the song is almost the aural equivalent of a dream, bypassing the analytic, verbal part of the listener's brain for its non-linear, emotional core.

So instead of focusing on Stipe, it may be more providential to look at the instrumental end of the band.

Guitarist Peter Buck is probably the album's most prominent player, not because he dominates the songs in typical guitar-hero fashion (in fact, there's not a guitar solo to be heard), but because what and how he plays tends to define the shape and feel of each arrangement.

Granted, his work is louder than ever on this album, offering even more crunch and distortion than he did on the mighty "Monster," but apart from "Undertow," there's very little in-your-face guitar here.

Instead, what we get is texture. Buck is playing all sorts of tricks with his tone this time around. In "New Test Leper," he starts off with strummed acoustic backed by distorted power chords on the verse, shifts to an arpeggiated Leslie cabinet effect (like on the Beatles' "She's So Heavy") for the chorus, then tosses in Duane Eddy-style twang on the bridge.

It isn't just sound for its own sake, though. "The Wake-up Bomb," for instance, is built around a punchy power riff that any other guitarist would have seen as an excuse for amp-cranking.

But Buck pulls back, so that the overdrive of his amps blends in with the mellower roar of the organ, lending the song fullness without getting it drunk on aggression.

By contrast, the distortion that creeps into his tone during the chorus of "Be Mine" takes away from the prettiness of its chord changes, so that the song sounds more melodic without seeming any happier.

Add in the special effects drummer Bill Berry applies, like the whooping alarm that helps him keep time in "Leave," and it quickly becomes clear why the band dubbed this "New Adventures in Hi-Fi." But impressive as R.E.M.'s sound is, what ultimately carries the album are the emotions that sound evokes.

Then again, isn't that what they've always done?

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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