Friday, October 03, 2003

Signs of life for R.E.M.?

I caught R.E.M. on David Letterman last night. They performed "Bad Day," which is one of the new songs from their upcoming disc: "In Time: The Best of R.E.M 1988-2003".

For the record, I'm of the opinion that the actual "Best of R.E.M." all happened before 1988 and that, in general, the band has sucked since 1992 ("Automatic For The People").

So I didn't expect much more than a cure for my insomnia when I pulled the Letterman show up off the PVR at about 1 a.m.

The pride of Athens surprised me.

First off, "Bad Day" is a damn good, old-school R.E.M. song. According to Pete Buck, the song has been around in a rough form since "Life's Rich Pageant" (c.1986), which explains its lack of sucking (and the Bill Berry writing credit).

And, being as "In Time" is a best-of record containing just two new songs, Stipe doesn't have the chance to turn this release into the kind of downer record he's shaped most recently.

But more significantly, Buck, Mills and Stipe actually seemed to be enjoying pounding out the classic R.E.M. brand of rock.

That Buck would be enjoying being an actual rock-n-roll guitarist is not surprising, seeing as he spends his spare time playing poorly-attended gigs alongside Young Fresh Fellow/unofficial Scott McCaughey in their side projects The Minus 5/Tuatara. At their Variety Playhouse show a few months back, Pete was selling t-shirts and making change after the gig. He's a rocker.

But Stipe and Mills have not shown much desire of late to be rock guys. Stipe's brought the mood down to atmospheric jazz levels on four of the band's last five records, and Mills has seemed content to go with the flow, play what Stipe wants to play and cash his checks.

That he could easily have been replaced by a drum machine on "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" helped push Bill Berry out the door.

In fairness, the boys are 23 years into this gig. That's an eternity in rock-n-roll, and signficant evolution and change has to be expected.

And come January, Buck will be 47, Mills 45 and Stipe 43. So they deserve some slack there.

On Letterman, however, Stipe and Mills were ready to rock. R.E.M.'s website features a video of rehearsals for the current tour in which the fellas relish the rock of "Maps and Legends" and "Get Up".

The video for "Bad Day" is a cheeky poke at TV news - complete with a mock website - that seems more the speed of Weezer than the old men of R.E.M.

And on Tour '03, R.E.M. has been liberally mixing in rockin' old tunes such as "Sitting Still" to go with the obligatory "Losing My Religion", "End of the World" "Man on the Moon", etc.

These are all good signs for fans of the old-time R.E.M. such as myself.

I doubt I'll buy "In Time", seeing as I don't like most of the 1998-2003 "best of" tracks; and I have no intention to shell out $47 - $67 to see them at Philips next weekend. I hate big-venue shows, so the one and only time I saw R.E.M. live was at the Saenger Theatre down in New Orleans - 1985, I believe.

But for what it's worth, based on what I'm seeing with "Bad Day" and their live stuff, my opinion of R.E.M. is swinging back toward the positive.


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