Music » Music Etc.

Regaining their religion

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No artist who has worked without a pause can be completely happy when observers label a new record a “comeback.” But there’s no arguing that, for R.E.M., there’s a lot at stake with the new Accelerate (Warner Brothers). The band has acknowledged (in interviews and with the record’s title) a need to re-focus and adrenalize things after
recent efforts that disappointed aesthetically, commercially, or both.

The something-to-prove attitude was evident at the group’s recent taping of an Austin City Limits show, an intimate in-studio performance following their huge SXSW show at Stubb’s: Working himself up for the cameras in the first song, Michael Stipe struck aggressive poses and held them rigidly, working to push his vitality off the stage and through video cameras to a TV nation. He loosened up quickly, offering more between-song banter than some might have expected, but a self-admitted nervousness lingered and probably helped the set, which was mostly drawn from the new disc.

Stipe jokingly reassured fans that they shouldn’t despair if they didn’t like a new song, adding, “It’ll be over in two-and-a-half minutes,” which was nearly true. Squeezing 11 tracks into 35 minutes, Accelerate makes its points efficiently, planting its hooks urgently without lingering to argue that they’re Important. If it’s not among their very best albums, it is at least — thank the college-rock gods — recognizably the work of the band that has mattered so much to so many
of us.

There are a couple of slow-moving songs here, like “Until the Day is Done,” which applies an appropriately somber, end-of-things atmosphere to lyrics about “an addled republic” where “the country’s in ruins.” (Yes, it’s a political record, from the Katrina-themed “Houston,” which begins, “If the storm doesn’t kill me /the government will” to the sizzling “Man-Sized Wreath,” which, intentionally or not, evokes the “man-sized” safe looming in the corner of Dick Cheney’s office.)

But the moody numbers are outweighed by hot-footed ones: The title track, whose discordant four-note guitar intro recalls some of the earliest sounds the group made; “Horse to Water,” which could have been on Document (is Mike Mills’ “water” in the background a weird nod to the Sons of the Pioneers classic “Cool Water”?); and at least three songs that are drawn from the genetic material of Lifes Rich Pageant’s “These Days” without feeling like clones. Accelerate is indeed a comeback, and if hearing that pisses off the band, so much the better — evidently, a little agitation now and then is just what they need.

Returning to a long-forsaken well is an iffier undertaking on Trinity Revisited (Zoë), a Cowboy Junkies CD/DVD with a necrophiliac premise: The group celebrated the 20th anniversary of their milestone Trinity Sessions by returning to the Toronto church where it was recorded and re-doing the whole thing live with little rehearsal. It’s easy to see the appeal of doing this as a live show — longtime fans would have been lucky to get a ticket — but as a record release it’s unnecessary at best. the novelty of guest-star appearances — Vic Chesnutt warbling the quoted section of “Blue Moon Revisited,” for instance — doesn’t outweigh the sense that messing with perfection is unwise.

Another questionable revival has a consciousness-jarring connection to R.E.M.: 1982, the year of that group’s debut EP Chronic Town (which followed 1981’s small-press single “Radio Free Europe”) was also the year of Thriller. Michael Jackson’s zillion-selling record recently got a “25th Anniversary” reissue (a year late, but then the artist has had distractions to deal with) whose bonus tracks, ranging from the irrelevant to the annoying, were discussed in these pages not long ago. The sole reason for non-obsessives to note the release is the bonus DVD, which offers three classic videos (dig the Warriors-meets-West Side Story action of “Beat It”) and one bit of history: Jackson live, giving an electrifying physical at a Motown concert where he introduced the world to the Moonwalk.


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