Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wildly Irregular R.E.M. Makes For The Last Worth-buying Disc For A While:New Adventures In Hi-Fi.

The Good: Some decent lyrics, Some good music
The Bad: Vocally dull, Musically uninspired
The Basics: R.E.M. makes the musical equivalent of a bunt; enough to get the recommend, but nothing more with the jumbled New Adventures In Hi-Fi.

Have you ever listened to something that you are reviewing so many times that you lose the initial hatred or antipathy toward it and eventually find yourself accepting it? I'm there with R.E.M.'s album New Adventures In Hi-Fi, a disc I despised the first seven times I listened to it. Coming off the greatness of Monster and Automatic For The People, New Adventures In Hi-Fi seemed a lot like R.E.M. trying to be edgy and experimental for the purpose of being experimental and alternative as opposed to actually having something to say.

But, I kept listening to it. The opening track captivated me and I knew "E-Bow The Letter" and "Electrolite" from the compilation album In Time. As well, I was familiar with a very different version of "Leave" from the second disc on In Time and hearing how radically different the version on this disc is was a real treat. Then "So Fast, So Numb" began to resonate with me . . . so five of the tracks I flat-out liked. Yeah, R.E.M. wore me down with this one. From the first listen until now, New Adventures In Hi-Fi has always struck me as an average album. The band managed to get me from a pretty firm "not recommend" to a weak "recommend" over the course of seventeen listens. Yes, this is far too much for most listeners to expect and the truth is, had it not been for a recent north-south cross country trip I was on, I probably never would have given it so many chances. Lucky R.E.M.

And this album truly does fall on R.E.M.; some of the elitist fans consider it R.E.M.'s last true outing as it is the final album including the entire original quartet. In fact, were it not for his departure following this album, R.E.M. and U2 would have both been in the running for Most Stable Band. The quartet of R.E.M. wrote and co-produced all fourteen tracks on New Adventures In Hi-Fi, an album that clocks out at 65:34, making it a decent value by the numbers. As always, they play their own instruments, making this very much the musical vision of R.E.M.

The fundamental problem with New Adventures In Hi-Fi is that it is a horribly erratic album, often sounding like a collection of random singles as opposed to a cohesive album. This is not an unfounded argument, either; the tracks were recorded in various cities, with additional personnel from their tour. And I am all for musical diversity; albums like Timbre by Sophie B. Hawkins (reviewed here!) endure because no two tracks sound alike. The problem with New Adventures In Hi-Fi is that it does not come together qualitatively as an experimental album. Instead, it is a musical grab bag.

Songs range from the sublime ballad of "How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us" to straight out rock ("The Wake-up Bomb") to surreal musical experimentalism ("E-Bow The Letter"). There are Monster-like rock tracks ("Leave") and Automatic For The People-like light pop ("New Test Leper"), though no works emulating their earlier garage band-rock style. Ironically, this is a fairly produced album, especially for one recorded over so many studios and locations as this one was.

R.E.M. varies the lyrics between the beautifully poetic and the strange on New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Indeed, one of the few tracks that grabbed me that I did not know beforehand was "How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us." This opens the album with a subtle, melancholy vocal performance but the lines track from the gritty and real to the pointless non sequitor. Stipe sings, "The story is a sad one, told many times / The story of my life in trying times / Just add water, stir in lime / How the west was won and where it got us" ("How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us") and it does not actually go anywhere. The musical protagonist sings about their loneliness and disfranchisement only to surrender to an allusion to western expansion . . . which does not tie back.

And yes, because lyrics are so important to me, I'll be the one who asks: what the hell is "e-bow?!" When you "e-bow" a letter, what the hell are you doing?! The song, "E-Bow The Letter" is a beautiful musical poem featuring backing vocals by Patti Smith. The lines are a collection of emotions and ideas, wonderfully observing, "Smoke it, drink / Here comes the flood / Anything to thin the blood / These corrosives do their / magic slowly and sweet / Phone, eat it, drink / Just another chink / Cuts and dents, they catch the light / Aluminum, the weakest link . . .Aluminum, tastes like fear / Adrenaline, it pulls us near . . ." ("E-Bow The Letter") and the lyrics merge perfectly with the murky instrumentals. This is a smoky song that stands in purposeful defiance to anything other than imagery and raw emotion. It is a song of feeling and it is quite effectively experimental. Sadly, the rest of the album does not succeed in being so original.

Instead, we get songs like "Undertow." With lyrics like "Brother can you see those birds? / They don't look to heaven /They don't need religion, they can see . . . I'm drowning / Breathing ourselves / Me . . ." ("Undertow"), R.E.M. expresses a sense of loss and aimlessness that is better on the page than it is to the ear. Sure, the song sounds like drowning, but the problem is, it sounds like something we've already heard from R.E.M. It is not original or different enough from things we already know (and like) from R.E.M. to be worthwhile. Lyrically, they have tread the same lines before.

The only thing less inspired are the vocals. On the prior album, Monster, lead singer Michael Stipe challenged himself by testing the full range of his vocal range. He did falsettos, he went low . . . here he stays safe within his mid-range vocals. It is standard, it is pedestrian and it is the least we could expect from R.E.M. and Stipe. Instead of further exploring vocally, Stipe returns to mumbling through many of his best lyrics.

The notable exception to this is on "E-Bow The Letter." The strings are slow and produced, keeping an undertone of desperation throughout the song, but Stipe's vocals are strangely clear and well-enunciated making it one of the better tracks on the album. Outside that and the way he holds the notes on "So Fast, So Numb," New Adventures In Hi-Fi is vocally dull in that it does not in any way surprise the listener. This is the musical equivalent of an actor being typecast; they take the same roles as we've seen them in before.

And by this point, the mumbling is just annoying. Seriously. Listening to the album over twelve times, the only way I discovered that the second song has Stipe belting out "wake-up bomb" instead of "wake-up bong" was by reading the title!

What does work for the most part is the sound of the various songs. R.E.M. uses a more diverse range of instruments on this album, making it one of the better aspects of listening to this over and over again. The electric guitars on "Leave" could have come right off of Monster, but Peter's use of the mandolin on "How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us" is nothing like his use of the same instrument on "Out Of Time." There is a great use of organ, mellotron (honestly, I don't know what that is, but it sounds great!), moog synthesizer (again, no idea what makes it a "moog"), Farfisa, and violin over the course of the album.

R.E.M. mixes up the instrumentals and that lends a diversity of sound to the album, even if it does not help make the work sound cohesive track to track. Similarly, the changes in tempo from fast songs ("Leave") to slow ones ("E-Bow The Letter") makes it an aurally interesting album in that respect. Some of the songs, though, are just loud, like "Bittersweet Me." The album is fairly soft in the middle because the instrumentals are either overbearing (like on "Bittersweet Me") or utterly unmemorable. "Departure," for example, could be any classic rock song by the instrumentals. And vocally, it's just Stipe almost-speaking the lines.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi took me a while to warm up to and I am fairly sure I'm at critical mass for it; the album is not one of R.E.M.'s best or standout albums. It is far too much of a jumble and does not have as much to say as many of their other works. The thing is, it has some pretty solid songs that would have shined on other albums. It's worth the price of the album to be able to hear those, but given a henpecking option . . . I'd probably pick three or four tracks that weren't on In Time and buy those instead of the full album.

The best track might well be "E-Bow The Letter," but the worst is easily "Departure." VERY weak "recommend."

For other R.E.M. albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Life’s Rich Pageant
Out Of Time
Automatic For The People
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2000 (Deluxe)
Around The Sun
. . . And I Feel Fine: The Best Of The I.R.S. Years


Check out how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the reviews are organized best to worst!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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