Remarkably few American acts survived the early years of alternative rock. But thanks to 1994's Monster, R.E.M.'s noisy riposte to grunge, the college-rock favorites from Athens, Ga., appeared poised to gallop into a mature career that would please the heck out of old fans while still attracting the kids.
However, a comfortable middle age in pop was not to be. It turned out that "Crush with Eyeliner," "Star 69s" and other critically ballyhooed tunes from Monster were aberrations. R.E.M. hadn't found a new direction home; they'd simply caught a contact high from the excitement surrounding Nirvana and the rest of the Seattle crowd. When it went away, chief songwriters Michael Stipe and Peter Buck were unable to create anything noteworthy. The band's first album without longtime drummer Bill Berry, Up, was a listless, utterly unconvincing stab at the ambient murmuring of U.K. electronica, and by the time the new millennium had rolled around, they were going through the motions on overproduced exercises in rock 'n' roll profundity like 2001's Reveal, a mechanical ripoff of Brian Wilson that hit the CD bins with a resounding thud.
This was the great U.S. alt-rock group? By the early 2000s, they'd metamorphosed into a comfortable mid-baby-boomer version of the Rolling Stones, cranking out forgettable records for the next tour and relying on 10-, 20- and sometimes 25-year-old hits to get over live. How depressing.
According to many critics, the just-released Accelerate is the disc that's finally reversed this dismal trend and proved that there are still some big ideas left in Michael Stipe's bulbous dome. But I'm not hearing it. True to the collection's title, most of the songs are very fast. Stipe also has a habit of half-shouting acrid lyrics that implicate fat cats and conservative politicians in the wholesale degradation of the country and the planet itself. But with the exception of truly vigorous cuts like "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" and "Supernatural Superserious," all the aural flailing is of a piece.
This isn't a great artistic statement, it's a loud, up-tempo declaration of the fact that graying old guys can still rock.
I'm sure all the muscle-flexing is great for the guys' egos. It'll probably rekindle the sex lives of lawyers, accountants and bankers who pumped their fists to Monster back in college as well (hey, it's cheaper than Levitra). But after a brief buzz of excitement, I'm pretty certain that only the hardest of hardcore fans will be cranking Accelerate on their digital reproduction device of choice. Because, frankly, taken as a whole, it doesn't signify much more than the fact that the remaining members of R.E.M. are still alive and kickin'. And that's not nearly enough to jumpstart a career that's been languishing in the parking lane for far too long.
Say, doesn't that howling, squalling, downright otherworldly freak-out guitar work punctuating the Gomers' "Things Fall Apart" (on their new CD, Mike Zirkel the Album) sound familiar? Well, it should. At least to connoisseurs of weirdo pop and rock. That's because it comes from Adrian Belew, who's blown out more than a few fuses with the likes of Frank Zappa, David Bowie, King Crimson and his own bands.
Belew's contributions to the tough, lowing prog groove were recorded separately at his home studio outside Nashville by the Gomers' Biff Blumfumgagnge, who's spent nearly 20 years serving on Belew's tours as a guitar tech and sometime violinist. Unsurprisingly, the guitar craziness adds energy to the tune, but it also merges seamlessly with the sardonic, Zappa-meets-Kiss vibe the Gomers are working. Undoubtedly, the prog blogs will be impressed.