Judge Bill Gibron can usually tell a swan swan hummingbird from a crush with eyeliner.
Twentieth Century, go to sleep.
They've been around for almost 30 years, several lifetimes in terms of rock and roll. They've remained virtually intact, losing drummer Bill Berry to retirement in 1997 and agreeing to remain a three piece thereafter. They've explored everything from anthemic arena chants to subtle folk songs, becoming vanguards for college radio in the '80s and alternative musings in the '90s. Perhaps most importantly, REM hasn't de-evolved into a nostalgia act, roaming around concert venues and state fairs playing a carefully programmed catalog of their greatest hits. From electronic to straight ahead cockrocking, from political grandstanding to the weird and wonky world inside singer Michael Stipe's brain, these Athens, Georgia acolytes continue to enthrall. So it seems hard to believe that they had never been a part of the legendary PBS series Austin City Limits…until now. Focusing heavily on a current album and representing a lean, mean, and sonically stripped down version of their often layered sound, this amazing performance will leave lifelong fans wondering where the classics are. Others will just be happy to see the band invigorated and vital, playing a set list that includes:
"Living Well is the Best Revenge"—from the 2008 album
With nine of the eleven tracks from Accelerate represented and very little from their early '80s output (don't look for anything from Murmur, Fables of the Reconstruction, or Document here), REM is clearly out to prove that they are relevant and contemporary. Stipe even jokes during the between song patter that most of the songs don't last longer than a couple of minutes, so the crowd needn't worry if they don't recognize them. While the lack of representative tracks like "Radio Free Europe," "The One I Love," "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" and "Can't Get There From Here" will drive the fair weather faithful to distraction, the material from the new LP comes across as angry and aggressive, keeping well within the album's title ideals. With Accelerate, REM were pulling yet another Monster—walking away from their otherwise ethereal and wistful musical inclinations to burn the sides off any and all rural route barns standing in their way. Oddly enough, the televised performance cut out three recognizable tunes—"So. Central Rain," "Fall on Me," and "Imitation of Life"—so things were even more Accelerate-ceentric. Still, Peter Buck remains an amazing Rickenbacker player, his guitar offset by Mike Mills lyrical bass work. But it's Stipe that has to play salesman, and he does so swimmingly.
All this being said, the Austin City Limits venue is not the best for REM. The crowd proximity and constant camera attention means that everyone plays to the lens. This is product over performance. And then there is the attention to Accelerate. It's rare when a band decides to use their first appearance on a venerable TV show to shill for only one item, and it's no coincidence that the group's concert was timed to arrive the same month as the new LP. Whether or not such cross promotion was successful is up to managers and label suits to decide. For those who've never had a chance to see REM live, a broader spectrum of selections would have been nice. Similarly, Stipe is now 50 (he was 48 at the time) and there is a ravage quality to his vocals that, while offering a nice bit of unexpected gravitas, turns tracks like "Fall on Me" and "So. Central Rain" into struggles. Also, as part of the package, New West masters the music so loudly, that, when compared to the casual interaction between the band and the audience, we can barely hear what's being said. Still, the tech specs are pretty great. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks excellent, the direct from video transfer capturing lots of detail, and the DTS Digital Surround 5.1 is immersive and very powerful indeed.
Three decades ago, REM was considered a quaint collective of oddball musical eccentrics avoiding the trappings of New Wave, Heavy Metal, Hair Bands and standard pop to forge their own uniquely idiosyncratic soundscape. Twenty-nine years and fourteen albums later, the group shows no signs of slowing down or bowing to their legacy. Viewers of Live from Austin Texas will get a first hand glimpse of what this means—for good and for bad.
Not Guilty, though it would have been nice to hear a bit more variety in the song selection.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New West Records
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