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U2 & R.E.M.: Bands of Brothers

Doug Collette By

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R.E.M. and U2 helped shepherd what was dubbed alternative rock into the mainstream, not only by their commercial success, but through their artistic integrity.
Once dual figureheads of a new rock movement, R.E.M. and U2 helped shepherd what was dubbed alternative rock into the mainstream, not only by their commercial success, but through their artistic integrity. The former from the American south the latter from fiery Ireland paralleled each other's progress until a few years ago...

Like a young jazzman eager to prove his mettle with one solo, U2 have hurtled through their recording career. Embarking with no little urgency( Boy ), the quartet have suffered some less-than-stellar moments ( Zooropa, Pop ) as they have defined their own rock conventions ( The Joshua Tree ) then had the courage to improvise upon them ( Achtung Baby ).

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is the second of two albums where the Irish group has been set on simplicity as much as possible, relying here as they did for All that You Can't Leave Behind on the core values and virtues of the quartet. It's little wonder the tracks and by extension, the whole album, is so effectively condensed: Steve Lillywhite, studio supervisor on the earliest U2—up to War —is the primary producer here. "One Step Closer" has the potential to become a stadium-chant, but here it's cut short before the melodrama sinks it. Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, the two who encouraged the cerebral atmosphere in recordings such as The Unforgettable Fire are also present, but way down on the list of credits. "City of Blinding Lights" is both stark and soaring, proving how easy it is to become immersed in the pure sound of this cd, whether it's loud, or comparatively soft: whereas the previous album has a halting sense of self-consciousness, hard rock cuts like "Vertigo"(it's commercial cache aside)resound with the abandon of utter confidence, as does more reflective balladry such as "Miracle Drug"

The spartan strings that appear on the latter cut reappear on "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," where Bono sings with heartfelt earnest emotion that sweeps aside his public pretensions. High-minded populism shrinks to the personal and honestly poignant on "A Man and A Woman." The Edge, who also plays judicious keyboard and synthesizer parts throughout the album, hews to the truism of 'less is more' when handling his guitar; he relies as much on the spaces between his chords, as on the freight-train roar of "All Because of You" and the minimal notes of his solos are no more crucial than the his guitar

Only the individual listener can decide whether U2 retain their musical and humanist credibility in the midst of the almost terminal marketing campaigns for Apple, contrived stunts such as the "Saturday Night Live" appearance and the guerilla performances in New York on this new disc's street date. When you are a mega-band like U2, you have to deal with your image in some way shape or form, and, like the Rolling Stones, the quartet are confronting their challenges to idealism the best they know how, with the most lethal weapon at their command:their music. If that sounds like a paradox for a band who sings about "Love & Peace or Else," it's only one of the many, but the seemingly unbreakable bond between these four men renders such ideas moot when they play together.

REM rode a wave of inspired spontaneity through much of their early to mid career. Production pieces such as Out of Time and Automatic for the People ware counterbalanced by the impromptu rush of Murmur and the resounding Document , all of which peaked with Adventures in HiFi , recorded in a masterstroke of inspiration where bits and pieces recorded live and at sound checks from a tour were sculpted into an album as cohesive as a band could make.

Perhaps its little wonder, then, that REM has had a terribly difficult time attempting to reinvent their group chemistry since the departure of charter member/drummer Bill Berry after that album. 1998's Up sounds in retrospect like little more than a Michael Stipe solo album, not surprising since he took the lead in maintaining some semblance of the group's identity. A new collective persona became more manifest as the three remaining members assembled a larger band to tour and record Reveal , where the elliptical viewpoints of the lead singer were again in balance with a purified rock sensibility, read "GUITARS."

Around The Sun
Warner Bros.

On the new album, Around the Sun, REM has regressed again , but worse, sounds utterly conventional having done so. This band has never been truly innovative, but they have proven able to breath life into traditional forms, whether it's jangle-pop rock or the lush production values of mainstream pop. Mike Mills' counterpoint harmonies on "Leaving New York" faintly echo earlier, superior work, but here the effect sounds studied. Keyboard structures on "Electron Blue" are strictly textbook, surprising in light of the most recent touring, while the emotional goal of "The Outsiders" eludes Michael Stipe, never the most passionate of singers to begin with. The orchestration on "I Wanted to be Wrong" doesn't sound naturally derived from the song itself, calling into serious question whether REM has a vision of its own music any longer.

It may not be a fair comparison, but the alternative pedigree of REM and current rock darlings Wilco is similar, as are(at least superficially), their respective tools of the trade. In contrast to REM, however, Wilco have become masters of crafting recordings in the studio that evolve organically from the compositions of Jeff Tweedy and, perhaps more importantly, from his interaction with the rest of the band. The guitars that surface momentarily during "Boy in the Well" is symbolic of Peter Buck's reduced role in REM: whether intentional or not, his absence appears crucial based on the outcome of this latest album, especially following in the footsteps of the previous two.

Professionally produced, with an admirable ambition to be heard as a personal statement, Around the Sun would not be recognizable as REM were it not for Stipe's voice(and he is not the idiosyncratic singer he used to be). This lack of personality and chemistry does not bode well for the future of this group of musical inconoclasts

Stories of early tapes for this album lost or stolen give credence to a natural sensation of devil-may -care in the way U2 play on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb ; it's as if the band is saying "This is the way we sound when we don't think about it too much," a healthy attitude of solidarity that REM hasn't experienced in far too long and, perhaps, may not again.

Visit U2 on the web.

Tracks: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

1.Vertigo; 2.Miracle Drug; 3.Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own; 4.Love and Peace or Else; 5.City of Blinding Lights; 6.All Because of You; 7.A Man and a Woman; 8.Crumbs from Your Table; 9.One Step Closer; 10.Original of the Species; 11.Yahweh.

Personnel: Bono: vocals & guitar; The Edge; guitar, synthesisers & keyboards; Adam Clayton: bass; Larry Mullen Jr.: drums & percussion; Daniel Lanois: guitar, percusion & pedal steel; Jacknife Lee: keyboards & synthesisers; Brian Eno: synthesisers;

Visit R.E.M, on the web.

Tracks: Around The Sun 1.Leaving New York; 2.Electron Blue; 3.The Outsiders; 4.Make It All Okay; 5.Final Straw; 6.I Wanted to Be Wrong; 7.Wanderlust; 8.Boy in the Well; 9.Aftermath; 10.High Speed Train; 11.The Worst Joke Ever; 12.The Ascent of Man; 13.Around the Sun

Personnel: Michael Stipe: vocals; Mike Mills: bass, keyboards and vocals; Peter Buck: guitars; also: Scott McCaughey; Ken Stringfellow; Bill Rieflin; Jamie Candiloro; Hahn Rowe; Q-Tip


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