New Adventures in Hi-Fi
(Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs)
R.E.M. is all over the map on their 10th and latest, aptly titled New Adventures in Hi-Fi disc, which was written and recorded for the most part during the band's world tour for Monster. The result is an album that often sounds looser, less focused than the band's recent releases — both a good and bad effect. Many of the more energetic tracks were at least partly recorded during live performances and soundchecks, while a handful of the album's moodier offerings like the icy piano album opener "How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us" and the string-augmented single "E-Bow The Letter" (with special guest Patti Smith adding a haunting harmony vocal) were recorded in a Seattle studio.
The band says they tried to "capture the kind of swirling, chaotic aspect of touring without actually writing songs about being on the road." Adventures is nothing if not chaotic. It opens with "How The West Was Won," a dreamy piece that has Michael Stipe sing-speaking over a piano riff. But then comes "The Wake-Up Bomb," which rests on Peter Buck's newfound love of the distortion pedal and Stipe's faux punk delivery. Then comes another slowdown; "New Test Leper" is a gently strummed **Automatic For The People** style ballad which then seques into "Undertow," a darkly shambling distortion dog.
The whole album works in this up-down-up-down melange of moods. "Leave" internalizes this trend by opening with a lightly picked guitar strain with organ backing. Suddenly, what sounds like an oscillating car alarm cuts in, the guitars kick into a menacing, low voice above the industrial oscillation, and Stipe complains of losing himself in memory and of other things that are "what keeps me down." It's the album's most adventurous and exciting song.
"Leave" is followed (ironically enough) by "Departure," a Stipe-barked three-chorder that's so gritty and echoey that it sounds lifted from a "live" album. While it's understood that much of the album was recorded at least in part live on stage, "Departure" is the only track that announces itself so obviously as a live recording, making it sound out of place beside the studio polish of "E-Bow The Letter."
R.E.M. jolts and glides through 14 songs on New Adventures, most of them passable, but few of them memorable. It listens like a mix of Monster and Automatic For The People with a touch of '80s R.E.M. mood thrown in here and there (the album's closer "Electrolite" sounds like country piano outtake from Murmur or Reckoning). But Stipe's growing penchant for staccatto poetry recital in place of singing gets old, and the songs just don't have either the lyrical or sonic edge of the band's best work. This seems like an album of R.E.M. songs to fill the gap until the band can really sit down and roll their sleeves up again at the composing board.
Just about the same time R.E.M. was releasing its latest, somewhat uneven recording New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs was reissuing the band's second, now 12-years-old album Reckoning. For my money, I have to point to the latter as the best buy. If you don't have Reckoning on CD, this is a great time to shell out some $$ and get it from MFSL as part of their gold Ultradisc series. The company did incredible work remastering R.E.M.'s Murmur a few months back, and Reckoning also comes out sounding a bit fresher from the MFSL audiphile treatment. The false intro to "Don't Go Back To) Rockville" has never sounded as crisp, coherent and fun. The whole album swims in a slightly cleaner audio fishbowl than before, which only underscores the band's early brilliance on songs like "Pretty Persuasion" and "7 Chinese Brothers."