>Album Review: "Collapse Into Now" by R.E.M.

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There are a few things I need to say about this new R.E.M. album. Here are those things:

1) I am glad I listened to it all the way through more than once or twice before I decided to sit down and review it. If I hadn’t I would have been all “BUUGUHH IT’S NOT AS GOOD AS ACCELERATE BUHH BUHUHGGUH”

2) It’s not as good as Accelerate.

3) More than one record reviewer has referred to Collapse Into Now as their “comeback album,” as if they hadn’t said the exact same thing about Accelerate three years ago.

4) More than one record reviewer has referred to Collapse Into Now as either a sign of R.E.M. finally returning to their former glory, or as a disappointing mediocrity compared to their ’82-’92 classic period. I even recall somebody saying “I’m sick and tired of all these so-so R.E.M. albums!” What these people need to understand is that R.E.M. are a group of 50-year-old men. Their status as trailblazing alternative jangle-men is way, way behind them. If you are expecting them to record a Document or even an Out Of Time again, you’re fooling yourself. You need to gauge your expectations. Nothing gold can stay, Ponyboy.

5) These are some of the worst song titles in the history of anything. “Mine Smell Like Honey”? “Oh My Heart”? “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”? “It Happened Today”? “Discoverer”? “Every Day Is Yours To Win”? I mean – this isn’t – I don’t know.

6) There are some pretty dumb, dumb lyrics on here! And they are impossible to ignore.

7) Michael Stipe’s been sporting a straight-up beard recently. Is it weird that I kind of love Stipebeard?

No. I don’t think it’s weird.

OK I think the “list bit” has run its course. The truth about Collapse Into Now is that it is a pretty solid R.E.M. album despite some stupid lyrics and boring ballads. It mines their past discography just as much as Accelerate did, but it lacks that album’s off-the-cuff energy and affability. You can hear them trying a little harder here, is what I mean. You can tell that the confidence boost from Accelerate‘s positive critical reception pushed them into trying to make an “important” album. They’ve also thrown some Peter Buck mandolin back into the mix in a clear attempt to recapture that Automatic For The People magic that does not really work. “Uberlin” is nice, but “Oh My Heart” is another awkward “Swan Swan H” retread and “Me, Marlon Brando” is pretty dull. And despite being an obvious attempt at re-creating “E-Bow The Letter,” “Blue” could have been a pretty effective piece of sadness if not for Stipe’s completely terrible spoken word poetry oh my GOD MAKE IT STOP.

But here’s the thing – the fast-paced jangly “rockers” on this album are good. Very good! This does not make even a little bit of sense. 50-year-old men should not be this good at writing catchy little rock songs, but man, they still got it! Despite having the world’s worst title, “Mine Smell Like Honey” is wonderfully catchy and features some never-not-great Mike Mills backing vocals, while “Alligator” and “That Someone Is You” are at least Accelerate-worthy. “Discoverer” is a solid “Finest Worksong” remake, “All The Best” would fit in pretty well on New Adventures In Hi-Fi and “It Happened Today” features some painfully gorgeous harmony vocals in its last minute or so (despite having what my friend Rick referred to as a “ridiculously 90s Sister Hazel-esque chord sequence,” which is totally correct).

I did notice – are Stipe’s vocals awkwardly buried in a good chunk of these tracks, or is it just me? You can really hear it on “Discoverer,” especially. It was the first thing that hit me when I previewed some of these songs for the first time. Strange, considering how up-front and strong his vocals were on most of Accelerate and Live At The Olympia. You think there’s something going on, there? Was that a conscious decision, to de-emphasize the vocals? Or maybe he’s losing his voice or something. I don’t know.

Bottom line: Collapse Into Now is exactly the kind of album I would expect from R.E.M. at this point in their career. To expect anything more from them is wrong. If they continue to churn out records of Collapse Into Now-level quality for the rest of their existence, I will be perfectly happy. If not, well, that’s fine. They could retire for all I care. They’re a bunch of middle-aged men who have already made a bunch of great, great albums. They don’t need to do anything else. If they want to keep recording music, well, god bless ’em.

Still not as good as Accelerate, though.

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>Album Review: "Fables Of The Reconstruction" by R.E.M.

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RECONSTRUCTION

Oho, so here I am, writing about R.E.M. again. I have been listening to so SO much new music recently, and yet all I have to show for it is a review of an album – and a band – that I have loved since the beginning of time. Way to work outside of your comfort zone, Rose.

But I have an excuse! Today’s record, 1985’s Fables Of The Reconstruction, was just recently re-released – and, thankfully, it is getting a whole slew of long-deserved positive press. This is good news, considering that Fables tends to be the one early R.E.M. record that is continually ignored, even by diehard fans; not only was it sandwiched uncomfortably between Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant, but the band was not at all happy with the record by most accounts, and fans decided to follow their lead by not even bothering to hear it. Which is pretty dumb, when you think about it. Didn’t XTC hate Skylarking for a while? Like, their most celebrated and beloved album? Yeah.

Bands are stupid.

Guess R.E.M. got over it, though, considering that they perform Fables tracks in concert all the time now. So we can all stop being so dumb. Fables holds a unique position in R.E.M.’s discography for a few reasons: one, it’s the band’s first concept album, with a set of songs exploring legends of the rural South; two, it’s the last album of R.E.M.’s elliptical early years, before Lifes Rich Pageant turned them into an arena-rock band; and third, it’s possibly their darkest album, the inverse of Reckoning‘s summertime-fun college rock. The latter point is probably the main reason so many people have trouble with Fables – it takes the least accessible traits of R.E.M.’s first two albums and magnifies them, pushing Michael Stipe’s vocals even further back into the mix and drenching every track in moody guitar murk. Just a comparison of opening tracks makes these differences clear: where Murmur and Reckoning kicked off with radio-friendly college rock anthems, Fables opens with the clangy guitars of “Feeling Gravitys Pull,” a song so unfriendly it sounds almost like it was designed to push the listener away.

This was my Fables dilemma, for a while. Lifes Rich Pageant has long been my favorite 80s R.E.M. record, and Fables is almost its exact opposite in every conceivable way; I just didn’t know how to approach it. But Fables is a record that rewards (or, in some cases, requires) multiple listens, revealing itself to be possibly R.E.M.’s finest exercise in establishing mood and drawing the listener in. Individual tracks might not be as catchy or ingratiating as Murmur‘s and Reckoning‘s, but neither of those records could boast a sound as all-engulfing as “Maps And Legends”‘s foreboding jangle, or “Auctioneer (Another Engine)”‘s disarming chorus. If Reckoning felt like a lovely drive through the neighborhood, Fables feels like a dirt-road slog in the dead of night, where everything is obscured and nothing is certain.

But despite all that murkiness, this is still an early-period R.E.M. record through and through, full of gorgeous melodies, Peter Buck guitar jangling and Mike Mills/Bill Berry harmonies. Most fans probably already know “Driver 8,” even if they haven’t heard Fables – it’s one of their best and most popular early singles – but there are so many worthy album tracks here it’s ridiculous. My personal favorite, “Green Grow The Rushes,” is one of Peter Buck’s finest moments, a winding tapestry of folk-rock guitar beauty. It’s got an environmental message, but one so thoroughly packaged in melodious songcraft that it never comes across as preachy or obnoxious – it’s a should-be R.E.M. classic, is what I’m trying to say. The dramatic echo of tracks like “Life And How To Live It” and “Good Advices” give the record a palpable sense of energy (the latter featuring the immortal Stipe lyric “When you meet a stranger / look at his shoes / keep your money in your shoes”), while “Kohoutek” and “Old Man Kensey” revel in that creepy Old South vibe. And, of course, there are the two great tracks that are completely at odds with the mood of the record: the goofy horn-driven “Can’t Get There From Here,” the earliest inkling that R.E.M. actually had a sense of humor, and the understated country ballad of “Wendell Gee” that closes the album on an unusually friendly note.

Oh, also worth noting: if you love Mike Mills counterpoint harmony vocals, Fables is going to make you a very happy man. They are all over this fucking thing. “Can’t Get There From Here” is maybe the best example, but “Maps And Legends” and “Wendell Gee” benefit greatly from his presence. God, I love that guy.

Man, there is no better time to get into Fables. It is an excellent portrait of a band at the peak of their powers, delivering one more moody masterpiece before diving headlong into the mainstream. I wouldn’t recommend it for newbie R.E.M. fans – it’s a little too uninviting – but dedicated listeners have no excuses. Give in.

To close things out, here’s a fun live performance that answers the eternal question: “What if R.E.M.’s classic, outspoken anthem ‘Fall On Me’ sounded like a track from Chronic Town?” Here is your answer:

>Album Review: "Live At The Olympia" by R.E.M.

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pretty sure Stipe stopped wearing that stupid facepaint for these shows

Oh hey! Today is Thanksgiving in these United States! I hope most of you have enjoyed your turkey and stuffing and gravy and naptime. To celebrate this holiday of thanks I will go ahead and write about a band that I have written about many times before and has nothing to do with Thanksgiving: R.E.M.

R.E.M. are one of my favorite bands ever. I have made this pretty obvious in the past, but it is worth repeating. They are a band that cuts me deep, you see. So when I heard they were putting out a double-disc live album, one that was getting more-than-decent reviews, I figured it was worth a shot. And not only was I not disappointed – I was enthralled. I mean, I expected quality, but I did not expect this much quality. For a huge R.E.M. fan like myself, it is a special treat.

Perhaps some context is necessary. R.E.M., surprisingly enough, have issued only two official live albums in their entire 25+ year existence – and they’ve both been released only in the past couple years. The first one, R.E.M. Live, came out in ’07 and focused on a few 2005 shows in support of Around the Sun, quite possibly the least exciting R.E.M. album ever released. And the tracklisting bore this out: not only was Sun the most represented album there with a whopping six tracks, but most of the other songs were the usual, predictable hits (a little “Losing My Religion” here, a little “Everybody Hurts” there) and questionable album cuts (like “So Fast So Numb,” a decent but middling selection from the otherwise lovely New Adventures In Hi Fi, and “I Took Your Name” from the always-bleghh Monster). As for their classic I.R.S. albums, “Cuyahoga” was the only out-of-nowhere choice there; otherwise, they were barely represented. The band sounded OK, but the album was nothing that was going to bring anybody back to the R.E.M. fold after almost a decade of mediocre albums. If anything, the band sounded more out of touch than ever, trotting out their biggest hits without much gusto. It was, in a word, depressing.

Fast forward to the present. We now have R.E.M. Live At The Olympia, a two-disc 39-song set recorded during their “working rehearsal” shows in July 2007. At this point, Around The Sun had been thoroughly panned and ignored, and the band were determined to write better material for their next record in the face of rapidly thinning fan support. Most of those new songs are previewed here, and would eventually see official release on 2008’s Accelerate, far and away their best album in a decade; so while it’s the most represented record on here, it at least deserves to be, unlike Around the Sun. And as for their older songs, well, let me put it this way: besides Accelerate, the most represented albums on here are (in descending order) Reckoning, Fables Of The Reconstruction, and Chronic Town (FOUR songs from Chronic Town – that’s one song shy of the whole thing). Coming from a band whose setlists have been painfully 90’s-heavy since, well, the 90’s, this is pretty remarkable; I mean, maybe Reckoning isn’t a huge shock, but Fables Of The Reconstruction? With FIVE songs?! And so much of Chronic Town? These are albums most R.E.M. fans assumed they had just plain forgotten about – and maybe they had, considering how cautious they are in the introductions to each older song (especially on “Kohoutek” where Peter Buck goes as far as to say to Michael Stipe, “You should probably apologize to the audience before we play this – it could be bad”).

The important thing is, though, that these old hits sound great. I mean, it doesn’t hurt that they’re great songs to begin with – the early-mid 80’s were a good time for this band – but here they sound even more energetic than ever. I can’t imagine songs like “Maps and Legends” and especially “1,000,000” sounding better; they play these older hits as if they were Lifes Rich Pageant or Accelerate songs, with more muscular guitarwork and front-and-center vocals (Michael Stipe is in really good voice the whole way through – just saying). It’s really something, man. And as for the less-represented albums on here, the song choices are surprisingly top-notch. What would you expect from Document: maybe “The One I Love” and “It’s The End Of the World”? Try “Welcome To The Occupation” and oh-my-lord-yes “Disturbance At The Heron House.” Murmur gets “Sitting Still”(!!) and “West of the Fields”; Lifes Rich Pageant gets “Cuyahoga” and “These Days”; and the wrongs of R.E.M. Live are thankfully righted with the inclusion of “New Test Leper” and “Electrolite” from New Adventures, two of the honest-to-goodness most beautiful songs in the band’s catalog. There are times when I almost feel like this setlist was tailor made for me.

But there could be some complaints. If you are more of a fan of R.E.M.’s more commercially successful late 80’s-early 90’s work, this record will sadden you deeply. There’s nothing from Green or Out Of Time here, and only one song each from Automatic For The People and Monster. Speaking as a diehard Automatic fan, this is a little upsetting, since its one song here – “Drive” – was also on R.E.M. Live (still sounds great though, and at least it’s not the horrible “rock” version they used to play on the Monster tour). But it’s a testament to the quality of this live release that I honestly don’t even notice they’re missing most of the time. Those old hits are just so overwhelmingly well played that it just doesn’t matter. And hey – “Circus Envy,” from Monster, sounds a lot better here than it has any right to.

As for the newer songs, well. Accelerate‘s songs are still wonderful, even in their early incarnations (and I am reminded that “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” which kicks off the first disc, might be the best song they’ve recorded in the past decade). There’s also a couple of unreleased tracks intended for Accelerate that didn’t quite make the cut: the so-so rocker “Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance” and the kinda-boring “On The Fly” which finds the band still grappling with the dull-as-nails Around The Sun sound. And speaking of that album, “The Worst Joke Ever” is on here, and isn’t much more exciting than the album version. “I’ve Been High” from Reveal fares a little better – definitely a pretty song, but not a remarkable one. These are the only songs taken from their last few albums, however, and they stick out like a sore thumb (they are literally the SLOWEST SONGS EVER WRITTEN). It just goes to show how eager they were back in the post-Sun fallout to reconnect with the sound that made them great. Listening to this show all the way though, it is easy to see why Accelerate turned out so damn good.

Oh sure, you could trifle a bit with the song choices (as I just did). You could even think to yourself, “hey, maybe these live songs sound a little TOO good to not have been meticulously overdubbed,” but then you would just be a nagging nelly, wouldn’t you? Honestly, if you are an R.E.M. fan of any stripe, this is essential listening – ESPECIALLY if you fell off the wagon after Bill Berry left and haven’t even bothered giving Accelerate a chance. This one, unlike the last live album, will convince you. This release reminds me happily of when I saw these guys live last year, just being shocked at how re-energized, charismatic, and entertaining they were. And hey, they brought out “Ignoreland” and “Find The River” for that show, so I’ll excuse their exclusion of Automatic tracks on here for now. Consider us even, band I love so dearly!!

I’ll end this with a couple videos for you to see: one from one of the Dublin rehearsals, with them playing “Romance,” a B-side they hadn’t played in about twenty years. (Stipe is reading from a lyric sheet, which I’m sure he had to do for most of these old songs.):

Also as a bonus, and old live version of one of my favorite Out of Time tracks, “Half A World Away” (which, in a perfect world, would be on this thing):

>Album Review: "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" by R.E.M.

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Evocative stuff.

(Yes, another really late update. And it’s not even a requested review. JUST DEAL WITH IT.)

I’m glad I have now heard New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I guess I have Mr. Adam Spektor to thank for that – if he had not generously given me this album as a Christmas gift, there is a decent chance that I would not have ever listened to it, at least not for a long time.

Why? Well, I couldn’t stand Monster after its first two tracks, so I was under the impression that after 1994 R.E.M. just decided to completely lose it for a good decade or so until Accelerate came out last year. Yeah, I knew “E-Bow The Letter,” and that was kind of a cool song. Yes, I had heard positive reviews, but I heard plenty of positive reviews for Monster too, and well… y’know. So I was wary of New Adventures, and rightly so.

There are some traces of Monster present in this album. I’d say that I could comfortably divide most of Adventures‘ tracks into two categories: Monster-esque tracks with better production, and pretty old-school R.E.M. tracks updated for the 90s. Naturally, I enjoy the latter more, but the rockers here are surprisingly cool and much more enjoyable than the glam-macho confusion found on Monster; songs like “The Wake Up Bomb,” “Departure” and “Binky The Doormat” are nice riff-driven rockers, despite some unusual spoke-sung Michael Stipe vocals. “Undertow,” despite having some weirdly funky bass-driven opening that I’m not in love with, features a killer anthemic chorus. And “So Fast, So Numb” and “Low Desert” are a couple slower rockers on Side Two that really grow on you, despite being not quite as distinctive as the previous tracks.

But the pretty songs, man – that’s where it’s at. Thank God R.E.M. ditched the lame “alt-rock” of Monster for this one; beautiful songs like “New Test Leper” and “Electrolite” are good reminders of why people love R.E.M. in the first place. “E-Bow The Letter” features Stipe’s least obnoxious spoken-word vocal delivery on the album, with a Patti Smith guest vocal that lends it a sweet, mysterious air. I also love the slow, moving “Be Mine,” which despite its over-five-minutes running time always lifts my spirits when that lovely chorus hits. Even the more unusual songs, like the creepy opener “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” and the instrumental “Zither” are very enjoyable. This is a much, much more amiable R.E.M. than on Monster and, presumably, the non-Bill Berry albums that proceeded it.

Yes, Michael Stipe’s occasionally-awkward vocals sometimes bring the album down a bit. But he also sings quite a few of these songs in a low croon, which I have always really liked. New Adventures in Hi-Fi, to me, is a very confident, solid R.E.M. record. As it should be – I mean, at this point, they had tried everything they could to create their own sound for the 90s (folk-pop on Out of Time, dark-contemporary on Automatic, fuzz-alt-rock on Monster); it’s only appropriate that, by the middle of the decade, they had finally figured things out. It’s a shame that Bill Berry had to get all brain-frozen right after and move to a farm or something! Man, things got weird. But I haven’t heard much of R.E.M.’s stuff between New Adventures and Accelerate, so what do I know? They could all be underappreciated masterpieces for all I know.

My advice: if you want a good estimation of what R.E.M. were driving at in the 90s, New Advenutres is a decent place to start. Nothing shocking, nothing new. But solid! A little long, though. If you have the patience to sit through all seven-and-a-half minutes of “Leave,” you are a better man than me.

>6/18/08: R.E.M. For The People

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He didn’t have the facepaint on.

On Wednesday I drove down to Philadelphia with some friends of mine (I didn’t actually drive but y’know what I mean) to catch an R.E.M. show at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, backed up by upstarts The National and indie stalwarts Modest Mouse. For a little background, before the show I didn’t know a thing about the National (and I still don’t), I had barely ever listened to Modest Mouse since I’d only heard Lonesome Crowded West (that’s still all I’ve got), and loved the hell out of R.E.M. (still do). I had never seen any of these bands live.

To be honest, the only band I really cared about seeing was R.E.M. Since I don’t keep up with (and don’t care much about) modern indie rock, I viewed The National and Modest Mouse like sprinkles on a birthday cake – appealing, but inessential. I probably sound like a complete dick saying that, especially about a band like Modest Mouse who’ve got the indie-rock world in their proverbial pockets (with their hip cred increasing exponentially ever since Johnny Marr jumped into the fray). But it’s the truth – Modest Mouse seem like a pretty cool and creative band but when it comes down to it I’m so grumpily rotten about modern indie rock that I can’t embrace it the way most people my age can. At 21 I already feel like a cynical hipster dickhead.

But I shouldn’t jump the gun here – I like catching modern indie rock when I can. Seeing Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, and a smogasboard of other indie bands at Randall’s Island was a nifty experience (despite Arcade Fire being the only band there I cared about, but whatevee – the lead singer of Les Savy Fav was a funny bearded pudgy man who gyrated around with a cake in his mouth, so I had fun). Furthermore, despite feeling totally ambivalent towards much of the music, I like feeling hip now and then. So I thought, “Hey, I’m gonna see the National and Modest Mouse! Two hip bands! I can blather to all my indie-loving friends about how I saw them, and I’ll be like totally getting some sloppy BJs over my excessive music cred.” (Yes, sloppy BJs. I crave only the sloppiest.) So I viewed the concert as killing two birds with one stone – seeing hip new bands I don’t know AND hearing music I’ve loved and practically memorized over the past few years or so. Yes, yes. This would be a landmark show.

Well, sort of. First off, The National were OK. Nothing that moved me. The lead singer sings in this low croon that isn’t particularly exciting, and the band plays your sort of generic, moody, introspective indie rock. One thing I’ll say about them – they know how to sound big. I don’t know how they layered their instruments, but man, they filled the room with sound, and their instrumentation was crystal clear. So yeah, it was an appealing sound, but not a passionate one; it’s indicative of my attitude that despite sounding big and powerful and all that, they didn’t move me in any way (a friend of mine told me that their low-key music didn’t fit the atmosphere of the theater, but I still think they were just boring). Modest Mouse were more exciting – I didn’t know their songs, but they ripped right into them either way, with Issac Brock howling and yelling and Johnny Marr pulling off the same cool, melodic guitar soundscapes that made him such an asset to the Smiths. Plus, they had a dynamite percussion section, with two drummers bangin’ at once, sitting right next to each other. To be blunt, they delivered the goods; Modest Mouse are a big deal, and their live show proves their prowess. But again, I wasn’t moved. Issac Brock, while clearly in control onstage, wasn’t much of a showman and neither were the rest of the band – they walked onstage, banged out their songs (well, might I add), and left after 50 minutes. And that’s fine – that’s all the fans want to hear I’m sure – but it wasn’t an engrossing experience for me.

So after Modest Mouse I feared R.E.M. would fall in line with the openers: walk out to thunderous (if not obligatory) applause, play some decent songs, and leave with a quick thank you. It wasn’t just this show that established that precedent for me – seeing the White Stripes bang out 45 minutes worth of music before playing a two-song encore and leaving the stage without a word last year supported that notion. I was under the impression that most bands – even major, major modern bands like the aforementioned White Stripes and Modest Mouse – were just playing live shows to do their job and play their music without bothering to put on… y’know, a show.

But this is not what R.E.M. did. Here’s what happened: by the time R.E.M. hit the stage at around 9:30, the sun had set and the sky had grown dark (since we had lawn seats, this was especially noticeable). When Modest Mouse and the National played, everybody politely sat down and grooved on the music without a peep; once R.E.M. hit the stage, everybody – and I mean everybody – was on their feet. Now the excitement was building; it was real, almost tangible, and although I had been looking forward to seeing this band all night I didn’t quite expect this rush of tense, palpable anticipation. Once the band kicked things off with Life Rich’s Pageant‘s “These Days,” with Michael Stipe gyrating all over the stage and the band playing loudly and ferociously, I was in over my head. These guys were fuckin’ great.

To be honest, I did not expect this. Seeing R.E.M. on the Colbert Report a couple months back gave me the impression that they were a polite, restrained band – and I guess by most standards they were restrained, playing their songs like they are on the albums. But not only did they play with power and intensity, they were seriously wonderful to watch, especially Michael Stipe – I’d always thought he was a pretty dour guy, but here he was likeable, talkative, and above all totally into what he was doing. He would shout lyrics, run across the stage, dance around like a fool, with the rest of the band right with him. These guys weren’t aging alternative rockers – they were rock stars, period.

It also doesn’t hurt that their newest album, Accelerate, was practically made for a live setting (hell, almost all the songs were premiered live anyway). It also doesn’t hurt that the songs on Accelerate are the finest they’ve written in over a decade. Hearing them power through “These Days,” “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” and “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?” one after the other makes it sound like nothing’s changed between now and their 80’s heyday – it’s like three whole decades baked into one cake. I haven’t heard R.E.M. Live, but knowing that it consisted of a glut of dour Around the Sun tracks, I’m under the impression that R.E.M. have been fighting hard to rock out a little more during their shows. The song selection doesn’t betray this – they played only one Around the Sun song (“Walk Unafraid,” which I honestly don’t even remember) and only a scant few songs recorded before Pageant (there were no Murmur or Reckoning songs to be found), so it seems they were going for a bigger, fuller, less folk-rock oriented sound. Thankfully, it worked like a charm.

As for the overall song selection, I can’t complain. They played three Life’s Rich Pageant tracks (the first three to be precise), six from Accelerate (including hits “Supernatural Superserious” and “Hollow Man”), a couple more intense songs from Green (“Turn You Inside-Out” and “Orange Crush”), a couple recent non-album hits (“Bad Day” and “The Great Beyond”), some choice early songs (“Wolves, Lower” off Chronic Town and “Life And How To Live It” off Fables of the Reconstruction), and even some of the biggest hits of their career (“The One I Love” and “Losing My Religion,” both wonderful just because everybody in the audience could sing along). A few personal favorites: they brought out “Imitation of Life,” a lovely recent song which sounds much better in a live setting than it did on Reveal; “Electrolite,” a cool New Adventures in Hi-Fi song that Stipe claimed was about L.A. looking like an ocean from afar; “Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance,” which Stipe claimed was a song “[they] haven’t performed in an actual setting, with an actual audience” (I guess it’s new?? either way it was a cool song); and of course, three of the best songs from Automatic for the People, my all-time favorite R.E.M. record. “Man On The Moon” was an obvious choice, but hearing them kick out political rocker “Ignoreland” and the absolutely beautiful “Find The River” was really something special.

Oh, and there were guests! Did I mention the guests? Johnny Marr played on “Man On The Moon” and “Fall On Me,” which was nice if not somewhat expected. But the first guest was a total surprise. Earlier on in the show, after “Hollow Man,” Stipe snidely claimed that the song was their take on Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” before saying “Oh by the way – Pearl Jam’s here tonight!” Now I thought that was pretty neat, but I didn’t think anything of it until Stipe suddenly called Eddie Vedder (yes, Eddie Vedder) onstage during the encore to run through “Begin the Begin.” It was a great moment – not only did Vedder look totally like he’d just been pulled out of the audience (wearing glasses, a cap, and a jumpsuit, he looked more like a gas station attendant than a rock star) but his voice fit the song perfectly, delivering each line with his trademark grunge howl. Watching two aging alternative icons dancing around and singing with such gusto was a real special moment for me.

Oh, I could complain. I would have preferred “It’s The End Of The World” and “Finest Worksong” over the inferior “Bad Day” and “Turn You Inside-Out,” and that Around the Sun song didn’t need to be there, but who gives a shit? Not once during the concert did I feel even a pinch of disappointment; the band played for almost 2 hours straight without a single bum moment. Michael Stipe’s infectious, forceful optimism was enough to wipe away every single self-absorbed gripe I had during The National and Modest Mouse’s sets to the point where I almost felt silly, and his claim that 2008 was “one of the greatest times to be an American” really got to me (even if I can’t wholly believe it now, I believed it then). Beyond Stipe, Mike Mills had a wonderful backup voice, singing as forcefully as ever (it’s a shame they didn’t do “Texarkana” or “Rockville,” but oh well) and Peter Buck played with the same intensity. And there I was, up in the lawn seats, singing along with almost every song. Not bad.

If you can catch R.E.M. this year, do it. If you think that they’re washed up or out of the loop or whatever, I guarantee you that seeing them live will change your mind. Hell, in 2008, how often are you going to catch a band that is both an underground icon AND a pop icon? I can bitch and moan about modern indie rock all I want, but seeing R.E.M. plucked all of those misgivings out of my mind. A couple years or so ago, when Around the Sun was still their latest album and their reputation was on the skids, I hoped – deep down – that they’d buck the claims that they weren’t viable anymore and just go for it one more time. Accelerate and this concert made that wish come true. Say what you like, but right now consider me the happiest R.E.M. fan in the world.

P.S. – Here’s a crappy video of Eddie Vedder singing “Begin The Begin” from the show. NEAT!