Disc Reviews: REM and The Rolling Stones

Accelerate finds REM sounding more energetic and playing more organically than they have in years.

REM 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
REM 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
REM Accelerate (Hatav Hashmini) THE ROLLING STONES Shine a Light (Helicon) What happens when a once extremely vital band outlives its welcome? Usually that thorny predicament doesn't rear its head too often; either a band member quits or dies, or there are "creative differences" or personal (usually financial) issues which prompt a split. But in the cases of REM and The Rolling Stones, neither member departures nor any of the other usual suspects have managed to drive a stake through the fluttering hearts of the '80s indie rock role models or the '60s rock & roll legends. And wouldn't you know it, they've both produced two good arguments against euthanasia, proving that there's still hope as long as the musical heart remains beating. From college radio jangle rockers to their later incarnation as more successfully mainstream but always challenging bastions of sincerity, REM has been running one piston short ever since Bill Berry retired in 1997, leaving them a trio with no direction home. Each new album in the post-Berry era found them grasping for styles, and while always producing songs of worth, by the time of their last album, Around the Sun, REM just sounded tired and like they didn't want to be there anymore - even the title sounded like an Eric Clapton or Sting album, devoid of spark or flair. For a band that's been around for more than 25 years, REM was in a strange position of having to create a "make or break" album. And while Accelerate won't likely be held up in five or 10 years alongside Reckoning, Document or Automatic for the People as career bests, it does find REM sounding more energetic and playing more organically than they have in years. The opener, "Living Well is the Best Revenge," sets the pace, with a vintage Peter Buck riff foreshadowing things to come. Not only is Buck's guitar back in prominence, but so is the vocal harmony and counterpoint that bassist Mike Mills used to bring to the band's early material. His contributions to the great choruses of the poppy single "Supernatural Superserious," "Hollow Man" and "Horse To Water" recall past glories, but more importantly find the band engaging each other again as a band. Their humor has even returned, exemplified by the clever 'disco' chorus on "Man-Sized Wreath." That said, there's one too many grungy power riffs or facile chord progressions to shake off the unsettling feeling that Michael Stipe, Buck and Mills said to each other "what will the Coachella crowd like to hear" and then set about writing songs to fit that mold. The occasional wistful folkie offering like "Until the Day is Done" or the psychedelic sounding "Mr Richards" are too far and few between. But Accelerate, with its built-in flaws and featuring a true misstep with the bizarro rapping of the final cut "I'm Gonna DJ," is still an encouraging sign that REM is finally using the gas pedal again instead of the brakes. CAN WE all agree that The Rolling Stones studio albums of the last few decades have been and will remain lackluster affairs? If nothing else, record sales will point to the fact that new Rolling Stones material is about as in demand as giving back the Golan. Which is why Shine A Light, the soundtrack to the new Martin Scorcese film of the same name, doesn't feature a song originally recorded before 1981. Live, the Stones are still a formidable outfit, especially when augmented with a horn section, back up singers and Chuck Leavell on keyboards. On old workhorses, like "Start Me Up" and "Satisfaction," Jagger & Richards and company sound like they're going through the motions a bit. But when they get the obligatory hits out of the way, it's the more obscure material that makes up the bulk of Shine A Light on which the Stones... well, shine. The songs from 1972's Exile on Main Street particularly sparkle, including the title song, "All Down the Line" and a rootsy "Loving Cup" featuring a Jagger on Jagger duet with Jack White of the White Stripes. And the album's standout vocal performance comes from Christina Aguilera who gives Jagger a run for his money on "Live With Me." If "Tumbling Dice," "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Brown Sugar" sound a little ragged, it's a ragged glory which the Stones have earned down the years like badges of honor. The king of raggedness, Keith Richards, doesn't disappoint on his turn in the spotlight with the country blues of "You Got the Silver" and the rocking pop of "Connection." Shine a Light presents a band that has come to terms with the fact that their best songwriting days are way behind them, and acknowledges that they can still generate their own steam heat where it counts.