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POP REVIEW : New Songs Keep R.E.M. on Liberating Edge in Concert

November 16, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

R. E. M. lead singer Michael Stipe walked on stage Saturday night at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center wearing tuxedo tails and jeans, reflecting perfectly the wry outlook of a man whose rock 'n' roll objectives are broad enough to include both high art and barroom fun.

As the nearly two-hour show unfolded, Stipe--leading the band through one of its most confident and absorbing local performances--peeled off three layers of clothing, ending up around midnight with simply a white T-shirt and cut-offs.

That closing informality was an encouraging--and clearly purposeful--sign from a guy who could be taking himself awfully seriously these days.

R. E. M.'s new "Document" is the first album by the group to break into the national Top 10 sales chart and the band's picture is on the cover of the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine--right alongside the words: "America's Best Rock and Roll Band."

But this band--a favorite of rock critics and the adventurous college radio set for almost six years--is used to heady acclaim.

Indeed, Rolling Stones' declaration about R. E. M.'s standing, after all these years, is such a safe judgment about the Georgia-based band that it is akin in some ways to Sports Illustrated suddenly proclaiming Magic Johnson the best basketball player west of Boston.

Yet R. E. M. (the name stands for the rapid eye movement that occurs under closed lids during moments of dreaming) has grown in the new album and on this tour in ways that make it live up to the definition of "America's best rock 'n' roll band" in ways that it perhaps didn't previously.

When R. E. M. surfaced with a mini-album in 1981, it offered marvelous instrumental textures; a sort of dreamy, post-Velvet Underground landscape brightened by jangly, seductive guitar riffs and introspective, stream-of-conscious words that were sung in a strange, sometimes indecipherable--yet absolutely endearing--style by Stipe.

The elusiveness of some of Stipe's lyrics wasn't a problem at first because the band's cult fans were rock activists who enjoyed piecing together meanings to songs and who looked eagerly to printed interviews with the band for clues to those meanings.

Even many admirers, however, eventually began to wonder if the band was progressing in its examination of permanent values in a corrupt society. Individual songs, from the early "Radio Free Europe" and "so. Central Rain," were marvelously evocative, but the vagueness of some of the lyrics eventually became a troubling sign that the band was retreating from the issue of challenging a larger audience--one of the characteristics of most great bands.

In the frequently remarkable new "Document" album, however, R. E. M. begins to boldly seize the leadership reins by reflecting more concretely on contemporary issues.

The band showcased several of the key, socially conscious songs from the album on Saturday, including tunes like "Disturbance at Heron House" and "Exhuming McCarthy" that explore the chaos and confusion of a social order that seems to be unraveling. The most explosive, yet slyly optimistic, of the new songs is "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," a social panorama reminiscent of the raging imagery of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" and John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth."

As the band went through its new songs, there was an almost liberating edge for both the musicians and the audience--as if both, having enjoyed the past together--finally had an equally bright future to share. Stipe, singing with increasing clarity and confidence, bounded about the stage as if a man reborn, musically, acting out his themes with frequent Nazi-style goose-step motions to ridicule what he sees as the complacency of America's citizenry these days.

Yet themes are only one requirement of a great band. The other is music and that has always been the cornerstone of R. E. M., whose folk-accented brand of roots rock has been perhaps the most copied of any American band since Talking Heads. Guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry play in a slashing, jubilant style that allows them to move comfortably between brutalizing force and disarming gentleness.

The band, which was augmented by a second guitar player and found time for some delightful covers, also had the good sense on this tour to bring along another band of considerable merit, the dB's. Though the dB's lacks R. E. M.'s spark on stage, the group's songs are well-crafted and there is a harder, more convincing edge to the music--a welcome break from the '60s pop-rock obsession that once made it easy to dismiss the band as simply affectionate pop revisionists. Both bands were also scheduled to appear Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre.

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