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POP MUSIC | POP EYE

R.E.M. Has a Healthy Attitude These Days

March 15, 1998|Steve Hochman

R.E.M. fans may want to plan a vacation around June 13, when R.E.M. will give its first concert performance since the end of its trouble-plagued 1995 world tour, which saw drummer Bill Berry suffer a brain aneurysm and singer Michael Stipe felled by a hernia operation.

The group--appearing for the first time without Berry, who announced his retirement recently--is booked for the first day of the two-day Tibetan Freedom Concerts in Washington. The Beastie Boys (whose Adam Yauch is the event spearhead) and Beck are also playing, and U2 is expected to sign on, among many others.

But serious R.E.M. fans might want to take the entire month of October off from work as well. The band's new album, originally scheduled for early 1999, is now due then, as are two noteworthy side projects from the film world.

While working on the new album in San Francisco, bassist Mike Mills is preparing to compose and record the score to the movie "A Cool Dry Place," while Stipe is supervising the release of "Velvet Goldmine," a film set in the world of '70s glam-rock that will be the first feature from his production company, Single Cell.

Stipe is also set to publish his first book of photography, with a concurrent showing at New York's prestigious Robert Miller Gallery. The book, "Two Times Intro: On the Road With Patti Smith," features shots he took while hanging out with Smith as she opened for Bob Dylan on a 1996 European tour.

A second Stipe book, "Haiku Year," is coming as well. It's made up of haiku poems that he and several friends wrote and mailed each other daily over the course of a year.

Not to be left out, guitarist Peter Buck is represented on the upcoming second album from the band Tuatara, a collection of musicians from his adopted hometown of Seattle.

Sounds like a lot of distractions, especially while adjusting for the loss of co-founder Berry. But manager Bertis Downs says that all is going well.

"It's certainly different, but the guys have good chemistry," he says. "It sounds like an R.E.M. record, and yet different. It's not Buck-Mills-Berry-Stipe, but it's still Buck-Mills-Stipe. Some things sound fairly familiar and others quite different from what you might expect, and everything sounds different from each other. Where [1994's] 'Monster' had a lot of guitar, for example, this one doesn't seem like it's going to be as one-dimensional as that."

While there are no plans to bring in a new full-time drummer, Tuatara's Barrett Martin, formerly of Screaming Trees, is providing percussion so far. Guitarist-keyboardist Scott McCaughey, an auxiliary player on R.E.M. albums and concerts in recent years, is also contributing again. Whether they'll be on board for the planned 1999 tour is undetermined.

DANCE FLOOR DIVA: Madonna's "Ray of Light" is off to a solid sales start, with first-week figures of 371,000. But how is the new album faring in the dance clubs, where Madonna's career was launched and to which she has returned her attention, having worked with English techno producer William Orbit on the new material?

Some Hollywood club deejays report a surprisingly tepid response to initial spins of the album. Larry Flick, Billboard magazine's dance music editor, says he's not surprised.

"Even the up-tempo stuff on the album is not necessarily the mainstream club sound," Flick says. "The clubs are still dominated by house music, and only one song, 'Nothing Really Matters,' has that, and even then is not really a hard-core house song."

But Flick expects things to change via remixed versions of the songs. Where club mixes of a first single are often made available to deejays many weeks before an album's release in order to start building a buzz, the mixes of the Madonna single "Frozen" were not released until the same day as the album. But now that they're out, the response is tremendous, says Flick, especially to a version by remixer Victor Calderon.

"The fact that she swung all the way back to the dance underground is big news to [clubgoers]," he says. "The kind of electronic music she's doing is not really big bucks here in the U.S. But I think she's going to change a lot of people's thinking on that, and in a couple of months' time it will be realistic to hear [the songs] 'Skin' and 'Ray of Light' in a club and have the crowd go wild. Dance music fans are like country fans--very loyal if you prove to them that you're real. And that's why Madonna can do anything she wants."

BECKMEISTER: Beck is set to start work on his follow-up to "Odelay," the critics' consensus top album of 1996. This will be one of the independent releases allowed in his unique Geffen Records contract, coming out on the Hollywood label Bong Load Records, the original home of his breakthrough hit "Loser."

Where his other non-Geffen efforts have been either experimental art projects or folk-blues workouts, this one could turn into a relatively mainstream collection, with production by Nigel Godrich, who oversaw Radiohead's acclaimed "OK Computer."

Meantime, there are tentative plans for a new U.S. EP that would feature several songs released only as European and Australian singles or on film soundtracks. Beck is also slated to contribute a song to the documentary that "Wild Things" director John McNaughton is doing about New York artist George Condo.

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