Reveal, R.E.M. (Warner Bros.)
Accompanying the release of R.E.M.'s 12th studio album, Reveal, is a question repeated by critics, music journalists, and fans alike: Does the band still have it? Depending on whom you ask, "it" refers to A) R.E.M.'s talent for crafting smart, sincere pop songs with intelligent lyrics, B) the band's trademark jangly sound that influenced countless other groups during the last two decades, or C) relevance.
A lushly orchestrated, sunnily hopeful album, Reveal provides confident answers to each of these queries: yes, no, and who cares.
Reveal consists of a dozen tracks showcasing Michael Stipe's sophisticated lyrics and vocals and Peter Buck's graceful guitar work. Penning songs that are emotionally direct without being transparent or obvious, Stipe is at his most declarative here: A third of the songs have full sentences for titles. "She Just Wants to Be" and "Disappear" -- with the chorus "Tell me why did you come here?/I came here to disappear" -- marry straightforward lyrics to assertive, triumphant melodies that are imbued with a sense of grandeur.
Elsewhere, R.E.M. convey the airy feel of adolescent summers, the album's running theme. Songs such as "Summer Turns to High" and the gentle "Beachball" shimmer with nostalgia for a time when there is more of life before you than behind you. While the band members are aging (Stipe is 41, which is something like 300 in rock years), they still know how to create the dreamy pop music of youth.
But anyone hoping R.E.M. will return to their jangly roots may find Reveal too synthetic. Many predicted the band would follow U2's lead and return to their earlier sound, which R.E.M. jettisoned in favor of a starker, more electronic sound on 1998's Up, the band's first album without founding drummer Bill Berry. Without Berry's solid, unshowy drumming, however, such a return is simply impossible.
So, instead of biding their time, R.E.M. take some risks on Reveal, saturating the songs with keyboards and programmed beats. "The Lifting" starts the album with a symphonic wall of synthesizers and background noise, and the soft "I've Been High" flutters by on looped beats and Stipe's breathy vocals. Still, Reveal is more grounded than its predecessor, with more attention going to Buck's guitar on songs like "The Lifting" and "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)," as well as to flourishes like the tender horns on "Beachball" and the Pet Sounds piano on "Beat a Drum."
As for relevance, when an album is this good, who cares?
-- Stephen Deusner
Blue River, Becc & Hank (self-released)
Two local musicians, Becc Lester and Hank Sable, have just released a CD that fairly swoons in acoustic bliss. Sable (aka Hank of Rod & Hank's Vintage Guitars) has a crisp but dreamy finger-picking style and a real ear for a pretty guitar tune, and Lester's voice soars and sighs its way through these mostly unplugged but emotionally charged songs.
Lester was a guest vocalist on Sable's excellent 1996 release, Rusted, but here it's more of a true collaboration, with several co-penned tracks by the duo and a joyful interplay of voice and strings. The title song is a juicy piece of country pop that would turn any Nashville songwriter green with envy and make up-and-coming songstresses on Music Row give their pearly white teeth to cover. The melancholy magic of "Some September Morning" is balanced by the up-tempo Spanish flavor of "Barcelona Rain." The artists write from the heart about major rites of passage in their lives, and the sentiments come ringing through loud and clear. For instance, the lush delicacy of "Heaven Sent," with Sable's guitars floating through Regina Eusey's zephyr-like viola and Lester's delicate vocals, was inspired by the birth of Sable's daughter. (Sable just finished making a CD with Eusey as well.)
Despite an occasional lyrical lapse into cliché, it's an impressive effort (especially considering that this is Lester's first foray into songwriting). If there's any justice or good musical taste left in this world, these songs should be all over country radio. -- Lisa Lumb
Becc & Hank will appear at Nancy Apple's Songwriters' Stage at the Blue Monkey on Tuesday, June 5th.
Inspiration Information, Shuggie Otis (Luaka Bop)
Inspiration Information is close to drum-machine heaven -- if there is such a place worth visiting. Recorded in the early '70s and now re-released by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, this is a combination of 1974's Inspiration Information and four tracks from 1971's Freedom Flight by guitarist/singer Shuggie Otis, son of California R&B bandleader Johnny Otis (who in the '50s chose to pass for a black man when he was actually Greek -- but that's another story). The record is full of primitive drum-machine technology and programmed organ beats, and Otis plays just about everything except the horns and the strings on this record.
Sonically, the closest reference point for Inspiration Information would be Sly & the Family Stone's 1971 coked-out classic There's a Riot Goin' On, with its use of drum machines and scratchy funk. Otis doesn't sound like he was drugged-out or in despair a la Sly on Riot, but he was equally as inventive in the studio. If anything, Otis may have influenced Stone's last decent record, 1973's Fresh.
Otis' "Strawberry Letter 23," which originally appeared on Freedom Flight, became a number one R&B hit for the Brothers Johnson when they covered it in 1977. Their arrangement was very similar to the version included here. Inspiration Information tanked upon its original release by Epic Records in 1974, and since that time Otis has done the occasional recording session or live gig but not much else. It seems that this album was his best shot and his swan song. Shuggie Otis may be a puzzling case of arrested musical genius, but this record will do nicely as a legacy. -- Ross Johnson
The Optimist LP, Turin Brakes (Astralwerks)
On the margins of the recent wave of Brit-pop reside Gale Paridjanian and Olly Knights, two guys making sensitive folk music as Turin Brakes. Armed with acoustic guitars and arcing harmonies, they differentiate themselves from their peers -- including the likes of Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy -- by stripping their songs down to the bare minimum.
A confident if flawed effort, the duo's debut, The Optimist LP, contains some fine moments, including the fragile opener, "Feeling Oblivion," and the shimmery "Future Boy" (which unfortunately contains some stunningly bad lyrics like "Syphilis is a bitch/but contracting HIV is worse"). And "State of Things" matches chugging, percussion-driven rhythms with a beautifully plaintive, pleading chorus to great effect.
But occasionally, Turin Brakes' sound is too rigid and underdeveloped. Congas drive the too-slick "Emergency 72" and give the song a lightweight '70s sound. And on the poorly structured "The Door," a truncated chorus seems to promise a more dramatic melody than it actually delivers, lending the song a fragmented, unfinished feel.
Despite some tasteful alt-pop flourishes, The Optimist LP possesses a startling austerity that creates a feeling of cohesion rare to debut albums. But it's this same minimalist approach that sucks the flavor from too many of these songs. -- SD
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at email@example.com.