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music reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: Reveal

Artist: R.E.M.
Genre: Rock
Release Date: May 2001

Review by LarryG
2½ stars out of 4

As I wrote in my review of R.E.M.'s last CD Up, R.E.M.'s increasing irrelevance is a little depressing. Up was the worst record of R.E.M.'s career, with silly electronic experiments and a number of songs that were just boring. At least on Reveal, R.E.M. seem comfortable with the music they're making. They don't throw throw in anything like Lotus, Up's silly sop to rock fans. Reveal has a largely consistent tone. It's very mellow and usually quite pleasant. It's just not very exciting or interesting. Reveal most resembles Automatic For The People, a very good and mostly introspective record. Reveal doesn't quite reach the radiance of that record and it also could use a few fun rockers like Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight and Ignoreland, which gave Automatic a little change of pace.

I always thought Bill Berry was a skilled and passionate but definitely replaceable drummer. As it turns out, his departure from the band before R.E.M made Up was very significant. R.E.M. have mostly replaced him with drum machines and tame live drums and it's taken the life out of the band. Perhaps even more importantly, Peter Buck's guitar, one of R.E.M.'s signature sounds, is all but absent, replaced by often nebulous synths. One thing Reveal has in its favor is Michael Stipe's great voice, which fits comfortably in warm, laid back surroundings. Reveal's first group of songs are genial but very calm. The songs on Reveal's first half yield diminishing returns. They're low energy and often resemble each other. Reveal opens with a wash of futuristic synths on The Lifting that combine with Stipe's vocal to create a hopeful if mild mood for a song about someone who could "drift and fly away" but finds himself grounded and unable to explore life. I've Been High is nicely stark but's Stipe tale of a search for "the big reveal" and a "life on high" doesn't really go anywhere. All The Way To Reno, sounding like a slower The Lifting, is pleasant but too repetitious with many proclamations that "you're gonna be a star." Then comes the worst patch of Reveal. She Just Wants To Be is similar to the songs that precede it and even slower; it's a draggy, unilluminating story of a sad woman. Disappear is like Life Rich Pageant's Swan Swan H. The sweep of strings that come in on the chorus are initially refreshing but the sound soon becomes monotonous. And Michael, thanks for the wisdom that "the only thing worth looking for is what you find inside." Reveal hits bottom on Saturn Return, which goes really slow so you can get Stipe's pronouncements like "easy to poke yourself square in the eye, harder to like yourself." Stipe doesn't show his usual light vocal touch and silly whistles and other sonic effects mar the quiet piano backing.

The second half of Reveal is better with a number of high points. The Beach Boys style At My Most Beautiful was one of Up's few really good songs. Reveal has a couple good songs that are similar to it. Like much of Reveal, Beat A Drum goes on too long but it has a nice reflective mood with good piano and singing and subtle guitar. Summer Turns To High is even better. It obviously evokes Beach Boys classics like In My Room and Caroline, No with a poignant Stipe vocal that eases into a falsetto and a dreamy, echoey sound that matches the song's lyrics about a lazy summer day. With its cushion of strings, Reveal's single Imitation Of Life doesn't rock too hard but it's the most lively thing on Reveal. Imitation Of Life sounds like other midtempo rockers R.E.M.'s done in recent years, like Bittersweet Me, The Great Beyond, Man On The Moon and Texarkana, but it has a modest charm. Peter Buck could probably play his jangly guitar line in his sleep but he's still likable. So are Michael Stipe's empathetic vocal encouraging someone to stop crying and be "what you could" and a charmingly cheesy synth solo. Reveal ends with a few more songs with thoughtful, lush, string filled arrangements in the vein of Nightswimming and Find The River. The closer Beachball is particularly strong, with a positive, meditative mood and a 60s pop style arrangement with organ, horns and strings. It would be even more striking if it wasn't preceded by so many other mellow songs.

It's a shame to hear R.E.M. sounding prematurely old. It seems like time for the band to pull a Monster, mussing up their sound with a full time drummer and Peter Buck playing rock guitar and drowning out Stipe's philosophical musings. Still, Reveal isn't a bad record. Stipe's voice and the strings create a lovely sound. The songs are contemplative and adult. Reveal works well as background music and often is quite beautiful.



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