Old reruns of Jeopardy! are the best thing since, well, old reruns of The Simpsons. Remember that really smart blind dude who won five straight games? He's still winning if you turn on the tube at the right time. That guy with the funny Canadian accent? Also still circulating around the idiot box. Recently, I caught a rerun with a category entitled R.E.M. Sure enough, the questions in said category had nothing to do with rapid eye movement but with the famous band from Athens, Georgia. Normally, this event would be filed away in the memory banks under "that one time when I totally nailed an entire category that wasn't science-related," but it's much more than that because the category next to R.E.M. on the game board was on Scottish literature. In fact, it was entitled "Scot Lit." Get it? Well, if you don't, please die. Scott Litt, in fact, was R.E.M.'s producer for a very long time, working with them on several quality albums. This is important because the stupidity of ditching Scott Litt has finally become completely obvious with the release of R.E.M's new album, Reveal.
As Angus Young says, the big problem with rock music is that it has the tendency to "progress up its own arsehole." ELP and Rush are great examples of this phenomenon. R.E.M. haven't really progressed in the aforementioned manner, but unfortunately, the production values on their albums have. Elevated production values are not a bad thing in themselves; witness the revelation they brought about on Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind. R.E.M.'s early albums, for all intents and purposes, had no production. Michael Stipe's voice and Mike Mills' bass were buried under about 30 tracks of Peter Buck's Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, and that's the way we liked it. Sure, you could never understand what the heck Stipe was singing, but Buck could play C major chords ad infinitum and it would still sound like heaven. Then, with Document, Buck finally got himself a Marshall amplifier and things changed. Scott Litt stuck only two guitar tracks in the mix and pushed the percussion to the front. R.E.M were now ready to rock hard.
Unfortunately, on the forefront of the mix on Reveal are not drums nor bass nor voice, but what I like to term "electronic squigglies." Electronic squigglies are essentially useless noises produced by a synthesizer that add absolutely nothing to a pop song. They're plentiful on Reveal, hopelessly burying any sort of brilliant melodies the trio may have had to offer listeners.
The album opener is pretty symptomatic of what's yet to come. "The Lifting" has a fairly strong hook, but resists sticking in your head because there's just way too much going on in the mix: strings, synths, what have you. It sounds like R.E.M is trying to cram all their previous sounds (the Murmur era, the Green era, the really lousy Up era) into each of these songs. The result is that we can't make head or tail out of these tunes. "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)" is easily the catchiest cut here, featuring neato double-tracked vocals by Stipe, but it's obstructed from reaching "gem" status because there's just too many darn instruments floating around to let the song stick in your head. R.E.M. may have entitled the album Reveal, but the songs still haven't done this for themselves, and I don't think they will anytime soon. Besides, when it comes to pop albums, the whole "this album needs a few listens" credo is nonsense anyway. If the genius of a Brad Mehldau CD becomes apparent immediately, R.E.M. should be able to have the same impact.
So this entire review has been written to support one thing: R.E.M. needs to hire me to produce their next album. It would be a piece of cake. All I would do is take the instruments from the entirety of the last Q-Tip album (all those dusty drum tracks and funky guitars) and let Michael Stipe sing over them. The results would much poppier than anything on Reveal.