R.E.M. resume life in the fast lane

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      Don’t call it a comeback; R.E.M. never went away. Oh sure, the gap between the veteran rock act’s last album—2004’s Around the Sun—and this year’s Accelerate was the longest in its history, but we’re talking about a band so prolific that it once released six studio albums (plus two compilations) in the space of six years. Let’s cut these guys some slack for making us wait a little longer. After all, they did give us a greatest-hits package and a two-disc live album to tide us over.

      Mind you, a lot of people have indeed been calling Accelerate a comeback, and not just because of that three-and-a-half-year interval. By most accounts, the new record is the best thing the pioneering alternative-rock group has produced in 10 years. (Or 15 years, or 20 depending on who you talk to.) It certainly lives up to its title, kicking off with “Living Well Is the Best Revenge”, a lean and hungry-sounding three minutes and 11 seconds that would not have been out of place on 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant. It’s an auspicious beginning, and the remaining 10 tracks fulfill its promise, with R.E.M. sounding like the youngest bunch of middle-aged rock stars on the planet. “Until the Day Is Done” drifts by on Peter Buck’s rolling acoustic-guitar rhythm and an indelible Michael Stipe vocal melody, while “Horse to Water” bursts to life with jagged shards of one-armed-scissor guitar and a punkish chorus.

      The album’s immediacy owes much to the circumstances under which it was recorded. According to bassist Mike Mills, the goal was to capture the songs with only as much premeditation as was absolutely necessary. “You have to work different ways at different times,” he says, reached in Los Angeles. “Because of the last couple of tours, we really feel like a band again. We’re really comfortable with [drummer] Bill Rieflin and [multi-instrumentalist] Scott McCaughey. Because of that comfort level—and the fact that we felt we were playing very tightly—we decided to go in and cut this as a rock record—keep the songs short, keep the album short, try to cut the tracks live as much as possible.”

      In contrast, R.E.M. laboured over Around the Sun, a collection that received lukewarm reviews for its glossy but arguably insubstantial material. The disc represents the band’s commercial nadir; it failed to crack the U.S. Top 10, yielded no hit singles, and sold fewer copies than any previous R.E.M. release.

      “You know, there are great songs on Around the Sun, but we tried to do too much in the making of it,” Mills reflects. “We stopped in the middle and made a greatest-hits record, then went on the road, and then tried to come back and finish it. And that’s just not fair to the record. That’s not really any way to record. We didn’t know that, but now we do.”

      With that lesson learned, R.E.M. kept the timeline for Accelerate tight, starting out with sessions at Kitsilano’s Armoury Studios.

      “We did three weeks in Vancouver, and we got most of the basic tracks done there,” Mills says. “A lot of the songs were very close to being finished by the time we left Vancouver. Then we did three weeks in Ireland, where we did most everything else, except for some of the vocals. And then we went to Athens, where we did a lot of the vocals and the B-sides. I think we finished one or two tracks there.”

      Overseeing the process was Jacknife Lee, who coproduced and mixed the disc. The young Irish studio wizard’s list of credits is relatively short, but it’s impressive, and includes work with Snow Patrol, U2, Bloc Party, and the Hives.

      “He was on a shortlist of a few producers we were looking at,” Mills says. “We spoke to our buddies in U2, and the Edge gave him a very, very glowing recommendation. We liked his work with the other bands, and then we had a dinner with him in Oxford, England. We all seemed to be on the same page about how to make this record, and we absolutely made the right choice.”

      In + out

      Mike Mills sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

      On his relationship with R.E.M.’s albums: “I like all of them for different reasons, but then again I don’t sit around and listen to any of them, because I start critiquing it and it becomes work. So it’s not really a pleasure listen for me to put them on.”

      On our fair city: “I’ve spent a huge amount of time in Vancouver, and it’s a beautiful city. It’s got a great energy, it has a lot of optimism, it feels very youthful, and it’s got great restaurants. The reason we keep working there is because of all those things, and therefore the city itself is responsible for good music, because if a musician is comfortable where he’s working, that can often lead to better music.”

      On the contributions of Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin: “Peter and Michael and I write the songs, but they [McCaughey and Rieflin] certainly contribute heavily in the making of the record. They’re very good musicians, and whatever needs to be done, they can do. And they are great guys. We really enjoy hanging out together, which is another real plus.”

      The public seems to agree. Accelerate, which came out April 1, debuted in the number-two spot on the Billboard 200, and topped the album charts in Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere. Critics have uniformly called the disc a return to form, and advance buzz landed R.E.M. on the cover of last month’s Spin—which is no mean feat for a musical act in its 28th year.

      It must all feel like further validation for Mills and his bandmates, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, but the bassist insists he doesn’t dwell on such things. “The Hall of Fame was a huge thrill and a great honour, but really, within a day or two after it, I was just back to thinking about the new record. We’re not really very good at looking backwards. Maybe someday if we retire and we can sit around with grandchildren and talk about it, that might be a different story. But really, for right now, we’re excited about the present and the future, and that’s really where our minds are.”

      Madonna notwithstanding, Hall of Fame inductees tend to be artists whose productive years have passed, but Mills reiterates that, as long as R.E.M. is lucky enough to remain a vital force, retirement is the furthest thing from his mind.

      “There are a lot of pressures and things that happen to break bands up, and we’ve been very fortunate to survive all those things and still be making good, viable music at this stage of our career,” he asserts. “A lot of that is commitment, but a lot of it is just good fortune. So yes, it is unusual to see a band who’s still active get into the Hall of Fame, but thank goodness that we have the good fortune that we still have a viable career. It feels good to be valid and relevant in 2008.”

      R.E.M. plays Burnaby’s Deer Lake Park on Friday (May 23).