Reconstruction of the Fables
R.E.M. Gets Its Groove Back on Collapse Into Now

I keep saying that 2011 is an amazing year for new music. The awesome just keeps on coming – it seems like every few days, there’s a new major announcement that puts a grin on my face.

So here’s what I thought I’d do this week, just to illustrate how great this year is. I’m just going to list, week by week, the records I plan to buy through May. Some of them are more interesting to me than others, but when you see this list all written out like this, the sheer mass of it is just impressive. Here, take a look:

March 15: Noah and the Whale, Last Night on Earth; Mastodon, Live at the Aragon; Tres Mts., Three Mountains.

March 22: The Strokes, Angles; Green Day, Awesome as Fuck; Soundgarden, Live on I5; Richard Ashcroft, United Nations of Sound; Duran Duran, All You Need is Now; Pet Shop Boys, The Most Incredible Thing; Panic at the Disco, Vices and Virtues; James Blake.

March 29: Peter, Bjorn and John, Gimme Some; Mars Classroom, The New Theory of Everything; Cavalera Conspiracy, Blunt Force Trauma; The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong; Broken Bells, Meyrin Fields; Emery, We Do What We Want; and the CD release of Radiohead’s The King of Limbs.

April 5: Robbie Robertson, How to Become Clairvoyant; Ray Davies, See My Friends.

April 12: Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What; Alison Krauss, Paper Airplane; Low, C’Mon; Panda Bear, Tomboy; Foo Fighters, Wasting Light; TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light; Elbow, Build a Rocket Boys; Between the Buried and Me, The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues.

April 19: Blackfield, Welcome to My DNA; Gorillaz, The Fall.

April 26: Explosions in the Sky, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care; The Airborne Toxic Event, All at Once; KMFDM, WTF?!; Of Montreal, The Controllersphere; Boris, Attention Please and Heavy Rocks.

May 3: Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues; Danger Mouse and Danielle Luppi, Rome.

May 10: Okkervil River, I Am Very Far; Manchester Orchestra, Simple Math; Sloan, The Double Cross; The Cars, Move Like This; The Antlers, Burst Apart.

May 17: Moby, Destroyed; Owl City, All Things Bright and Beautiful.

May 31: Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys.

And these are just the releases I know about now. May will fill out more over the next month or so, and I expect there will be a number of surprise announcements in the near future. (Though, if I’m expecting them, they’re not surprises… never mind.) If anyone tells you this is a lousy time for new music, or there just isn’t anything coming out these days, please refer them to this list.

* * * * *

Of course, the quantity of new releases doesn’t matter as much as the quality, but 2011 keeps on delivering on that score too. We’ve seen great new records by PJ Harvey, Iron and Wine, Eisley, Teddy Thompson, Lykke Li and others, and even the Radiohead album was pretty good. I’ve downloaded and listened to the epic new Violet Burning album, The Story of Our Lives, and it’s staggering, especially considering it’s two hours and 18 minutes long.

And this week’s contestants, the venerable R.E.M., have just made their best album in nearly 20 years.

It really hasn’t been easy to be an R.E.M. fan these past couple decades. Athens’ favorite sons had a run like few other bands in history from 1982 to 1992, putting out classic after classic. They dropped their last one, the gentle and gorgeous Automatic for the People, in 1992. I was a freshman in college, and I remember hearing “Sweetness Follows” for the first time and sitting there awestruck. This band could do no wrong.

But since Bill Berry’s departure, they’ve been floundering. Quick show of hands: how many people got all the way through 2004’s bore-fest Around the Sun? And how many people could stand listening to it twice? That, I thought, was it, the death knell for one of my favorite bands. When a duet with Q-Tip is the highlight of your record, it may be time to hang it up.

If I may belabor the point, the problem with the last two decades of R.E.M. is the band’s seemingly endless desire to be someone else. Every album from Monster forward is a diversion from the sound they created in the ‘80s, instead of a refinement of it. Monster is the glam record, for example, while Up is the chill electro one, Reveal the sunny Brian Wilson-inspired one, and Around the Sun the shitty one. Even 2008’s Accelerate, up until now the best record the R.E.M. Trio had made, is the loud one, the one on which they tried to prove they can still rock. All of these decisions, in retrospect, feel forced and unnatural.

That’s why the new one, Collapse Into Now, is such a joyous revelation. This one sounds like R.E.M., simply and effortlessly. It’s like they went back in time and found their groove, right where they left it.

That’s not to say that this is a nostalgic affair. From the first moments of opener “Discoverer,” you’ll hear a vital band playing their hearts out. They’ve teamed up with Jacknife Lee again – he produced Accelerate – and while his work is full-bodied, he keeps the focus on the reinvigorated, live-band R.E.M., pounding out these short, sharp tunes like their lives depended on it. Despite the crashing rock of the first two songs (and several others), this is not Accelerate part two – it’s more varied, more open-sounding. And that’s the key to its success.

Early R.E.M. records felt adventurous, like anything could happen. Collapse Into Now recaptures that feeling, darting from spunky songs like “All the Best” (perhaps the finest showcase here for semi-permanent drummer Bill Rieflin, who, as I never get tired of saying, used to be in Ministry) to sweet numbers like “Uberlin,” which brings back that classic Peter Buck acoustic sound. “Walk it Back” is the hidden gem, the delicate piano underpinning Michael Stipe’s world-worn, yet still arresting voice, and that contrasts with an explosion like “That Someone Is You,” all of 1:44.

In fact, I’d almost describe the feel of this album as “freewheeling.” Just look at the crazy guest list: Eddie Vedder adds his pipes to the near-endless singalong at the end of “It Happened Today,” sex-pop iconoclast Peaches shows up on the awesomely silly “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter,” and Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye add their spectral eeriness to closer “Blue.” That song is something of a drugged-out cousin to “Country Feedback,” from 1991’s Out of Time, and finds Stipe in beat poet mode while Smith sings the melody. And then it eases into a little reprise that will make you smile.

These songs are mainly simple and enjoyable things – try hard not to grin as “Mine Smell Like Honey” plays – and for the first time in many, many years, the band sounds all right with that. There’s no attempt to make any kind of statement, or break new ground. This is just a good old-fashioned R.E.M. album, the likes of which I thought I’d never hear again. The members of R.E.M. appear, largely unobscured, on the front and back covers of Collapse Into Now, the first time they’ve done so. It’s fitting to see that on a record that finds them remembering who they are, and reclaiming that identity.

If you couldn’t tell, I love this. If you ever liked R.E.M., you’ll love it too.

Next week, maybe Bruce Cockburn, maybe The Violet Burning, maybe something else. I have to cut things short, but I’ll tell you why next week. The reason is pretty cool. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.