The clipped charge of "Swinging From a Rope" drives the song for its first half, but as listeners acclimate to its energy, ex-Motorway guitarist Mike Blum's lead kicks in, recharging the track for its final minute. Similarly, Adam Campagna's synthesizer storm at the end of the title track's bridge adds a texture that, while not crucial, subtly re-engages listeners before the final choruses. Bassist Sara Essex's singing makes wordless vocal parts in "Stars in Suburbia" and "Pop Rock Baby" possible.
These contributions may be details, but they're the details that mark the difference between this album and Fera's previous output in New Orleans. He's always had good songs with a down-stroked acoustic guitar at their instrumental hearts, and his serious-young-man vocal and lyrical stance is intriguing. A Billy Bragg fan, his songs often show a moral or political consciousness -- "Honkey Prayer" features the smart juxtaposition, "California dreamin' / I just got laid off" -- and a song like "Steve in the '70s" ponders cultural loss. The charmingly indirect titles suggest a playfulness, and when he sings "I wish you were here / you're working two jobs," his social consciousness is grounded in the simple desire for good relationships, a position we understand.
Larry Crane, who has produced recordings by the late Elliott Smith, the Go-Betweens and Sleater-Kinney, produced the album and has kept Big Blue Marble's sound free of obvious ornamentation. Stars in Suburbia is ultimately lush, but parts emerge organically and surface when necessary, ultimately mirroring Fera's lyrical sensibility. The result is the album his songwriting talent has deserved.
Rhino Records recently re-released R.E.M.'s Warner Brothers-era albums, and the common take on the albums recorded after drummer Bill Berry left in 1997 after a near-fatal brain aneurysm was that they were unfortunate afterthoughts. Such dismissals of Up, Reveal and Around the Sun are too swift and simple, though. These CDs make the band easier to understand, and the truth is that they contain a lot of good music.
The change in the band's sound that followed Berry's departure suggests R.E.M.'s career is best thought of in three phases: the immature R.E.M. of the IRS albums, the maturing band in full command of its powers -- heard on Out of Time and Automatic for the People -- and the mature band heard on the last three studio albums. The early recordings are more dynamic and rhythmically compelling as Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Berry discovered what they and their instruments could do, while their most popular albums caught them on firmer artistic soil, able to achieve seemingly whatever musical idea they could imagine. They're rhythmically less propulsive -- they never made another "Catapult" or "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)" -- but mass acceptance of their musical vision was not only possible; it was realized.
Berry's absence stripped the band of push, but in its stead, they explored melody and tension. Up's "Airportman" and its meditation on a fractured melody recalls Brian Eno's mid-1970s experiments along those lines, while "Hope" feels very Kraftwerk, though Michael Stipe's vocals humanize the tune in a way Ralf Hütter never imagined.
The R.E.M. of this period might not be the one fans of "Losing My Religion" wanted, but on Reveal, it continued to point to previously unacknowledged influences and made attractive music in their modes. The arrangement of "Beat a Drum" is so mid-period Beach Boys, Brian Wilson could almost be R.E.M.'s new fourth member. Its chorus -- swelling music behind Stipe singing plaintively, "This is all I want / it's all I need" -- is in musical and lyrical sympathy with Wilson's lonely beauty, and that lushness is all over the album, though not at the expense of the band's personality.
The liner notes say Peter Buck referred to early versions of "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)" as "Jimmy Webb on Mars," and it does recall songs by the writer of "Wichita Lineman," but these overt nods don't sound like a band running out of gas. Instead, they sound like a band secure enough in itself and its musical personality that it can tip its hand, showing where it came from.
If one of these albums can be passed on, it's last year's Around the Sun, but the weakness isn't musical. Stipe's lyrics sound like those of someone who wrote an album after an unpleasant break-up. By 2004, though, R.E.M. had outlasted two audiences -- those who started with them in 1983 with Murmur and those who got on board in 1991 with Out of Time. It has to be a strange and dispiriting situation, made worse when some of your best work is overlooked for reasons that have little to do with art.
For reviews of reissues by the Kinks, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Roky Erickson and a live review of Slipknot by Jody Worthington, see "Opening Act 2."