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Up to Speed 

A bespectacled R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills checking out Dr. John or Wilco. Mills was in town working with the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund to replace Katrina-flooded instruments. This year, audiences will get to see Mills and his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band onstage at Voodoo, supporting Accelerate, the band's most well-received album in years.

Mills' contributions dictate the sound of R.E.M. far more than is immediately evident. Not only does his thoughtful bass playing give the songs melodic movement, his high and clear vocal harmonies bolster Michael Stipe's whine on almost all of the band's best tracks (i.e. "And I feel fiiiiiiiine"). "I also play most of the keyboards," says Mills via phone from a stop on the first leg of the Accelerate arena tour. "I composed most of the string parts over the years, and I wrote the string parts that (Piety Street Recording Studio owner and New Orleans record producer) Mark Bingham arranged for Out of Time. I tend to handle the colorings of the songs, filling in gaps and finishing up things."

There are not too many gaps to fill on 2008's Accelerate. Electric-Rickenbaker-powered, politically-charged yet fun, short, sweet and to the point, Accelerate is being lauded as the band's best since Life's Rich Pageant (1986). Those kinds of statements may just be hyped gratitude in the face of R.E.M.'s previous album and widely regarded disappointment, Around the Sun, and its unappreciated recent predecessors.

'A huge amount of energy and thought and time was spent on all of our records, but people like what they like," Mills says, understandingly. "There were certain things certain people liked about R.E.M. that they wanted to hear more of. But we never made records to sell millions of them anyway, so we're gonna make records that sound different. We just try to make records we're proud of. And 90 percent of the time we've done that.

'Around the Sun is the only one we're not really happy with," Mills concedes. "And that's just because we made it under extremely difficult circumstances: trying to tour in the middle of making the record, plus making a greatest hits record and then touring for that, too. Plus we just didn't really know where we wanted to go with that record. We played the songs live beforehand and they sounded great, and they are great, but that record is not what we wanted it to be because we didn't know what we wanted it to be."

While recent critical disappointments have not broken R.E.M.'s heart, they seem to have provoked the band into making amends with its fans on Accelerate. "I'm very proud of the new record," Mills reiterates. "I am very proud of all of our records. But this time we made the record we really needed to make."

Considering the scrutiny facing R.E.M. with every new album — and really, what artist wants all descriptions of their albums to include how many copies were sold? — one has to wonder, wasn't it more fun being in a small band than a huge one?

'No," Mills answers firmly. "It is fun now. But it's just a different kind of fun. At first, the fun was discovery and doing something brand new, and having these wide innocent eyes and learning all this stuff. But then you get more popular and you get the chance to play all different kinds of things. And it's a gas to get to play in front of 90,000 people and have them all screaming and lighting lighters and stuff. It's a total thrill."

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