Short Cuts

R.E.M.
Up
(Warner Bros.)

R.E.M. has been a lot of things since its well-documented, small-town beginnings: underground college-radio favorite; above-ground music-industry manipulator; international pop icon. But one element in the band's long journey has remained constant: its lineup. Until now. Up is R.E.M.'s first album since the departure of drummer Bill Berry. Singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills have carried on, and their answer to the question "How do you replace your drummer?" seems to be, "You don't." If there is a unifying tone to this eclectic 14-song collection, it's a spacey one created by bizarre percussive effects, including rhythm machines and synthesizers.

Up is a mellow R.E.M. album, closer to 1992's sad and beautiful Automatic For the People than to more recent boisterous albums. But that doesn't mean R.E.M. is moving backward. Although Up contains shades of the last five albums, dating to 1987's Document, the CD is unique in its continuous, often eerie, background noises. The more you listen, the more the astute melodies seep through.

Given this texture of synthesizers, pop efforts like "Lotus" and "The Apologist" unfortunately sound like grating, rock 'n' roll-less whining; they lack urgency, relying too much on Stipe and not enough on guitar, bass, and, of course, drums. The new format works best when R.E.M. turns the pop down a notch, as on the passionate anthem "Walk Unafraid."

Up's slower tracks aren't quite as affecting as their counterparts on Green (1988) or Automatic, though a few creep under the skin. "Suspicion," a tender ballad offering a pleasant string arrangement and a soulful chorus, lingers a while. The album's finale, "Falls to Climb," is another gem, featuring Stipe at his confessional best, singing, "Someone has to take the fall/Why not me?" in a comforting melody and tone.

Elsewhere on Up, Stipe attempts to explore the lyrical territory of religion and science, which is best left to U2 or Sting. (R.E.M. was best when Stipe mumbled, and the band's vocal about-face from undecipherable to too-decipherable in the late '80s is still one of the great mysteries of modern rock.) On "Hope," a catchy artificial riff with strong singing, Stipe declares "So you look up to the heavens/And you hope that it's a spaceship/And it's something from your childhood/You're thinking don't be frightened."

It appears that, as with much of Up, what Stipe is really singing about is himself. R.E.M.'s pretense is subtle but strong. The group will get along fine without Berry, since R.E.M., for better or for worse, is always evolving.

-- Jonathan Lesser

Beck
Mutations
(Bong Load/Geffen)

Beck returns with the follow-up to Odelay that really isn't the follow-up. In record-industryspeak, that means: "It doesn't sound like the last record, we're not really promoting it, and we don't hear any hits, so don't expect any." For once this twisted logic makes sense; Mutations is more in the spirit of Beck's folk meanderings on One Foot in the Grave and electronic experiments on Stereopathic Soul Manure. Actually, unexpected changes in direction should be expected from idiosyncratic artists. Here Beck goes for baroque pop -- accented by sitars, harpsichords, and drunk-sounding trombones.

Recorded in two weeks with co-producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead's OK Computer) and a live band, Mutations offers lazy, country numbers akin to "Rocky Raccoon"; shuffling, piano, and acoustic blues; and straight-ahead pop tunes -- all of which are plainer, simpler, and more direct than the songs on Odelay. The more forthright Beck has a good singing voice and a knack for minor-key melodies. But while this CD is a solid set, there isn't much here that's truly great-- it's all just pretty good.

Another surprise is the depth of the Beatles' influence. Much of Beck's music is rooted in the blues and more obscure inspirations (one song on the new CD, for example, is titled "Tropicalia," after a 30-year-old Brazilian musical movement led by Tom Ze), but the vocal phrasing, droning sitars, and psychedelic keyboards on Mutations are pure Rubber Soul. Waiting for Beck to bust loose with something of consequence is frustrating, however. The lone standout (as it turns out) is "Tropicalia," which rises above the somber tone of the album and shows a bit of grooviness with horns and squiggly keyboards. It's the only time that Beck doesn't seem to be holding back or restraining the funkmeister within.

The lyrics aren't as obtuse as in the past, which also helps to keep the mood dark; images of plagues, funerals, graveyards, and dead ends don't make for much of a good time.

Though it's basically one-dimensional, Mutations is solid and well crafted. It just doesn't display the off-the-wall genius that Odelay did. As an appetizer for next year's follow-up this will do just fine, especially because it proves that Mr. Hansen still isn't afraid to follow his instincts. While the break-dancing and rapping Beck is more entertaining, Mutations suggests that he has a long career of experimentation ahead of him.

-- David Simutis

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