If either of these bands favored burning out over fading away, they missed their chance. Truth be told, R.E.M. had a far more noble option, and one that’s all too rare in rock: to bow out gracefully. They used to say they’d hang it up if any one member wanted to quit. But that was before they signed what was, at the time, the most lucrative record contract in history. And while I hope that wasn’t the only reason they carried on after Bill Berry quit in 1997, I also have to wonder whose heart is still in this. Because I’m an optimist, I hope the Strokes hold on a while longer. But I also hope neither Julian Casablancas nor I lives long enough to see his band become a corporation, which, no matter who won’t say so, is exactly what R.E.M. is now.
The Strokes: Angles
I’m among the very lucky subset of youngish music obsessives who got to buy the first Strokes album as a CD and listen to it for the first time in a tiny dorm room. Given the fact that I’ll remember those 36 minutes for the rest of my life, it’s a shame I’ve already forgotten how half of these songs go. This is the first Strokes album to feature songwriting from all five members of the band, and it sounds like a case of too many elegantly wasted cooks in the kitchen. Even more frustrating is that, while Julian Casablancas was by all accounts not in the same room as his band mates when these songs were recorded, a few of them are actually thrilling. “Taken For a Fool” and “Under Cover of Darkness,” especially, demonstrate just how much punch their neurotic boogie can pack. But four albums was all they owed RCA, and, unlike R.E.M., they’re not into redemption narratives. So, is this it? I don’t necessarily buy the line that longevity is impossible for this band – they’ve got the ideas and they’ve got the ambition. But I also can’t deny that I got the highest my first time. B
R.E.M.: Collapse Into Now
What you’ve heard is true: R.E.M., as much as any American band that ever became the biggest or best, reached the top with honor. They repped noble causes, refused to license their songs to commercials, and shared songwriting credit equally. But more to the point: they went ten straight albums without making a bad one, or – while they always had their signature moves – the same one twice (some may hold up a halting finger and say something dismissive about Monster or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but I keep my copies close, and recommend dusting yours off if they’re around.). More impressive still was how quickly they did it. Consider this: a decade on from their debut, the Strokes have released four albums in total, and there’s a reason you probably haven’t heard much about two of them. Ten years after Murmur, R.E.M. had already released their eighth – the classic-on-arrival Automatic For The People. Now we get album 15, and their fifth since Bill Berry’s departure. One of my fellow R.E.M. fans has rightfully noted that their last, 2008’s quick-and-hard Accelerate, lacked the singular identity this band used to exude, but it also served notice that Buck, Mills, and Stipe were recommitting themselves to making band albums again after the beating they took for 2004’s slow-and-soft Around The Sun. They’ve taken a step back here, with Stipe turning in some of the worst lyrics of his career (“the annals of our flavored times” is an awfully big bummer coming from the man who wrote “Nightswimming”) and Buck & Mills working overtime to recapture 90’s glories. But Berry isn’t coming back, and he took something immeasurable from this famously democratic band when he left. Their formula’s bound to hit once in a while: “Discoverer” gives the impression that these 50-something multi-millionaires still feel they have discoveries left to make, and “Oh My Heart,” while a touch corny, is deeply felt. Most of the others feel like – and this word hurts – product. Out Of Time has never sounded sweeter or sadder. B-