The day Michael Jackson's new album was released, one local record store noted that it received as many calls about the new R.E.M. disc as about Jackson's. It's a safe bet that the Athens, Ga., quartet's "Document" will not outsell "Bad," but the comment does suggest the dedication of the band's following.
The members of R.E.M. have become the standard-bearers for an entire generation of neo-folk-rockers, especially those from the South. The groups commonly associated with R.E.M. include some that are outright imitators and others with whom musical kinship is tenuous, some clearly inspired by the quartet and others who were exploring the same territory well before R.E.M.'s first single, "Radio Free Europe," was released in 1981. Among those linked with R.E.M., however superficially, are the dBs, who have also recently released a new record.
R.E.M.: 'Document' After last year's "Lifes Rich Pageant," which was mainstreamed by John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman, "Document" (IRS-42059) is something of a redeclaration of quirkiness. Produced by the band with Scott Litt, best known in New-South pop circles for his work on the second dBs record, the album's sound is rougher, looser, more spontaneous (check out the piano slide at the beginning of "Strange"), shaking off the more intrusive styles of Gehman and his predecessor, "Fables of the Reconstruction" producer Joe Boyd.
"Document," however, is not a return to the thickly impastoed sound given the band's early records by producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. These days guitarist Peter Buck is almost as likely to invoke the funk-inflected style of "Fireplace" as the plangent Byrdisms for which he's best known. Likewise, Michael Stipe's vocals are up front and clear, Gehman-style, not shrouded in the mix as on earlier recordings. (Audible is not the same as comprehensible, of course -- the band's words are still cryptic: A list of people with the initials "L.B." comprises part of the lyric to "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).")
The album includes several immediately winning songs, notably "Finest Worksong" and "The One I Love," and no obvious missteps. Still, R.E.M.'s distinctiveness is the flip side of its narrowness, and after five albums it's hardly surprising that the band is starting to repeat itself. The refrain of "Disturbance at the Heron House," for example, recalls "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)," from the first EP. Neither is it encouraging that the freshest-sounding song here is "Strange," originally recorded by Wire for its "Pink Flag" album, a record that's celebrating its 10th anniversary by proving more influential than ever.
Wire never made another album that sounded like "Pink Flag," which was wise. Bands whose significance comes from formal innovation rather than content are always at risk of ending up trapped inside their own device. "Document" is hardly a trap, but it doesn't exactly offer R.E.M. a way out, either. They perform Oct. 10 at the Patriot Center.
The dBs: 'The Sound of Music'
The dBs were bred in North Carolina but born in New York, an offshoot of the mid-'70s backup band for southern-rock legend Alex Chilton. Originally a trio led by pop revisionist Chris Stamey, the band soon expanded to a quartet with the addition of Peter Holsapple, who had attended high school with the other three (and Mitch Easter, incidentally) in Winston-Salem, N.C. Though the two usually wrote separately, the relationship was mutually fruitful. The first two dBs records, "Stands for Decibels" and "Repercussion," both released in 1981, deconstructed mid-'60s pop-rock styles with exceptional grace and vigor. Despite never being issued in this country (though they reportedly sold better here as imports than they did in Europe), the records were widely influential.
The dBs had a proclivity for failing labels, though. Their original English label, Albion, collapsed; after they finally signed to Bearsville that label, too, crumbled, just as 1984's "Like This" came out. "The Sound of Music" (IRS-42055) is just the fourth album of the band's eight-year career, and that was made possible only because R.E.M. (with whom Holsapple toured as an unofficial fifth member in the early '80s) insisted on it.
The dBs, who appear at the 9:30 club Oct. 8, have lost something more important than record companies, though. Prior to "Like This," Stamey departed, leaving Holsapple the band's only songwriter. It's the classic Lennon/McCartney-style split: Without the counterpoint provided by Stamey's more adventurous songs, Holsapple's full-bodied but conventional tunes have drifted toward the insipid. (Stamey's career has taken the opposite path: His solo records have been experimental to a fault.) "The Sound of Music," produced by "Lifes Rich Pageant" engineer Greg Edward, is more consistent than the stylistically disjointed "Like This," but it's still a disappointing record. Not only doesn't it have anything as bold as the best Stamey songs from the quartet's first two records ("Tearjerkin'," "Ask for Jill"), but it doesn't even contain a single track as beguiling as Holsapple's best compositions ("Black and White," "Neverland") from those days.
The new album is better stocked with winsome Holsapple melodies than "Like This" -- "Never Say When," "Molly Says" and "Think Too Hard" are especially catchy. But Edward hasn't done much for the dBs' surprisingly anonymous sound: Holsapple's singing is indifferent and the arrangements are stolid. In this context, "Change With the Changing Times" seems almost cynical, the confession of a songwriter who no longer has a vision equal to his melodic gifts. Maybe next time they could enlist Stamey, who's due for a new solo album soon, to produce.