|R.E.M. - Automatic for the People|
|Music Disc Reviews DVD-Audio|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Tuesday, 03 December 2002|
Although bands like Radiohead and Coldplay dominate the category known as “college rock” today, you could make an argument that R.E.M. was the most popular group of this small but important subgenre of alternative rock radio. To see where the trends in popular music are heading, you need look no further than the campuses of American institutions of higher education. For a span of well over 10 years, R.E.M. were critical darlings and sat in the CD jukeboxes of sensitive Gen X’ers alongside their Cure, Morrissey and Sonic Youth discs.
Now, several years past the band’s commercial and creative peak, R.E.M.’s 1992 album Automatic for the People has been remixed beautifully into surround by Elliot Scheiner and has been released as a DVD-Audio disc by Warner Music Group and Rhino Entertainment Company. I’ve never been firmly onboard the R.E.M. bandwagon, but I have certainly appreciated the talented musicianship and songwriting that this Georgia quartet possesses. This disc has a myriad of different sound formats, including 48kHz/24-bit surround and stereo for DVD-Audio players, as well as Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround for DVD-Video players, although it lacks a MLP
(Meridian Lossless Packing) mix that many proponents of the DVD-Audio format prefer.
After several spins of this heavily acoustic pop rock disc, I found that there weren’t as many big vocal hooks to sink my teeth into as I am accustomed to on R.E.M albums, the most well known being Out of Time. The biggest hit on Automatic for the People is the song “Man On The Moon,” benefits greatly in surround with its chorus, “If you believe they put a man on the moon/If you believe there’s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool.” It’s just plain infectious as the backing vocal line “Maaann on the mooooon” radiates from behind your head. These vocals are placed perfectly on the best track on the album.
Other hits on Automatic for the People that even the most casual R.E.M. fan will recognize immediately are “Drive,” with its uneven, start and stop lyrical lines and the song “Everybody Hurts” with its lullaby type melody. On “Hurts,” the rear channels feature some of the most prominent placement of backing vocals I have ever heard in a surround recording since any of the tracks on Boys II Men’s II on DTS 5.1 CD. As the song moves into its more rock-oriented middle section, the strings take the place of the backing vocals and percussion, then switches back to the original placements when the song resumes it soft verses.
Scheiner was not afraid to make heavy use of the rear channels throughout the album, but not every song relies on them. The piano and vocal-based tune “Nightswimming” rarely stirred the speakers to the left and right behind my head, other than with a few strings and a clarinet line that came primarily from the rear right channel. This down-temp song would be right at home in an after-hours piano lounge.
Interestingly, a band that has historically advocated free speech and many other civil rights issues had the title of their somber tune “F**k Me Kitten” censored on the back of the disc’s packaging, with the track being called “Star Me Kitten.” This short track features only finger snaps and cymbals as percussion and a sparse guitar line that mirrors the vocals in the rear channels. It’s kind of a throwaway song that has a controversial title but doesn’t leave much of a mark otherwise.
One big miss on the album is the instrumental track “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” that sounds like nothing but electronic keyboard noodling combined with guitar volume swells and a string bass. They should leave the instrumentals up to progressive rock bands and keep the focus on writing clever pop songs with deep lyrics.
As the disc plays, song lyrics are available for the listener if the television or monitor is left on, but unlike many DVD-Audio discs I have heard and seen, the lyrics do not automatically update as the song moves on to the next page. It’s a tad annoying to follow along with the words onscreen and be forced to press “next” if you want to see the next page of lyrics. One might assume “next” means next track but this is not the case, making the navigation confusing while listening to the music. The disc’s main menus, on the other hand, are very easy to navigate. Included with the disc is a promotional video clip that features the band discussing how the album was made and where the inspiration for the album’s title came from. After getting a little insight into the songs from the band members, going back to listen to the album becomes a little like a scavenger hunt, trying to hear some of the interesting tidbits featured in the documentary.
The one resounding impression that I was left with after seeing the documentary was that Michael Stipe thinks he’s too good to do an interview. Everyone else in the band heaps praise on Stipe’s vocal performances and lyric writing but we never hear from Stipe himself.
Fans of R.E.M. will surely need to have this new version of the disc. There are enough familiar songs for even a casual listener to use and the clean recording and mix by Elliot Scheiner also make the disc a good demo for explaining how surround sound works to your friends who do not understand it yet. I don’t fully understand the appeal of R.E.M. as a band, but hearing them in this new aural format on DVD-Audio has helped shed some more light on why those college kids used to love them so much.