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American Paradise Regained

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R.E.M. - Reckoning (IRS)

WHEN I hear the word 'plangent' I reach for my applause button. Which is why 'Reckoning' and its predecessor, last year's 'Murmur', confirm R.E.M. as one of the most beautifully exciting groups on the planet.

It would be naïve to deny that enjoyment of these vinyl cathedrals is untouched by love of the tradition from which they spring - the soaring trajectory from The Beatles 'Hard Day's Night', through The Searchers to America's electric Dylan and reaching an apogee in West Coast laureates The Byrds, Jingle-jangle merchants have followed - '70s British pub-rock, the likes of Dwight Twilley, Orange Juice at times, and a whole new generation of 12-string choristers. But none have devoted themselves with such inspiration to the driving, towering purity to bye found in the fullness of what is demeaningly called space-folk guitar music. When I get to heaven, the angels will be playing not harps but Rickenbackers. And they will be playing songs by R.E.M.

Drugs don't come into it: there's no need for a head full of snow or funny pills to groove into the spirit of R.E.M. It's to do with America, the journey west to the Promised Land with nothing buy a shimmering horizon ahead and a blazing, deep blue sky above. And though R.E.M. address themselves particularly to America the country, they resonate beyond that to signify America the state of mind; a Garden of Eden before its loss of innocence, its fall from grace.

It seems no coincidence that R.E.M. hail from Georgia in the New South, the paradise to be regained after California was lost. Wheel me out frothering if your like, but R.E.M. sing wistfully of a Golden Age hat never was. Though even the most part-time romantic wishes it had been and hopes, in some tiny moment of nirvana, it will come again.

To particulars, With 'Reckoning', R.E.M. have dispensed with the discreet strings and profusely interlocking layers of intstrumentation and vocal harmonies that characterised 'Murmur' and returned to the terser sound of the first EP 'Chronic Town' which was displayed live earlier this year with such breathtaking brilliance. But spartan it isn't. No modern axehero; yet Peter Buck shows why he is perhaps todays greatest rock guitarist; both economically precise and rich in timbre and immaculate in timing and dynamics, his guitar sings.

Also at the top end of the mix, Michael Stipe on vox emerges a little further from his shell of 'Murmur's' gnomic utterance and occaisional fragments of chorus keening with bright eyed rapture. Yet so much more is conveyed in the interplay of aching, troubled voice, soaring harmonies and ringing guitars than in literal pronouncement, however assiduously Dylanologist you mayb bein in its unpicking.

Special mention goes to 'Time After Time', which demonstrates the God-given truth hat there are few more noble expressions of the soul than really well played raga-rock. And those kohl-eyed transexuals out there who regard this last remark as a load of neo-hippy garbage had better check out 'All Tomorrows Parties' by their beloved Velvet's.

Exceptional in its lyrical clarity is 'Don't Go Back To Rockville', a song of love, home and the new poverty ironically set to a golden delicious country tune.

So full circle. The Byrds best albums -'Fifth Dimension' and 'Younger than Yesterday' - were of their era yet still exhilarate today. R.E.M.'s two LP's are more consistently brilliant still, and, by picking up where McGuinn and co. left off, R.E.M. somehow transcend period fetishism to make music similarly in tune with the times. In short, another classic.