R.E.M. and John Mellencamp redefine American rock
Almost without warning, American rock suddenly seems as regionally distinctive as a Starbucks outlet. With a few exceptions, like the Seattle roar in Soundgarden or the hint of Southern humidity in Hootie & the Blowfish, rock feels homogenized, perfect for the impersonal ''superstores'' that dispense it. Perhaps the melding of styles that has defined (and often enlivened) much of '90s rock hasn't been such a wonderful thing after all. Let's face it the industrial lump of Primitive Radio Gods or the hip-hop metal of 311 could have come from anywhere. Rock radio has become a strip mall of sound.
Such thoughts are prompted by new albums by several upstanding Americans R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi and John Mellencamp's Mr. Happy Go Lucky. A decade ago, the thought of associating the arty collegians from Athens, Ga., with America's second-favorite working-class hero would have seemed ludicrous. Yet in the early '80s (a time when hard rock meant Journey), both acts revitalized white-guy rock by adhering, in their own way, to basics garage-band chords, anti-authority songs, crackling drums. And each was steeped in Americana: Mellencamp's highway hoedowns reveled in the joys and frustrations of living in small towns, while R.E.M.'s twisted folksiness and oblique storytelling were rooted in Southern gothic.
In 1996, Mellencamp and R.E.M. remain linked: Each is a monolithic multi-platinum institution facing obsolescence from youthful competition, and each still makes music that suggests the vastness and diversity of the country. Of the two, Mellencamp's Mr. Happy Go Lucky attempts to make the broadest leap. Since hitting a creative plateau with the exhilarating double whammy of Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee, his subsequent albums have grown winded and sluggish, his stubbornness more conservative than defiant. In an inspired attempt to reactivate his muse, he recruited New York dance producer and remixer Junior Vasquez the musical equivalent of a Berlitz foreign-language phrase book.
The collaboration makes sense, since rhythm has always played an important role in Mellencamp's music. Vasquez's influence is heard most prominently when he mixes together Kenny Aronoff's drums with electronic samples for a shuffle-puck rhythm section. By combining synthetic drums with crisp acoustic guitars and fiddles (''The Full Catastrophe'') or building a wall of sensual tribal rhythms (''Jerry''), the two men lay the groundwork for an American cultural-exchange program, much like those country fans who line-dance to pop hits on TNN.
Yet Mr. Happy Go Lucky is, disappointingly, not the groundbreaker it promised to be. The club beats Vasquez specializes in have dynamics, but subtle ones. With few exceptions (''Just Another Day,'' about a middle-aged slacker Mellencamp seems to pity and envy), Happy's mild techno shuffle tends to flatten out, rather than enhance, the songs. Simply, Mellencamp needs arrangements that surge. The thrill of experimentation hasn't infused his songwriting, either. He grumbles about how ''life is hard any way you cut it'' in this ''large world turning,'' to melodies that alternate between effortless (''Key West Intermezzo [I Saw You First]'') to outright leaden. And he should have thought twice before castigating a 37-year-old neighbor who ''rides his skateboard down the street'' and ''sees the world through a 10-year-old boy's eyes'' in the self-righteous ''Jerry.'' Mellencamp himself is a 44-year-old who makes a living appealing to precisely that kind of person not to mention that he mimes in rock videos, which is surely sillier than any extreme sport.
R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi suggests America as well, but in smaller, more personal ways. Like Mellencamp's record, it too is unconventional. Instead of pounding out a traditional studio disc, they recorded it during their Monster world tour on stage, at sound checks, in dressing rooms, and in recording studios. The tracks were supposedly massaged and overdubbed in studios as well.
Reflecting the atmosphere in which the music was created, the band sounds as if it's playing to the cheap seats; the music has a hefty girth. Yet, if the arena-designed, occasionally forced Monster felt like a midlife crisis, New Adventures in Hi-Fi finds R.E.M. returning to their joyful idiosyncrasies. Its 14 songs alternate the band's delicate, folkish side with stadium raunch, gently subverting their own cliches along the way. ''How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us'' feels like an Old West tango; ''Be Mine'' recalls, but deepens, the bracing blast-of-autumn feel of the band's early work. Despite a few lumpy rockers (why didn't the band include ''Revolution,'' a sardonic, riff-happy political rant debuted during the tour?), not in years has an R.E.M. album showed such breadth.
The music feels spontaneous and bristly; equally important, so does its frontman. The album is the culmination of a long process in which Michael Stipe has taken less refuge in elliptical imagery and dared to be passionate. Aside from a fond remembrance of his days as a teenage punk fan (''The Wake-up Bomb'') and a slice of media criticism (''New Test Leper,'' which depicts a talk show as a freak parade), Stipe mostly bangs and blames about various affairs. This increasingly deglamorized singer has never sounded so angry, hurt, and confused. ''I don't want to disappoint you/I'm not here to anoint you/I would lick your feet but isn't that the sickest move?'' he talk-sings in the somber ''E-bow the Letter''; for added solemnity, Patti Smith adds a bemoaned chant.
At other times, he pleads with what appear to be self-destructive lovers (''So Fast, So Numb,'' which sounds windswept) and his own torment over them (''Leave,'' driven by a screeching, nails-on-soundboard siren sound that recalls turntable scratchings on old rap singles). No matter the song, though, Stipe's voice sounds noticeably gruffer probably attributable to a year on the road, soaking up the fast food, highways, and radio formats of the country that spawned him. Mr. Happy Go Lucky: B- New Adventures in Hi-Fi: A