It doesn't take more than a couple of bars before "Monster" (Warner Bros. 45740, arriving in stores Tuesday) proves that it's a different breed from the last few R.E.M. albums.
OK, so the guitar sound is gutsier and more aggressive. But what really stands out as Peter Buck strums through the intro to "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is how much that three-chord vamp recalls the classic power-chord riff from "Won't Get Fooled Again." It's not quite a retro-rock move -- the rest of "Kenneth" is too quirkily R.E.M. for that -- but it doesn't sound entirely accidental, either. Instead, it's as if the band has decided to have it both ways, going for mainstream accessibility without sacrificing its alterna-rock credentials.
That the band succeeds so gloriously is only part of the fun. Taken on a song-by-song basis, "Monster" is full of ear-catching treats, whether as tuneful and intoxicating as "Bang and Blame" or as exotically adventurous as "Crush With Eyeliner." Taken as a whole, the album finds R.E.M. virtually reinventing itself on the spot -- a trick few bands of their stature would even dare, much less pull off.
Take "Kenneth," for example. Traditionally, R.E.M.'s approach to tempo rockers has put Buck's guitar in an essentially rhythmic role, as Mike Mills' bass sets out a counter-melody beneath Michael Stipe's vocal.
Here, Buck has all the meaty melodic lines, answering the urgent staccato of Stipe's verse with a searing, over-driven counter-line. Mills is strictly in a supportive role -- even drummer Bill Berry gets a bigger piece of the hook, thanks to a stuttering guitar chord on the refrain that's actually triggered by his snare.
Then there's "King of Comedy," which reduces almost the whole of the instrumental track to a single, throbbing groove. That should put Stipe way out in front of the band, but because so much of the song is delivered in a gruff grumble, what we notice isn't his part so much as the relationship between his line and Sally Dworski's wordless counter-melody -- hardly the typical R.E.M. approach. Yet the song is catchy as blazes, even if it does use unconventional means to burn itself into the listener's memory.
Still, the band never loses its sense of self, no matter how far afield these songs go. "Tongue" seems nothing like an R.E.M. song on the surface, what with Stipe's plaintive falsetto out front, and the piano-organ vamp behind him. It isn't just the vocal that departs from the norm; the drums are subdued to the point of being little more than a suggestion, while apart from a brief instrumental bridge, the guitar is virtually inaudible. But even if the individual components aren't immediately recognizable, the overall effect is. No other band could have created the sort of wan, pastoral mood R.E.M. evokes here. It may not sound like the band, but it definitely feels the same.
Feel is the basic level on which "Monster" operates. No matter how strange the sounds get, there's never a sense of estrangement from the band, and that's as true of such aurally exotic numbers as "I Took Your Name," with its anxious, pulsing tremolo guitar and Stones-style cowbell kick, or "Crush With Eyeliner," with its feedback-ringed guitar and deadpan Thurston Moore cameo, as it is of tuneful, immediate fare, such as the spooky, hypnotic "Bang and Blame."
Simply put, "Monster" feels good. When you get right down to it, that's really not so different from other R.E.M. albums, is it?
DIAL A 'MONSTER'
To hear excerpts of R.E.M.'s "Monster," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6195 after you hear the greeting.