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R.E.M.
Around The Sun
Warner Bros.

Back in the 80s, my older brother and his friends had crates filled with classic rock records, consisting mostly of the old workhorse standbys: Rumours, Physical Graffiti, One More From The Road. Tucked in with these, however, were two records, Murmur and Reckoning, by a mysterious band with a mysterious acronym for a name and Spanish moss-and wisteria-hung cover art that spoke to my kudzu-covered coming-of-age. The songs sounded unlike anything I'd ever heard, full of half-garbled lyrics that were more midnight dream jottings than the seven-minute passion plays purveyed by the Brit castle-rock set. The instrumentation was full of jangle and spark, lending the band's best moments a firecracker pop that didn't necessarily need to be understood to be felt.

Pity, then, that Around the Sun, the band's newest, shows that R.E.M.'s waxwings are melting at an Icarus-like rate. Somehow, Michael Stipe's new commitment to "personal" songwriting has served to rob the band of whatever spooky import and cache they possessed in the first place. Now that you can actually hear Stipe, it seems he has nothing to say. Stipe's past poetry -- however stilted, and smacking of Kerouac and Jim Carroll, Patti Smith and Bill Burroughs -- is now a lefty litany of enigmatic ennui as indistinguishable as any fly-by-night memoir. "Leaving New York" seems tailor-made for the post-9/11 set, but a rolling blackout of energy drives the song into the ground long before it's finished. There's "Final Straw," which sounds like an outtake from Out of Time. (There's even a cameo by Q-Tip on "The Outsider," continuing the album's seeming obsession with fanning old flames -- in this case, KRS-One's star turn on "Radio Song".)

Too often, however, the album comes up ashes, gray with lack of heat. For a band that once burned with ingenuity and revelation, such a shocking lack of spark makes you wonder if their creative wick has been extinguished for good. R.E.M. used to stand for Rapid Eye Movement -- these days, it's more analogous to a deep sleep.
Rating: 1/2
Track to Burn: "High Speed Train"
--Timothy C. Davis

Castanets
Cathedral
Asthmatic Kitty

For a place where the sun always shines, San Diego sure does nurture its share of pitch-dark music. The Castanets' debut, Cathedral, builds on Three-Mile Pilot's twisted musical theater, the dirge-like majesty of Black Heart Procession and the midnight-hour loneliness of Tristeza to create what its founder calls "derailed psychedelic country."

The brainchild here is Raymond Raposa, who tested out of high school at 15 and spent the next four years Going Greyhound across the country. It was a spiritual quest more than anything, and a yearning expansiveness permeates much of the 34-minute Cathedral. Creaking instruments like dulcimers, horns, toy pianos, bells and offbeat percussion add to the record's mysterious feel.

Raposa's cracked voice warbles like Palace-era Will Oldham (particularly on "You Are the Blood") or Jason Molina of Songs:Ohia ("Just to Break Free From a Hundred Families"). "You Are the Blood" moseys along at a funereal pace not unlike BHP (Pall Jenkins even makes a cameo), and the more upbeat closer "Cathedral 4" could have come from Knock Knock-era Smog. But Cathedral transcends the sum of its influences, and while it may not be exactly sunny, it's still the kind of cohesive and intriguing record that will brighten most days.
Rating: 1/2
Track to Burn: "No Light to Be Found"
--John Schacht

Julie Doiron
Goodnight Nobody
Jagjaguwar

She doesn't have the pipes of a Neko Case, or the simmering heat of a PJ Harvey, and she doesn't have the critical acclaim of Aimee Mann or the cult following of Chan Marshall. What Julie Doiron does have, in spades, is a way with a song.

Compared with Eric's Trip, the Canadian psych-pop group Doiron played bass for in the 90s, her solo efforts have been mostly minimalist fare, simple skeletal frameworks with one or two instruments accenting her guitar and earthy whisper. Goodnight Nobody adds a wintry feel befitting Doiron's native New Brunswick, Canada, best exemplified by the running guitar counter-melodies and soaring harmonies of the opener, "Snow Falls In November." Melancholy beauties like "Tonight Is No Night" and "Dirty Feet" -- which feature ex-Wooden Stars collaborator Dave Draves on string samples and vibes -- highlight her airier side, while the angry drive of "The Songwriter" recalls Shannon Wright, another criminally neglected singer.

Two-thirds of the 12 cuts were recorded in Paris in just one day with French popsters Herman Düne, but Goodnight November still feels like Doiron's most realized work. It's a testament to her musicians, sure, but it's also evidence of the growing maturity of an already unique songwriter.
Rating: 1/2
Track to Burn: "Good Night"
--John Schacht

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