The first clue that R.E.M. is loosening up a bit in its coming album is the LP's working title: "Life's Rich Pageant."

At first glance, the phrase has the pretentious aura of some old Moody Blues album titles. But it comes from a line in one of the Inspector Clouseau "Pink Panther" comedies.

Explained R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck: "There's a scene in one of the films where the inspector falls out of his car and into a pond . . . and someone says to him, 'Inspector Clouseau, you are all wet. . . . You should get out of your clothes.'

"And Clouseau says, 'It's all just part of life's rich pageant.' "

After seeing the film, the band members started using the phrase every time something went wrong on the road.

Said Buck: "If the sound system didn't work in Boise, for instance, we'd look at each other and say, 'Well, it's all part of life's rich pageant.' I'm not sure that'll end up as the title, but it's been our attitude this time."

Sitting in John Cougar Mellencamp's recording studio here, where the band recorded the new album, Buck amplified on the "loosening up" thought. "We wanted more of a traditional rock 'n' roll record," he said. "I don't mean a, say, Rolling Stones record, but something a little less moody than we have done recently. A lot of people say it sounds most like our first EP ("Chronic Town") . . . a lot more up-tempo and kinda rowdy.

"I guess it comes from being on the road for eight months. We're even doing a cover song, but it's so obscure that most people probably won't even recognize it."

The looser attitude is significant because Buck feels that the group--whose first three albums were wildly lauded by critics-- may have strained a bit in the past to live up to the acclaim.

"I'm not so sure we were trying to live up to the press reaction as much as trying to meet our own expectations," he said. "We always want to stay a step ahead of ourselves. We push ourselves a lot because the only way to learn is to attempt things you don't know how to do yet. But we may have been guilty of overdoing it a bit . . . going in various directions at once.

"The last album was a little weird because of that. I like parts of it a lot, but there was a lot of confusion among the four of us about what we wanted to do. This one is a lot more focused. We had never actually sat down before and talked about what we wanted to do with the record, what we wanted it to sound like, where we wanted to go musically. We did do that with this one."

R.E.M. emerged with "Murmur" in 1983 and "Reckoning" in 1984 as the leader in the second wave of the Great American Rock Renaissance that began in the late '70s with groups like Talking Heads, X, the Blasters and the Ramones. Much of the strength of the group's alluring, hypnotic musical textures rested in its innocent yet aggressively independent vision.

After recording its last album ("Fables of the Reconstruction") in London with veteran producer Joe Boyd, R.E.M. went into the studio here with Don Gehman, who co-produced Mellencamp's "Scarecrow" album and is scheduled to produce the next X collection.

"We didn't decide on Don just because John's records sell as well as they do," Buck stressed. "I just like the sound of his records . . . the drum sound and the way the guitars intermesh. It's a real good rock 'n' roll sound without being overly slick."

If Gehman can add enough accessibility to R.E.M.'s music to gain even a fraction of the airplay of Mellencamp's records, R.E.M. should easily vault into the gold-album category (500,000 sales) with the new release (due in late July). The "Fables" collection has passed the 400,000 mark--a considerable achievement for a band that operates as far from the conventional rock-radio formula as R.E.M.

By recording the album here in the home of Indiana University, the band found itself exchanging one small college-town environment for another--all four members live in Athens, Ga., the home of the University of Georgia.

"That's one thing I liked about it here," Buck said. "It reminds me of home, but there are all the benefits of not being at home. The problem with trying to do any work at home is that you're so comfortable. . . . You wake up in your own home, have all your records handy, go to the same familiar restaurants--it's hard to get in the mood to work and feel creative. It's good to go away because you're a bit on the edge."

LIVE ACTION: Tickets for Neil Diamond's seven-day Greek Theatre engagement (beginning Aug. 14) go on sale Monday. . . . Tickets for the June 6 Amnesty International concert at the Forum, featuring U2, Sting, Joan Baez and Jackson Browne, are available by mail order only.

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