R.E.M. Falters, Doesn't Fall

***R.E.M. "Green." Warner Bros.

Give R.E.M. credit for not sitting still atop its gradually built mass popularity. "Green," the Georgia band's first album on its new label, is no marked departure from what has worked in the past, but it does show a willingness to experiment and change within the prudent limits that a gradualist sets.

The higher-wattage songs on "Green" fulfill R.E.M.'s steady move from jangly folkiness totoughened, high-impact rock. There's a raw but sharply honed edge to Peter Buck's guitar attack, and the band adds bite with new-found percussive effects.

Powered by a bemused sense of humor ("Pop Song," "Stand"), by anger (the gutsy "Turn You Inside Out" and the anti-militarist "Orange Crush"), or by a lovingly rendered fondness for Syd Barrett-style pop-psychedelia ("Get Up"), all of the rockers on "Green" succeed.

R.E.M. shows a winning gentler side on the acoustic "You Are Everything," in which singer Michael Stipe calms his existential fears by force of memory, and in the album's untitled finale. But too often Stipe overindulges in troubled introspection without the compensating reward of an interesting melody. The result is tiresome material like the droning "I Remember California" and the aptly named "Hairshirt," the first truly awful song R.E.M. has produced.

Every band has its occasional clinkers, though, and while "Green" is R.E.M.'s least consistent album, the batting average remains high.

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