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Out of Time shows some big changes for REM

OUT OF TIME

REM.

Warner Brothers Records.

By LARRY SMILG

and JEREMY HYLTON

MAYBE AFTER A TWO-AND-A-HALF year hiatus, REM thought people would forget what they sound like. It is easy to forget that their new album, Out of Time, was actually created by the same band that recorded Murmur and Life's Rich Pageant.

REM gained its reputation as alternative music's darling with songs like "Radio Free Europe," showcasing driving guitar and percussion and Michael Stipe's occasionally understandable vocals. After moving to Warner Brothers Records from IRS for their last album, REM gained popularity, and with it a "pop" sound. The album, Green, often made political statements with songs like "Orange Crush" and "World Leader Pretend," commenting on the arrogance and narrow-mindedness of today's world leaders. ("World Leader Pretend" was also the only song for which REM has published the complete lyrics.)

Out of Time is a far cry from these political statements. It is a quiet, personal album, marked by plucky mandolin and string accompaniments. Its moods range from dark and introspective to "shiny happy people holding hands." The pictures of plants, earth tones, and a dog's tail on the CD insert reflect the moodiness of the album.

The change is not entirely welcome. "Shiny Happy People" includes the vocals of Kate Pierson of the B-52s, and the song ends up sounding like something that would be more appropriate for the B-52s than REM. Its cheery, sickly-sweet vocals about "shiny happy people laughing" gets repetitive and annoying. "Near Wild Heaven" also has the same pop sound, but with more complex vocals. After producing songs as bland and unappealing as this, one can only hope that Stipe has not gone soft in the head.

The album's closing song, "Me in Honey," also features Pierson on vocals. Here it almost works. "Honey" is a little more like old REM; the guitar sounds like it might have come from Document.

Sometimes the experiments of this album work well. By combining their old driving rhythms with the fullness of a string ensemble, REM creates a new sound that will not alienate old fans the way "Shiny Happy People" will. On "Texarkana," the classic REM guitar and percussion are complemented by the addition of strings. The vocals on the track, which begins "20,000 miles to an oasis," are both distant and, surprisingly, understandable.

The third track, "Low," is a clear departure from the rest of the album. Stipe's vocals are beautifully despondent and dark, but the real surprise is the guitars. They begin quietly, working with the organ in the background, but occasionally the guitars take the lead with a riff that sounds hauntingly like Bauhaus, the progenitor of the early-80s Gothic rock movement. Stipe matches the guitars' intensity, with vocals less haunting but more melodic than Peter Murphy.

The instrumental on this album, "Endgame," combines strings and flugelhorn to create a sound reminiscent of the peacefulness of a walk in the woods, a pleasant break in between "Near Wild Heaven" and "Shiny Happy People." The sound is completely unrecognizable as REM, unlike other tracks, where Stipe's voice marks them as his own.

The songs that work best are those that keep some of the old REM style. This may not be an entirely fair standard by which to judge the album, but the comparisons are inevitable. Initially songs like "Radio Song" and "Losing My Religion" sound disappointing, but they grow on you. If this were a band's first album, we would have enjoyed it. The burden of a trademark sound is that the public has greater expectations for an album -- particularly after a wait longer than George Bush's presidency. (Green was released on election day, 1988.)

Out of Time moves toward a more smooth, personal REM -- a mellow version of Green's pop enthusiasm. "Losing my Religion" has been getting airplay on local stations, and the video is on MTV. Early signs indicate that this album will be a huge commercial success.

While REM's new sound seems to have guaranteed album sales, old fans may not enjoy the band's move from the simple rhythms and blurred vocals of Murmur to the mellow, sometimes bland sound of "Near Wild Heaven." REM purists will probably find this album to be a disappointment. For everybody else, the new material will get more enjoyable with every listening.