R.E.M.'s most recent album, Up, sure didn't capture the public's imagination the way their other '90s efforts Out of Time, Automatic for the People, New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Monster did. That's too bad, because the album is as finely crafted as almost anything the favorite sons of Athens, Ga., have ever done, filled with richly arranged chamber pop like "Daysleeper," "At My Most Beautiful" and "Walk Unafraid."
It's hard to say exactly why the public seems to have soured on the band, which is probably more responsible than any other act for the explosion of alternative rock over the past 20 years. Maybe it was the gargantuan recording contract the band signed a few years back after all, how alternative can you be with $80 mil in your pocket? Or perhaps it was the departure of drummer Bill Berry, who split just as the band was about to record Up. He's hardly irreplaceable on strictly musical grounds, but R.E.M. always said it would not go on without one of its principal members, and whether or not it was the right decision, the simple fact that they did continue without Berry may look like a breach of faith to the band's core group of fans.
Opening act Wilco have a somewhat similar problem on their hands. Although they've never scaled the platinum heights reached by R.E.M., Wilco, too, have recorded an absolutely brilliant album, Summerteeth, but can't seem to get anyone interested in it. With a record filled with moody keyboard textures and complex arrangements (sounds like they've been listening to a lot of Beatles and Beach Boys lately), hometown hero Jeff Tweedy has come a long way since his days as an alt-country avatar. The record has gotten nowhere near the airplay it deserves, and its sales have pretty much tanked. Maybe this tour with R.E.M. will revive what surely must be the year's most unjustly overlooked album.