I’ve always found R.E.M.’s legendary status within the canon of pop music to be firmly related to their role as inspirational mentors- a role mostly established via their music as a safe, reliable tether for the masses. Not that I view R.E.M. as a subpar band- they are obviously a tremendously talented group of musicians with an admirably passionate frontman in Michael Stipe. Nor am I confused as to how they attained immense popularity during their prime years of 1986-1994. Their music is undeniably punchy, brief, and fairly straightforward- while somehow effortlessly inspiring (few bands can turn a song called “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” into such a vibrant, carefree lark). Nonetheless, their iconic ascent into the upper-echelon of rock titans remains more than a little puzzling. What I find most confusing though is how they are capable of maintaining a devout, decades-spanning cult following because, in large part, of the aforementioned direct weightlessness. Understandably, R.E.M. is not the first possibly undeserving band to maintain a cult following long past their sell-by date (in fact, so many artists come to mind- it almost demands a whole other post). But they are often mentioned in the same breath as Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Radiohead, and Smashing Pumpkins- all bands that altered the sonic landscape with a gravitas that Stipe and Co. sorely lacked. While I understand their role as partial founders of the alternative rock scene that reared it’s head in the late 80s en route to the full-on blitz of the 90s- with all due respect, so were the Pixies, and R.E.M. ain’t the Pixies. What separates R.E.M. from these other bands is that, like most artists, their aspirations were carried firmly on their sleeve- but R.E.M.’s aspirations seemed so relentlessly slight that they allowed the band to remain unchallenging and ironic even in the face of utmost pain and loss (“Everybody Hurts” and “Sweetness Follows" not withstanding- although I halfway believe “Hurts” is a satire hiding in plain sight). It is this quality that ultimately causes most of their albums to sound like the lively debut of a potentially interesting rock band. However, this same characteristic is what renders their music so helplessly appealing to up-and-coming artists everywhere. They have structured an entire career on refining the traditional garage pop album. Therefore, R.E.M. has a sound built to emulate. Now, for all I know, Gold-Bears have never even heard of R.E.M. But if this is the case, they have unwittingly done a tremendous job reinventing Stipe’s lyrical and musical nakedness.
First and foremost, though, Gold-Bears’ debut LP, Are You Falling In Love, is really, really good- and at thirty-three minutes, it is worth at least three immediate spins. Does it sound like an R.E.M. record? Well, yes and no. In all fairness to Gold-Bears, their influences on Love are not restricted to solely R.E.M. Tunes, such as the album’s self-titled fourth track, echo My Bloody Valentine while other instances recall The Smiths. And while these influences are easily discernible, Gold-Bears are not a band interested in simply paying tribute. Each of the eleven tracks is thoughtfully assembled to provide the listener with an experience both fresh and nostalgic. There are times when Love seems a bit rushed- especially with “So Natural” - as if the band didn’t trust their instincts enough to transcend altpop brevity. Yet, several other instances- including the opening track, “Record Store”- indicate Gold-Bears stretching out their legs to get comfortable. Other songs, such as the elegiac “Tally”, are perfectly crafted to suit their 2:08 running time. In these moments of utilitarian brevity, Love clicks on all cylinders. Most impressive though are the unique sounds sometimes hidden in the peripheral such as surprising bits of distortion and the occasional cameo from a new instrument indicating a willingness to tastefully develop and experiment. Hailing from Atlanta and formed by lead vocalist/guitarist, Jeremy Underwood, Gold-Bears appear to have fairly extensive knowledge of pop culture sound. They obviously have a passion for the sounds which reared them and a desire to cultivate those into something wholly their own. Inspired by the reliable forefathers of alternative rock, I am excited to see where Gold-Bears take their ambition next. After all, regardless of my issues with their placement in music history, R.E.M. offer a tremendous blueprint for how to sound fantastic.
STANDOUT TRACKS INCLUDE: