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R.E.M.

Inspired social commentary

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By Lynne Margolis  
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R.E.M.'s Around the Sun floats on a musical lightness of being. It's understated, soft, pretty. There are no searing rockers, no Monster grinds, no adventurous new directions.

But there are many moments that hold up well in comparison to Automatic for the People, perhaps the band's most inspired work. This album is full of political and social commentary, culminating in the lovely title track, in which Michael Stipe sings, "Give me a voice so strong, I can question what I have seen."

It's also populated with R.E.M.'s typical burbling synths, gentle piano and cutting guitar lines on songs like "Make It All Okay," the anti-war statement "Final Straw" (with its lyrical and musical sense of foreboding), and "I Want to Be Wrong," yet another commentary on our current political climate. "Straw" offers one more example of Stipe's brilliance at phrase-twisting (note the reference to John Lennon's "rattle jewelry seats").

"Sun" regrettably breaks no new ground -- the band has in fact featured a guest rapper before this (here, it's Q-tip on "The Outsiders") -- but, it's okay for R.E.M. to orbit the familiar, as long as they continue to do it so well.

Veteran journalist Lynn Margolis writes about music from Austin, Texas. Her articles have appeared widely in such publications as The Austin American-Statesman, Texas Music, RollingStone.com, and the RIAA's Grammy magazine.