After 1998's lethargic, often emotionally distant Up, R.E.M.

After 1998's lethargic, often emotionally distant Up, R.E.M. firmly reconnect on its 12th full-length recording—the first to offer full-band instrumentation since the departure of founding member/drummer Bill Berry. Wisely ditching the drum machines that tainted Up, the band has enlisted musicians Scott McCaughey, Ken Stringfellow, and Joey Waronker to flesh out the rhythm arrangements, while also underlining nearly every track with lush strings. It's a move that not only warms up the songs, but it also seems to have revitalized Michael Stipe, who performs with more engaging passion than he has in years. Loyalists may still balk at the absence of the band's signature jangly rockers, though "Imitation of Life" and "The Lifting" have formidable bounce. Factor in the elegant "I'll Take the Rain" and the introspective "Disappear," and you have a band that is well-positioned for its next phase among rock's elite elder statesmen.—LF