RECORDS / RIP with REM: REM are on funereal form in Andy Gill's pick of the new releases . . .plus EMF take on America, Michael Bolton casually destroys a few classics and Dwight Yoakam raises the Grateful Dead

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REM - Automatic for the People (Warner Bros 9362-45055-2)

After eight albums REM still excite a feverish lather of anticipation, a result partly of their disregard for stylistic consistency and partly of the widespread fascination with Michael Stipe's enigmatic lyrical ciphers. Though not as immediate and pop-conscious as Out of Time, this album occupies its own emotional terrain, which extends with each listen.

Advance reports suggested Automatic for the People was a 'low-key' album - code for difficult - and given that much of the imagery concerns death, departure and pain, this is perhaps hardly surprising. Organ, mandolin and strings again dominate the textures, along with electric piano, but they're used to completely different effect. The single 'Drive' opens the album in mysterious fashion, the band offering a kind of gentle haunting as Stipe's voice echoes through a mist. Some bands like to set ambiences for their albums, but with REM it's more like encountering a new climate, or season - this song is a first glimpse of the gathering clouds. On 'Everybody Hurts', Stipe demonstrates how deeply affecting a singer he has become, with traces of the great country torch balladeers and Tim Buckley's controlled abandon in his delivery. The song's surprisingly straightforward lean-on-me sentiment is carried by a few spare but telling chord changes, and is the closest REM come to soul music.

The morbid references take various forms, from the deathbed articulation of 'Try Not to Breathe' to the funereal musings of 'Sweetness Follows' - in which the burial of 'father and mother . . . (and) another' leads the singer to ponder 'the distance from one to the other' - to, most perversely, 'Man on the Moon', which appears to be an uplifting elegy to the late surrealist comedian-wrestler Andy Kaufman.

But these doomy ruminations are balanced by a series of ecstatic moments - the soft glow of 'Star Me Kitten', the joyous epiphany of 'Nightswimming' - that lend a warmth and intimacy to the album.

In its predominantly crepuscular moods and its sense of the distance between people, the album has several similarities to Peter Gabriel's Us, and indeed it might well have profited from Daniel Lanois's production touch too.

EMF - Stigma (Parlophone CDPCSD 122)

Spunky, inquisitive and ambitious, Stigma is a vast improvement on EMF's debut album, Schubert Dip. It has a far more secure sense of its own purpose and an improved way with hooks and choruses, offering an embarrassment of potential singles.

It's not as obviously dance-groove derived as before: like their 'older brothers' Jesus Jones, EMF have - perhaps unconsciously - developed a feisty blend of howling samples and weeping rock guitars that seems custom-built to take on the American market. Ian Dench's guitar style has an appealing sting and fluidity, while Derry Brownson's samples are more diverse than before, ranging from the keening-gull sound on 'Never Know' to the split-second snatch of choir that opens up hidden depths in 'Arizona'.

Lyrically, the album is characterised by an engagingly adolescent sense of apartness, lightened by occasional moments of joy and hope. Any emotional shortcomings in James Atkins's perpetually petulant voice, meanwhile, are compensated for by P P Arnold's backing vocals, a more effective co-option of the style than Rowetta's similar makeweight job on the new Happy Mondays album.

Michael Bolton - Timeless (The Classics) (Columbia 472302-2)

Evidently not the kind to labour his imagination overmuch as regards career strategy, the tonsorially challenged Michael Bolton follows up his success with 'When a Man Loves a Woman' by recording an entire album of cover versions, leaning heavily towards Sixties soul anthems. This is fine so long as it's belters such as 'Reach Out I'll Be There', 'Knock on Wood' and 'Hold On, I'm Coming' that he's rendering in that peculiar klaxon of a voice; but on the gentler numbers his bulging-vein style fails to fit the material, particularly on 'You Send Me', which in Sam Cooke's care was a blithe flotation of the spirit, but which here is almost a threat. It's the difference between silk and hessian, really, though that doesn't prevent Bolton serving up a decent take on 'Drift Away' that is almost a match for Dobie Gray's country-soul original. Apart from that, this is just marketing, with 'White Christmas' the crassest of the lot. You don't suppose they'll bring that out as a single in a couple of months, do you?

Dwight Yoakam - La Croix D'Amour (Reprise 9362-45136-2)

This too consists largely of cover versions, mostly picked to match Yoakam's adenoidal hillbilly twang, but with one or two surprises slipped in here and there. He even tries covering himself, repeating 'Takes a Lot to Rock You' from his last album, presumably in the hope of grabbing himself some of that serious country and western action he might reasonably be said to have initiated. Subtle country changes bend songs to his needs, enabling 'Things We Said Today' to dovetail neatly with Yoakam's natural style, and allowing him to approach with impunity such songs as 'Here Comes the Night' and 'Suspicious Minds', which already have definitive interpretations. Indeed, the latter casts a revealing light on Yoakam's own songs, which are perfectly crafted hillbilly rockers of almost curatorial anachronism. If Elvis were still alive, he'd be young and deadly on songs like 'Dangerous Man' and 'Doin' What I Did', and Yoakam would be rich from the royalties. He's not, but it's not for want of trying. Meanwhile, it's nice to see the Dead's 'Truckin' ' finally getting a belated elevation to the pantheon of country standards.

(Photographs omitted)