What does it sound like?:
This is a taster for the “R.E.M. at the BBC” box set, documenting their various radio sessions, live broadcasts and TV appearances. It’s a little bit of an odd release, in that I’m not really sure who it’s aimed at. The casual punter is more likely to pick up a best of, while R.E.M. fans will surely go for the full box set, which is a nine disc monster with four live concerts (from 1984, 1995, 1999 and 2003), two discs full of recordings for radio sessions, and a DVD compiling their various appearances, including a full episode of Later devoted to the band. Frankly it looks brilliant, and I’m buying it tomorrow.
This two disc abstract is divided into “Sessions” and “Live” discs, and highlights from the relevant areas of the box set is unsurprisingly what you get. Up was a difficult album to love, a departure into fussy experimental flourishes that never quite landed (I know for some people it’s a favourite, but it’ll never be mine) but here it benefits the most, the strength of the songs coming through much more clearly in these stripped down versions. ‘Lotus’ in particular stands out as a reworking that is much better than the over-ornate album version. This is a surprising advantage of this set – at first glance the over-emphasis on the post-Bill Berry years looks like a weakness, but it makes for a more interesting experience. On listening to these alternative takes a different version of post-1997 R.E.M. emerges, and it’s fun to speculate how that could have played out, second guessing what stumbles might have been avoided, what new ones might have emerged. Of the older material, Radio Song is of course hugely improved by not having the dreadful KRS-One rap, possibly the low point of their entire career (and I’ve heard Around The Sun), while there’s a beautiful ‘Nightswimming’ and one of the finest ‘Country Feedback’s I’ve heard.
The live disc is uniformly strong, with a few tracks from each of the concerts featured on the box. Of particular note are the inclusion of the rockier version of ‘Drive’ they played on the Monster tour, and an ‘E-Bow The Letter’ that has Thom Yorke doing the Patti Smith parts. If I had to moan, I’d say that I believe R.E.M.’s finest work was the run of albums from Lifes Rich Pageant through to Automatic, and that’s a period that’s largely overlooked here. It’d’ve been fantastic to have a Green era concert as well but ultimately this is high quality archive material from the finest rock band America ever produced.
I’ll always beat a drum for R.E.M., but they seem a little forgotten these days, perhaps an inevitable reaction to just how huge they were twenty years ago. Some day the kids will come round again, and they will stand high in the pantheon where they belong, but for now this is a fine reminder of their genius.
What does it all *mean*?
Can we have a blu-ray of Tourfilm next, please?
Goes well with…
quite a lot of free time if you’re buying the box set
Might suit people who like…