Sunday, March 22, 2015

R.E.M. Unplugged 1991 2001 The Complete Sessions - CD Review

I got the R.E.M. “Unplugged 1991 2001 The Complete Sessions” 2-disc album for a Christmas gift this year.  The wife stuffed it in my stocking, and I’m glad she did.  Now that I’ve found time to listen to it several times, I recommend it to anyone who ever liked this band, and to anyone who generally likes the MTV Unplugged concept.

Getting the album made me look up stuff about them online while listening as I sort of rediscovered a band I liked back in the 80s. An interesting thing I learned is that apparently, they've called it quits and broken up permanently as a band. That made me think it will be interesting to see if they resist temptation to re-form ten years from now like so many bands have, and possibly even more interesting if they do reunite, because maybe time will show they were better than we all thought and that we missed them more than we thought we would and that a long break actually made them better than ever. Something gives me a hunch they're the types to stay broken up for good, but I'm not sure why.

They just sort of did what made sense to them at the time each step of the way and lucked out without really trying too hard it seems like. It's cool they split their songwriting royalties equally four ways, all contributing to writing the songs together, and it's also cool they focused on catchy tunes and vague lyrics that let the listener derive their own meanings, and it's cool they both rocked electrically and acoustically, and they weren't afraid to try out a lot of different types of songs. Listening to this double album and learning a bit more about them online made me appreciate them even more. Also, I saw one of those behind the music rockumentary things about them on MTV recently which was cool. These experiences all gave me further insight that made me appreciate them more, and actually made me want to have more of their back catalog in my collection someday.

Why I’ve always liked them
I was a fan of the first few albums by this band, and had vinyl and cassettes of them back in the mid-late 80s, which I'd since lost, and never replaced with CDs, nor did I purchase any of their 90s or 2000s releases, although I was aware of a few of their songs that got on the radio during these years.  I honestly can’t say I remember a video of theirs except Losing My Religion, and I don’t recall ever seeing these actual shows when they were on MTV, although I vaguely think I might have seen the first one.

Like most people back then, I liked them because they were considered an “underground” band at the time, whatever that means, and for reasons unknown, they were a popular college band during the mid-late 80s when I was in college myself.  My roommate even had an REM poster on the wall of our dorm room that was kind of psychedelic looking.  When I listen to college radio nowadays, I don’t get it - the music seems terrible to me, but times change.  The were never awesome, but they were nonetheless appealing.

Each band member played their instruments well, and the harmony vocals and arpeggio guitar style really made a noticeable contribution.  Overall, I liked the slight hint of folk you could hear in their sound, even though they still rocked hard with electric guitars.  They had catchy melodies for sure, and those stood out as opposed to bands who featured long guitar solos.  Something about them was different from other bands of the day, but it was - and still is - hard to describe.

Understanding the singer
You can’t talk to someone about REM without mention of the lead vocalist.  No one could understand the words, but the music was cool and they had a cool name.  So, you have no idea what the songs are about, but the band is really good.  The singer seemed to have some type of reluctant tortured poet type of a vibe.  You couldn’t really sing along, although many tried, and what words you could make out seemed to paint some interesting pictures you thought you could relate to.  That’s all we really knew about them.  There was no internet back then.  

You weren’t sure about the singer, because he seemed to possibly be ambiguously gay.  This fact probably allowed them to gain a larger following because it wasn’t common in the 80s for straight guys to admit to their straight friends that they liked anyone who was gay - musician or otherwise. REM’s singer was far from Elton John who you would later admit you liked anyway.  Despite the post-80s discovery about bands like Judas Priest having gay band members, straight guys didn’t care as much and didn’t necessarily stop liking those bands.  It shouldn’t matter, and the point is, it seems to matter less now than back then.

Tolerance and acceptance change over time with the help of television.  Now because of the internet, you can read that Michael Stipe prefers to be called queer and has dated men and women.  This makes straight guys cringe just as much, but then again, you can easily overlook it when you read the rest of the band are straight, some having wives and kids even, and somehow it’s more forgivable when it’s only the lead singer who was/is gay.  This sounds bad, I know, but whether unfortunate or not, I think there’s truth to it.

The unplugged sound
The unplugged concept was interesting at the time, and still is, to me anyway.  Rock music played with acoustic instruments.  This album combines the two separate times they were on that MTV show, ten years apart.  The main difference is the drummer played congas/bongos on the first one, and the second had a full drum kit.  I liked both sounds, but maybe the hand percussion session a little better.  There’s something about their songs that sounded old even when they were new, but now they’re not a band anymore, and I’m old.  The acoustic versions make the songs sound even more timeless.  Anyway...

Best on album:  
If I were burning a favorites CD or desert island mixtape of songs from this album, I would put these on there probably:

from Disc One:
Pop Song 89 (best on this disc)
Losing My Religion
Fall on Me
Love is All Around (cover)
It's The End Of The World As We Know It
Rotary Eleven (instrumental)

from Disc Two:
Find The River (best on this disc)
So. Central Rain (a close second-best)
Losing My Religion
The One I Love
I've Been High

The above were the standouts for me, the others just okay.  I did some skipping to these from others during the first few listens in my car, since I had limited drive time.  During subsequent listens when I had more patience and was in the right mood, I appreciated most of the other songs as well to a certain extent.  Like most albums, some songs you just prefer over others and this was no exception.

What was missing:
I wish they would've done unplugged versions of some other songs of theirs I like, of course.  These that come to mind would’ve been interesting to include, and these are songs that would also probably be on my best of R.E.M. mixtape also, whether live or studio:
Radio Free Europe
Don't Go Back To Rockville
Driver 8
Pretty Persuasion
Can't Get There From Here
Orange Crush
Everybody Hurts
Man on the Moon
What's The Frequency Kenneth

Nostalgia a factor
This band was one of my influences, just as Violent Femmes and Talking Heads were during this era.  Seems that most people I knew in college in Michigan (1985-1989) liked REM, and most had the Murmur album, although Reckoning was also a popular one, and Document.  They had a cool style about them with almost an element of folk in their rock, and they seemed more intelligent somehow than your average rock band.  You could like REM and still be cool in this time/place, but it was harder to admit the same about Duran Duran, for example.

The most popular albums you’d see alongside REM back then were James Taylor greatest hits, Bob Marley Legend, Earth Wind & Fire greatest, Led Zeppelin II, Talking Heads Speaking In Tongues, U2, The Police Synchronicity, Violent Femmes, Prince 1999 or Purple Rain, MJ Thriller, maybe some Journey, Steely Dan, Madonna, miscellaneous Grateful Dead, and some Howard Jones album for some god-awful reason.  Just a few that come to mind that I saw a lot of in that place.  The people with REM also probably had some Ramones, Neil Young and some Tom Waits in their collections too, come to think of it.

So there was some nostalgia to hear a band I like from back in my late teens play acoustic and in front of an audience, playing a few tunes I’d heard, and throwing in some I’d never heard but really liked such as Find The River, and surprising ones like that jazz instrumental which was cool.  You can’t help but wonder what they would’ve been like with a different singer or better lyrics, like maybe if they would’ve stuck with that Warren Zevon side project, and you can see that they sort of ran their course, so it’s not a huge loss that they broke up, not like the Beatles.  Again, the melodies and the overall sound of the songs were very pleasurable.

What I learned
I like R.E.M. more than I remembered.  I love this band playing unplugged.  Some bands don't sound good when you're used to a more electric sound, but R.E.M. played this format well.  I like the congas/bongos on disc 1 a lot.  The original drummer was great playing this style of percussion, and it sort of fits the theme, although the second disc with a real drum kit is fine too.  The bass and backing vocals really enhance the sound.  A big part of the sound is good harmony vocals and melodic bass playing.  The keyboards really enhance the overall sound, whether organ, piano, or especially the accordion.  

The melodies on the songs I like are outstanding.  Probably due to a combination of the guitar playing (or mandolin) and the singing, the melodies are beautiful.  The lyrics are only arguably good, and as is typical, some lyrics you can't hear to make out the words, while others you can make out don't make a lot of sense, but they paint pictures and let you envision your own meaning, so it's mostly a good thing, and the singer’s voice is uniquely good.  This band had a certain magical blend of things, tight, professional, and played really well together live.

I also learned that if I ever do a live album, I will want to include as many songs as I can that I know are people’s favorites, which is hard to do because of the limited space.  You can’t please everyone.  

Wrapping it up
Concluding here, my takeaway is that their overall live & unplugged sound is pretty much how I would like my own live band to sound some day, if I ever form one, which I probably won't.  I would probably augment some songs with marimba, slide guitar, and harmonica, but otherwise, the elements here would be ideal for my music - including accordion, harmony vocals, mandolin, and an extra guitar.  I've learned things from listening to this how I might improve my studio recordings, since I do go for an unplugged sort of a sound on my albums.  They were an odd band that didn’t easily fit a particular mold in the 80s and beyond, they had a great combination of things that made for a unique overall sound, they play well live, and they wrote some great songs.  Playing acoustically, you could hear even better the fact that this band wrote some great songs.  Glad I got this CD.