If there is any good reason to give money to a legitimate media source, NPR should be your choice. On top of being impressive on the news circuit, currently they are also streaming, R.E.M. Live At The Olympia.
For the past 15 years or so, R.E.M.'s willingness to dig deep in their catalog could be aptly compared to being shackled to your bed while your partner tortures you...sexually of course. Their live setlists often feature the songs at the shows you don't attend and jealousy persists when they talk about their former lovers (setlists of prior years). Of course, if the band chose to perform such an act it would result in premature ejaculation on your part which would offer no satisfaction to the band. In this release, the shackles are removed and we are graced with an amazing release.
As I have been listening to this album, I am finding very little wrong with it so far. The small errors in the performances give the album some heart, reminding listeners that in the early days, R.E.M. was not about precision but reckless abandon, while the "Whirling Dervish" Michael Stipe would parade onstage. While Stipe is not the W. Dervish that he once was, the band does give listeners a glimpse into soundtracks of the misfits of Generation X. Sure, they are not the band from 1983, but the songs are not treated as some prepackaged tchotchke from China. They do not sound overly rehearsed but very fresh and unique.
Some of my initial thoughts of this album would be the impressive sound. Playing in an intimate venue does not give these songs an "Arena" feel, rather they feel like they are being performed in your living room. That intimate feel is a definite key which I believe will gather repeat listens. Sometimes I have find problems in the "Arena" sound which often focuses on elements of the sound being lost in space. R.E.M. is not a stadium band, never were which is why these songs flourish. While sometimes listening to 20,000 fans scream is a nice thing, it's not as appealing when listening to recorded live music. I think its a given that we would always prefer more intimate venues.
The background vocals sound amazing. Mike Mills and Scott McCaughey sound wonderful aiding their voices to these songs which is both due to the venue, their talents as well as amazing engineering and mixing job. 'Maps and Legends' and 'So. Central Rain' are both mesmerizing. While So. Central Rain has always been a minor hit in the R.E.M. catalog, how can you forego Maps and Legends as a genuine R.E.M. classic?
There are certain songs, 'Circus Envy' for one which feel as if they have been given new life. Compare this version to the version on Monster and realize that this has extra teeth. My point being is that these songs are being reinvented. 'Worst Joke Ever' exemplifies the specific problems that the band had when mixing 'Around the Sun'. This version gives this song life and while I appreciated the song on Around the Sun, I prefer this version much more.
After listening to some of the more recent live releases from the 80s (Larry's Hideaway and Chicago '84) the band came out with on the Murmur and Reckoning 25th Anniversary Releases, the one thing that I noticed compared to those recordings was that R.E.M. was more Bass/Drums centric and this album is guitar, guitar and more guitar. This could be due to the recording themselves but even in the recent Olympia EP I noticed the same thing.
I have read some comments from fans who would argue that this release is exploiting fans. If exploitation means giving fans something that they would want, then I would say sure, fans are exploited. But also let's come to terms with what R.E.M. or any bands main purpose is and that would be to make a living making and selling music.
Sure, it is an "Experiment in Terror" which would probably be a better name for this album, and sure, there is a carrot that is being offered to fans, an album that features a healthy amount of songs from the IRS years. One might argue that the band is being exploited instead. An angry fanbase rebelling against a band that had released what fans saw as subpar work.
Critics could make the same argument, writing R.E.M. as a band that inspired many rock bands in the 80s and early 90s but not so much since then. Their seminal albums Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction and Document have held up so well whereas Around the Sun and Reveal become somewhat forgettable.
So what better than to perform your newest songs as well as wipe the dust off your oldest gems. Exploitation galore! What better way to get old Gen X fans back into the band by playing 'Carnival of Sorts' and 'Horse to Water' on the same release.
Does this release carry the same weight if they mixed their new songs along with the same old hits (Losing My Religion, Man on the Moon, The One I Love) that are played every tour? Well, most likely no and I would admit that if such a release did come out I would not be writing this a half an hour before midnight.
Songs become the mixtapes of our life. This release contains many in my very own mixtape and in my opinion something intimate and unique that is going to be hard to hit the stop button.
My immediate future over the next month will feature getting married on the day that "It Crawled From the South" played their only show. It will feature me in an airplane on my way to Spain with my wife (that sounds nice, btw) and in top of the romance, the sights and the decompressing, I would figure that this album will become my own personal soundtrack for this period of time.