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

I figured it was necessary to dust off my criticism skills to review the latest R.E.M. release, Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete Sessions.
Fact #1 is that it is not the complete sessions. For the 1991 show, there were alternate takes for both ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’ as well as ‘World Leader Pretend’ were recorded as well as several covers: Tusk (Instrumental), Smiling Faces Sometimes, Spooky and ‘But It’s Alright’. In this day and age, it’s unfortunate that covers are often bypassed due to copyright issues.  The 2001 show has several alternate takes as well as skipping ‘The Great Beyond’ and ‘La Bamba’.
Fact #2 is that the show does not feature much of the between song banter that some fans might have been familiar with from the shows that were broadcast on TV. Now, I do understand that the focus of the show is to be broadcast and as such it would be virtually impossible to include every bit of commentary due to how the show was tape. I also believe that the inclusion of some of the banter might have made it difficult to include on either LP or digital format, however, it would have been nice to include this as part of the digital download.
Minus these minor criticisms, the shows are still a reminder of the brilliance of the band.  From the hard core fan perspective, this might not be the album that everyone is pining for. In fact, there are probably a host of complaints from fans who see these releases as an afterthought, hoping for the inevitable “Boxed Set” that promises in their dreams to be something more worthy than anything that will get put out. The problem is that fans hope big and while over a 30 year stretch there will definitely be some gems, I do not hold out the belief that it is going to be some life-changing event. 
The band had chosen to go in a direction that they had not often gone before. The band had toured incessantly after every album, and a fairly new record deal still did not sway their belief that it was necessary to do so. During 1991, the band had embarked on a short promotional tour in support of ‘Out of Time’ and made the decision to perform intimate acoustic shows at a handful of locations in both the United States and Europe. In a time that the M in MTV still meant music, the station had launched the Unplugged series, which focused on artists performing their canon of work in an acoustic setting and thus the match was made in heaven. 
You could make the argument that the Unplugged performance from this era holds up better than some of the tracks on ‘Out of Time’ or at the very least a perfect compliment to the album.  There is something very comforting about them, without trying the Mumford & Sons formula to make pop songs but rather slow down the tempo as each word of Michael Stipe’s crooning is made visible for the listener to ponder and digest. 
There are obvious songs that work better in the Unplugged format, such as ‘Radio Song’, without KRS-One shouting from the rafters. It also features a couple of songs that would have fit in nicely on Out of Time: ‘Fretless’, a track that ended up on Wim Wenders’ wonderful movie “Until the End of the World” as well as the Troggs cover ‘Love Is All Around Me’, featuring Mike Mills on lead vocals.
For me, the album offers something much more organic. After spending almost an entire year on the road for the Green Tour, playing pop songs we see a band that appears more comfortable playing on your front porch (something that they actually did for the Timepiece promo). Even though the band had begun to gain popularity with their most recent hit, ‘Losing My Religion’, the band did not focus their efforts on the bands singles up to this period. I think that this is important as it offers a clearer picture of what this band had been up to this poin.  They focused on the psyche, leading off with one of the saddest tracks, ‘Half A World Away’, give life to the forgotten ‘Endgame’ and offer plenty of album tracks in-between with stellar performances of ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’ and 
While my own fandom began before Out of Time, it marked a heightened fandom for me and thus the first half of the album is a reminder of that time. Unplugged was not necessarily my “Go To” show, rather the Bingo Hand Job shows or the March 22, 1991 performance at the Shocking Club in Milan, Italy. 
The second half of the album, their Unplugged performance from 2001 see both R.E.M. and MTV at their decline. I remember the difficulty at the time to even watch the Unplugged performance on television as MTV began to focus more on reality tv programs and spending less time on music.
The setlists are completely different save the inclusion of Losing My Religion, a staple and obvious acoustic gem, but mostly songs from their recent release, ‘Reveal’.
The biggest complaint, in my eyes about Reveal over the years was that it was overproduced, sounding more like gentle dinner music rather than an R.E.M. album. Bright and sunny, the album has often received mixed reviews from critics although at the time it seemed to get some stellar reviews. Over time, I have come to both appreciate as well as loathe the album. If Out of Time was a summer album for Athens, Reveal feels like a summer album for Los Angeles. 
However, many of the songs stripped down from how they appeared on ‘Reveal’ added a more wholesome nature to the songs. ‘Beat a Drum’ is an obvious choice as a favorite in my eyes as is Disappear, which is probably underrated in the R.E.M. canon of music.
What is missing, however, is the drumming from a certain Georgian hay farmer by the name of Bill Berry. I missed the bongo’s from the opening album which provided an added charm and maybe it is just me but the second half doesn’t have the same stripped down feel as the first performance. 
But before you say, I am down on it, there are several stellar tracks from this performance of some of their older tracks. ‘The One I Love’ feels re-imagined as a somber classic. ‘Cuyahoga’, I have to say was an unexpected surprise as I cannot remember them playing this song acoustic prior to this performance.
The best performance had more of a personal meaning to me and that was the inclusion of ‘So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).  After a listen or two, my son started repeating the chorus “I’m Sorry” which for a two year old is not a bad phrase for them to repeat, especially when there are so many he says “No dada no!”  So the fact that Michael Stipe can inspire my son to apologize is a good thing in my book. 
Overall, I am more taken by the music on the album than I truly expected. It is true that I might be getting more mellow in age but I think that overall, the continuity of both of these albums works very well together and I didn’t even have to purchase it on vinyl!!!

Reading Into the Reviews

Reading Ethan Kaplan's post on Murmurs about how this is the best reviewed album since Hi-Fi is at best just propaganda and maybe a bit of revisionism.
Now reviews are a bit of a failure to begin with. Many times, it's a critics intial opinion about an album when it is released. They often do not have time to completely digest an album and at times those feelings could change dramatically as to whether the album has initial pleasures and feels a bit old after a year or so or whether the album slowly begins to grow and develop over time. We are all guilty as music lovers of knowing that tastes change both for the better and worse.
Now the reviews for R.E.M.'s albums in the 21st Century can all be found here and it's telling that 'Collapse Into Now' is currently in 3rd place among studio albums (although presently this could change as reviews are still coming in). Out of all the albums, Accelerate appears to be the clear winner and it's telling that it received quite a few outstanding reviews whereas Collapse has received several "Good" reviews.
I think the statistics speak for themselves, however, I do think it is a bit bothersome to see a site become the "Fox News" of R.E.M fandom.
It's only a test of time whether we can say whether an album will become better, worse or stay the same but one thing for sure is that it is (as of writing this) undeniably not the best reviewed album since New Adventures.

Collapse Into Now - Review

2 Stars out of 4
The reason that I have always appreciated 90’s albums like Out Of Time, Automatic, Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi is that each of them incorporates that ‘classic R.E.M. sound’ that reverberates through each of them. I still remember the time that I bought the Automatic for the People the day it came out and said to myself, that finally the band had returned to that “Classic” sound.
Bad jokes and sarcasm aside, the new R.E.M. album does try to leech off some of the sights and sounds from the past instead of moving to the future. This album feels like New Adventures in Hi Fi’s twin, although never really matching up.
I would easily say that Hi-Fi is my least favorite of the 90’s R.E.M. albums (although the album is still very solid and would give it a 3.5 stars out of 4 review) but I would say that the pieces that did get me interested in the record or at least keep it fresh are some of the songs that push the envelope. For me it was songs like E-Bow, Leave and How the West Was Won that pushed the boundaries a bit in the way that the R.E.M. canon had progressed.
That was some of the beauty of going out and getting a new R.E.M. album at that time was that they did try to challenge themselves in different ways from album to album. Even through Reveal, there is growth or at least a thematic sound that they are trying to achieve. Around the Sun fell short but Accelerate returned to this trend and I see Collapse as never really striving anywhere.
At the time of it’s release, New Adventures at least felt like a growth forward, or at least an extension past Monster. There was a bit of direction as Peter Buck had alluded to at the time of trying to make an entire album on the road that extended not just in the music but also in the themes of the music.
This album does not feel like a step forward but rather step backwards and while the music at times is very solid, the lyrics and singing becomes a slight distraction. 
As has been described, this album is much more personal than some of the prior efforts (Around the Sun, Accelerate), however, as a personal album is concerned, it’s a matter of connecting with the songs.  For me, the album just sort of seems to be there, a tale or multitude of songs that just do not feel thematically to take me anywhere and at times a very boring musical choice that sounds more like one of those alternative-flavor-of-the-month acts that have made it big.
Discoverer and All the Best do not harken back to the progressive R.E.M. of the 80s with a leadoff like Begin the Begin and These Days nor does it try to give you the glam with What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? And Crush with Eyeliner.  When taking those albums there is, if anything, substance and not just what feels like a blank filler of a song.
It would be almost as if the album seems to be about nothing but there is no examination or rumination of what is wrong. Uberlin particularly rambles on without any thoughts on what is going on around them. The songs are vague but not in a good way.
While lyrics do not need to be a central premise of a song, they do when you are not hiding them. As the years have gone on, Stipe has become more front and center and it doesn’t take more than a couple listens or a quick glance online or YouTube in that there is no secret to what is being said. However, the quality of work on some of these songs could be equal to that of Curly of the Three Stooges. I am not expecting a masterpiece but I am expecting something that I can put on the stereo and not have people run out of the apartment.
To me the difference between R.E.M. and any other jangy-pop-rickenbacker-rock-alternative-indie-college group was their ability to be the thinking person’s band, a band that you can rock out to with a purpose. There was a way that they could be progressive without being too preachy, to explore without giving away the mystery, to be intimate without sounding too corny. When the band came out with Be Mine, I believe it was Scott Litt that mentioned after a take that it sounded like a Whitney Houston song, something that bothered the band.
Consider the opening lyrics for ‘It Happened Today”:
This is not a parable
This is a terrible
This is a terrible thing
Yes I will rhyme that, after, after all I've done today
I have earned my wings
It happened today. Hooray! Hooray!
It happened. Hip, hip, hooray!
Now of course, the song plays itself as the next Hey Jude, but fails in many respects including but not limited to the corny use of earning wings and “Hip Hip Hooray”. I mean, let’s all join hands and sing Kumbaya.  It is also indicative of the problem that I spoke of above that I do not connect with the song.  I do not feel any connection to anything that was written above so how can I sit here and say how great a song it is when I am getting nothing out of it?
‘It Happened Today’ is pretty much the trend to write something relatively meaningless and so I am left feeling quite bored by the entire product. The album is filled with more fluff than substance and when Michael Stipe is not making up corny phrases or bad rhymes, he is stealing from his past albums using the same phrases that made them popular, (‘Tick Tock’, ‘4 am’, ‘The storm. . . . ‘).  With varying degrees of success or failure he’s sounding more like an artist that is covering Michael Stipe of yore and would be curious if he sits and writes fan mail to himself.
If the lyrics do not bother you then the singing does. Once lauded as a crooner by Bono, his singing at times feels stilted. He enunciates every word on Uberlin. He has gotten in the habit of shouting on others to the point where you might have to ask yourself if it was better if the band just came out with an instrumental version of the album.  It just does not feel natural and while the sound of his voice has changed for sure over the past 30 years, the delivery seems to be the bigger problem.
Even the stronger songs like Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter and ‘That Someone is You’ with their simple charm cannot squeeze a good review out of me.
I know that some might point to the song Blue as being pretty innovative, but I look at that as the bastard child of E-Bow + Country Feedback giving Patti Smith the same luxury she had over 10 years prior of offering her vocals to a song but could have done itself a favor by just ending up as a B-Side somewhere on a single. By ending the album with a snippet of Discoverer is just not all that impressive and feels almost as if the Credits are running through my head while doing so.
While some might suggest that I have been too critical of the band, I question how far is a band supposed to drop before they become irrelevant? I thought that Accelerate was not as much a return to form but a moment when the band made a conscious effort to at least feel like a band again. I am not getting that same love on this release and I do not see how this album would supersede those albums. For me this is the most out-of-the-box bored I have ever been with an R.E.M. album.
For many out there that might feel that I am trying to relive past expectations, the simple fact of the matter is that even without these expectations this is just not music that I would listen to right now. While the album does not fall flat on it’s face, it’s simply R.E.M. by numbers and if I wanted to waste my time listening to a Tired Pony I would do so. 

R.E.M. - Blue

Dear Blue Lou,
Now of course we have a song like ‘Blue’, with its oh so meaningful words (not). Word is that he wrote this after going to a Mets game when David Wright went 0-5 and made an error in the field.
I read somewhere, not sure now, that someone said that this song is better than E-Bow the Letter being its “Wiser Cousin”. Oh please, give me a break regarding how much corporate dick these reviewers are sucking. Does R.E.M. hand out lipstick in their Press Kits?

I think R.E.M. has become the Eagles.
This is a combination of Country Feedback and E-Bow gone horribly wrong and the ending with Discoverer just solidifies this as a mess.  It works as a B-Side minus the Discoverer ending but I do not give them kudus for basically doing the same thing over again 15 years after you mastered it the first time. Who gives a fuck if it didn’t become the #1 hit single you expected? It was a beautiful song, and still the best thing off of Hi-Fi no doubt.
And this bastard cousin had to come around and urinate all over it. Patti is reprising her role on this for whatever reason why, doing her interpretive thing to add some “Art” where necessary my only question would be Where is KRS-1 for their Rap Song about Stipe’s internet Radio station on Last FM and how he is getting sick of it always playing Coldplay and Dashboard Confessional Songs?

So there we have it. An opportunity to go through every song on Collapse into Now. Next will be the long awaited official review however, as you can tell already I doubt you are going to see any 4 star rating from me.

R.E.M. - Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I and Chicago Style Pizza

Finishing up the last couple of these. . . .

Dear Matthew

But before that since you wanted to ask my opinion of Chicago Style Pizza, I will offer my thoughts about that pretty quickly. The overriding opinion that I hear more often than not is that Giordano’s is the preferred deep dish pizza. However, if it was my choice, I would put my money on Bacino’s. The reason why I like Bacino’s is pretty simple. Out of any pizza that I have they have the best cheese.

There are others out there like Pizzeria Uno and Gino’s East but these other pizza joints as well as Giordano’s also have been given a bit of celebrity status and can be a little bit more touristy. Gino’s can be fun because you can write on the seats, the table, pretty much everywhere.
Outside of a weird event happening Bacino’s is more your typical “Pizza Place” and a good place to get a pitcher of beer with your Pops and relish in a Yankee win after defeating the Cubs.
This is the Hairshirt of this album with the exception of the line “run a carbon black test on my jaw”. That pretty much is as succinct as I can get with this song. With the exception of comparing the two songs you notice there is a substantial difference between Stipe’s voice circa 1988 and 2010 (when this was recorded).
However, the more that I listen to this song and compare it to ‘Hairshirt’ makes me realize just how brilliant ‘Hairshirt’ was and how I never really gave it the time of day.
I mean at least compared to Marlon Brando, you realize just how good an afterthought of a song like Hairshirt would be today. Could you imagine that it would be the highlight of Collapse into Now? Is anything on CiN better than Hairshirt?

R.E.M. - That Someone is You

Mr. Marrone finally responded with quite a bit of bologna and no substance.
For the record, I do think that videos will become more predominant in our Facebook/YouTube/Twitter universe then they were during more recent past as we like to post videos of songs on our Facebook profiles. My commentary on why people did not seem to like the video was only based on my own observations. Of course, for many of them I seem to find them on Dashboard Confessional Websites.
Dear Shredder,
That Someone Is You
One of the shorter songs to make it onto an official album not counting instrumentals and this is not including the brief “I’m Not Over You” that is included on Up.
The sound harkens back to the early days with a definite punk-indie feel to it and on the surface it’s one of the more fun straightforward songs on the album.
Now, if we actually went back to the old shows of the early 80s with songs like ‘Hey Hey Nadine’, ‘Dangerous Times’ and ‘Lisa Said’, if I didn’t know any better someone could make the claim that this song has been lying dormant for 30 years, a song that just never made it to tape or a concert recording and eventually got scrapped.
The question of course would then be has R.E.M. come full circle? Do songs such as this suggest that the band should try to rerecord some of those old early songs for posterity sake or should they remain embedded on the early tapes as a reminder that this band grew into something different?
Still the track has some spirit and doesn’t feel like something Matchbox 20 came out with so that is good.
I bet it’s Carlos Beltran’s favorite track.


R.E.M. - Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter

Another in a long line of pen pal messages sent to Matty.
Dear Matt,
I imagine that your absence is due to the fact that you have been jamming out to this album the past couple days on your iPad. You have to make good use of it because I would imagine from your post on iPad version Dos, it will become a relic, almost like R.E.M. is.
An alligator climbing up an elevator.  What will Stipe think of next? Pushing an elephant up the stairs?  Here we see that Michael Stipe has once again ventured into Wild Kingdom to give us another rocking song.
Do you ever visit one of Mario Batali’s restaurants hoping to meet up with him?
We also hear Peaches on this track and in my honest opinion she offers the best “Guest Vocals” of the three stars brought in on this album. I think her tone gives this song a bit more insurgence and comparing it to the other rocking “All the Best” it seems to not feel as vague as that one is.
Although I have to admit that I am having problems trying to figure out the different characters in this song and how they relate to each other.  I guess the way that I would see it is the Alligator being portrayed here is being chided by technology and their message is seemingly a hypocritical one considering the Alligator would symbolically stand for survival or adaptability.
So telling an Alligator that they have a lot to learn is like telling Steve Jobs he doesn’t know anything about Macs.
Or, conversely, the message suggests that technology and innovation has been ignorant to nature and the environment.
Of course I can just turn all the lyrics off and just jam and walk around the neighborhood like the guy in the Uberlin video, but alas, I am not that guy.
At the end of the day it’s a pretty good song. I like the part where they put the underline symbol between the words in the song title.

R.E.M. - Uberlin Video Commentary

Much of what I have read about the video to Uberlin seems to be of utter disgust from many fans.  Before I saw the video, and just listened to the song, I was always having a problem getting around the lyrics to the song which in my opinion felt very self-absorbed.
Coming again from my own opinion, if you see me walking around the city of Chicago there are typically two earbuds (not Apple mind you) and a selection of tracks being listened to. I have to say that there is some excitement to listen to music and let go and see what is going on around me. For me it’s always the amazement of walking down the city streets late at night and listening to Yo La Tengo or the lakefront on a Summer evening listening to Up.
But while there has been a great deal of admiration for the song, for me I have not been able to get my head around it because it felt in many cases self-absorbed in itself. While I can stare from time to time and daydream it was not a song that initially “Hit” me but rather accepted it for what it was, give it a satisfactory grade and move on.
The video, ‘however’ seems to convey the same feeling that I did, an individual dancing along the city streets without any clue as to what was on around him and somehow I find that a bit sad. Because if the intent or arc of this song is to comment about the sad nature of living within our own selfish thoughts then it would be something that is difficult to find putting this on repeat.
I compare this with another song, The Beatles, ‘A Day in the Life’ which is much more complex in its orchestration showing differing viewpoints, with the McCartney section being a blueprint for this song. Outside of the pieces of this song compiled together it creates a unique complexity of a person being heavily influenced by a news story and one totally absorbed in their daily routine not to see anything or anyone.
If Stipe’s meaning of this song is to make a social commentary about being lost in our brains I guess I find some people out there questioning the video’s intent. If people do not like what they are seeing and the song is being ruined for them, did they listen to what Stipe was saying?
Coming from my own point of view, it is something that I mentioned about what this album’s audience seems to be and that is about those that are ignorant to the world around them.
This song is Stipe’s moment ironic moment for those that love the song and hate the video for Stipe to plaintively state to them: “Well, that person in the video is you”.

R.E.M. - Walk It Back

Another love letter to my pen pal from NYC. This review is quite short as I just have to say that bad is bad.
Dear Matt,
‘Walk It Back’ is a pretty awful song. In fact, the discussion that I would rather have is whether it’s one of the worst songs in the R.E.M. canon.
“Whaaaaaaat, What would you have had me say, instead of what said?”
Of course the song should be loved by men that stick their foot in their mouth. A constant complaint, I would imagine that women have with their significant others is the fact they stick their foot in their mouth and well have to “Walk It Back” or backtrack on their comments. But a piano ballad is not going to inspire me when I am listening to this while walking down Clark Street to buy some Fresh Guacamole at the Fruit and Vegetable Market. It will not inspire me when riding the 147 home at night either.
The uber-corny piano ballad feels like it should be featured on one of those Teen Drama’s inspired by a LiveJournal where the writer will confess everyday about their sad lives such as the lint that builds up in their dryer as some metaphor for the waste building up in their lives.  It solidifies itself as the B-Side to ‘Make It All Okay’, an equally deflating work.
I guess I question where someone actually thought that this was worthy of being released as I find it almost reprehensible to listen to more than once.
It’s really hard to delve any more into my true distaste for this song other than to give it the famous Pitchfork rating of 0.0.

Every Day Is Yours To Win

As of my posting this, Matt Malone has not responded to my comments about ‘All the Best’ which leads me to believe that there is a great biopic about the New York Mets on or is working on the perfect mix CD to give to the woman of his dreams. Actually that would be a good follow-up question to ask Mr. Malone to create your perfect first date mix cd because lets be honest, we have all been in that situation where our significant other does not like the racket that we are playing or vice versa and maybe the female is not really into the Innocence Missionary Position.
Presently, I am sitting here writing this while enjoying PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’, a concept album in that it focuses on the events of World War 1 but I figure the events speak as much about the past as well as the future. Art is a concept of interpret culture and history and Harvey is exquisite in offering her anthems such ‘This Glorious Land’ with the final chorus: “What is the glorious fruit of our land?  Its fruit is deformed children. What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is orphaned children.” Presenting this in a powerful response to empire building.
Writing an album about World War I is not the singular reason to like this album, but by taking a subject such as this, her focus, lyrics and meanings can be much clearer to the listener rather than a pile of angst.
And there of course are songs like ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ that reminded me of Joe Strummer and I would be walking down the street and swear that Mr. Strummer was singing this song. Maybe I am just going crazy. Some on this site might think so.
In the end, I have to say that it’s been the highlight of the year.
Dear Matt Malone,
While for much of our discussion you have berated me for showing no loyalty to a band that has been in the business over 30 years, I have to say that for the first time ever I can speak of a song that I truly love.
I think at this moment that ‘Everyday is Yours To Win’ is the best song on the album. In terms of post 9/11 tragedy albums (We should stop thinking about R.E.M. in terms of Pre and Post Bill Berry and get with the schedule that the rest of the culture is accustomed with, and yes, you might bring up the technical issue that Reveal was released in May of 2001 but is Reveal good enough to even be considered an ‘Album’?). Wikipedia, sure but my HATEREMring dictionary says no.
Fact is, that even with Reveal included, this song would probably make my Top 10 list.  Write this down because 2 years from now, you will have to use it against me. J
I read one statement about a fans opinion of this song as if Michael was a father figure and well from that impression there is a just enough Oedipus Complex in the tone of the song to allow you to draw your own conclusion.
My initial and continuing thoughts about the song was that it instantly reminded me of the band Beach House and wished that Victoria Legrand from the band cover this in her sultry sexy voice. In which case if I take the opinion of the reader there would be something Oedipal about that.
I read one statement about a fans opinion of this song as if Michael was a father figure and well from that impression there is a just enough Oedipus Complex in the tone of the song to allow you to draw your own conclusion.
And while there is an obvious boost of confidence in the song there is just enough mango sweetness in the air to get that all over your hands and lips feel a bit sticky afterwards.  It has one of those lazy hot and humid summer feeling songs.
The only big problem with the song is the first line or two. I still cannot get beyond Stipe’s obsession with Tick Tock. They are great when you need to rhyme with words like Cock, Rock, and Fock but there needs to be a desire to open up the rhyming dictionary and find better words.
Those issues aside it still sits atop the songs of the album which might be an unfortunate precurser to some.
I know that you getting excited there and thinking that I am finally the fan that I claim to be but lets not get too hasty. You have not read my review on ‘Walk It Back’ yet…
So Mr. Malone surprise me and lets share a moment together not as enemies but as friends and put the song on repeat drinking something strong and watching an old reel of baseball blooper reels from the 80s.
Eric the Tick Tock Clock

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