Monday mornings are never great are they. It’s back to work for another week, sitting in an office on my own with lots to do and very little motivation. But today I’m very excited. Why? Because my favourite band, who disbanded 3 years ago, have released a new album! So it’s with great pleasure that I get to do a R.E.M. Unplugged Review!
I bought the CD from a shop… I won’t tell you which shop because I haven’t been sponsored by them, so I’ll just tell you the initials, which are HMV. Upon purchasing it, I wasted no time in running back to the office and tearing the wrapping off. The cover is exquisite. It’s a great idea and I love designs that slightly distort things, so you’re meant to read it but they’re making it hard for you. They could have just put a photo of them during the MTV unplugged session, but distorting it brings back memories of watching it on TV. Obviously I didn’t watch it on TV, because I wasn’t even alive in 1991, but I imagine for those who watched it at the time it has nice memories. I’ve always loved R.E.M. and Michael Stipe when it comes to covers, for the most part staying away from photos of the band, so this one doesn’t disappoint.
The music comes from MTV’s series of ‘unplugged’ recordings. R.E.M. were the only band to ever do more than one show on the series, performing in both 1991 and ten years later in 2001. The songs had never been available before, but on Record Store Day they released a vinyl record of them. I did try and get a copy of it, but the record store at work didn’t have one in stock.
So let’s get on to the music. R.E.M. are one of the rare breed of bands that are great both in the studio, performing live and acoustic. Therefore I’m not going into this wondering if the music will be any good, because I know already it will be. Let’s look at the 1991 show first. I’m not going to go through every song, purely because I don’t want this article to be excessively long and not every song needs mention
Part 1 – 1991
The set opens with Half a World Away (from 1991’s Out of Time); Not one of my favourites, but a nice little tune. There is an acoustic version of Radio Song (also from Out of Time) which doesn’t feature the rap, which I have heard Stipe do before on acoustic performances, so either it was cut or he didn’t do it on this recording. A shame. Although there is the ‘Uh!’ bit which is funny and the ‘thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou’ at the end.Then there is one of my favourite R.E.M. songs, Perfect Circle (from 1983’s Murmur). This was already one of my favourites, but this acoustic version is probably now my favourite song, not just of R.E.M. but favourite song ever. It’s much sweeter with a reflective tone and simply best backing vocals from Mike Mills (supported by Bill Berry).
Stipe introduces Fall on Me as potentially his favourite song from the R.E.M. catalogue. I’ve never been that excited about it, but hearing it acoustic I can see why he likes it. The music and lyrics are very nice and the harmonies work really well. I’ve always liked R.E.M. songs where Stipe, Mills and Berry are singing 3 different harmonies. Belong is another nice song that is that more effective for being unplugged, although the harmonies – which I love on the original – aren’t quite as good on this one. You can also hear the youth in Mills’s voice, that point before he changed his look when he was a bit nerdy. Speaking of Mills, we also get a rare performance of him on lead vocals singing Love is All Around. When I first started doing ‘gigs’ I’d heard this and did a cover of it with a friend. I know they didn’t do it originally, but I was essentially copying it so it was this one that I was referencing. We didn’t do it justice to be honest, because this is too beautiful to replicate. There’s something funny about Stipe’s ‘baa ba-ba ba ba’ backing vocals, and his ‘aaah’ sigh after the riff always made us laugh.
The next track is another of my favourite acoustic performances, It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine). Slightly slower in tempo, it showcases Stipe’s ability to sing these incredible lyrics in one go. Most people who have heard this sing will have tried to sing it, but there’s so many lyrics at such a quick pace it’s quite hard, so I’ve always been impressed with Stipe for this. The little ‘bwark’ noise he does instead of the usual ‘boom!’ is a funny little touch too, and we also get to here Stipe doing the backing vocals that Mills usually does.
There’s also the mandatory Losing My Religion; the instrumental Endgame, which is spoilt a bit by Stipe’s weird ‘ba di da la da-da-da-da hi hi’ vocals over it and some dodgy whistling; another instrumental called Rotary 11, which works much better than the previous instrumental; the catchy Get Up which is one of the few that doesn’t work as well acoustic and there’s an odd moment where I think Berry tries to do a drum solo and everyone cheers; the much calmer World Leader Pretend; and there’s also… a song which I hadn’t heard before (oh!) called Fretless, which is a bit of a haunting song with lyrics that surely must be an innuendo: ‘They come and they come and they come and they come. I accepted with a gentle tongue’. R.E.M. don’t really do innuendos, so I doubt it is, but anyone else I’d say it was.
The CD ends with the cheering audience fading out, which is a bit disappointing as there’s no ‘goodbye’ from the band. Overall the first half is a nice little slice of early(ish) R.E.M. that proves why they were allowed to do another performance. There’s some great vocals from Stipe, beautiful backing from Mills and the songs sound just as good – if not better – acoustic as they do live. I can’t wait to listen to the second CD now, so here goes…
Part 2 – 2001
The second half opens with Stipe saying “Hello.” which sounds like he’s just wondered in. He also tells us the band’s name, which sounds quite modest, as though he doesn’t think we’ll have heard of them. He points out that the first song, All The Way To Reno, is not unplugged but rather unabated, which kind of defeats the purpose of the performance in a way, although it’s a nice version all the same. Electrolite features the banjo, which is considerably more prominent than on the original. It’s nice to hear other instruments in rock/pop songs, and this one works well. The banjo is also played on At My Most Beautiful, which for me ruins the song a bit, because the banjo wasn’t on the original and although it’s nice to hear them trying it out, it doesn’t really need to be played here. So far during the 2 CDs, this is the only song which I think has been… not ruined, but isn’t as good acoustic. The choice of songs as well, they’ve chosen songs that weren’t very ‘electric’ to start with, so songs like Daysleeper don’t sound much different, although So. Central Rain sounds very nice and quite different acoustic.
There’s also another version of Losing My Religion, which oddly doesn’t sound as good as the 1991 version. On the 2001 version, the mandolin is much more prominent and there is no percussion, which leaves it feeling a bit empty. Country Feedback is considerably nicer than the original. Stipe adds a new verse in, and it’s always nice to hear more lyrics. Cuyahoga again falls a bit short, but I suppose being an old song they’ve played it that many times that it’s nice for them to do it a little differently. Find the River isn’t too bad, but it’s not as good as the original, which I like very much. I suppose here we’re getting into the territory of comparing it to the original, and R.E.M.’s songs are very very good, so it’s hard to beat them, especially unplugged. Disappear was a song I liked on Up but wasn’t too keen on the music, but here it is very nicely played and sounds much better, as does I’ve Been High, which here sounds so reflective and sombre. The album ends on one of my favourite R.E.M. songs (I have a lot of favourites it appears), Sad Professor and I’m pleased to say that it’s as good as, if not better than, the original. This album also ends with a quick ‘thank you’ and fade out the cheering. Which again is annoying because it feels like something else happened after and we’re missing out.
I think the only problem with this second show is that they’re using less instruments on a lot of the tracks, there’s no Bill Berry. The percussion is very basic and the songs lose their pizazz a bit. Also, because they have now played these songs for over 10 years, you can feel that the band are wanting to try to do something different with it, not just to vary it for the audience, but also to allow them to play it differently and have a bit of fun with it. This is most prevalent with the 2001 The One I Love, which is much calmer and very different to usual.
The only niggle with the album is, I’ve seen some footage of it on Youtube and there’s considerably more talking in it, which seems to have been cut. If this is true then it’s a shame, because it’s always nice to hear them talking. Overall the album is a very nice addition to the R.E.M. catalogue, proving that their songs can stand the test of being played acoustic and giving us a fresh take on some of their best songs. The thing with unplugged albums is that you can’t help compare the songs to the originals. Most of the songs on here excel in their acoustic editions, but even the ones that don’t would still stand out as great songs if this is the first time you’re hearing them.
Our rating: (4.5 / 5)