Tuesday, October 06, 2009

R.E.M., Now and Then

This was going to be a post just recommending an upcoming album, but then I made a great discovery. So now it’s about two things.

First, the upcoming album: On October 27, R.E.M. is releasing the two-disc Live at the Olympia. The performances come from a series of “working rehearsals” the band held in Dublin in 2007 while recording their last album, Accelerate. The shows were intimate and energetic, and the set lists were a dream for any longtime fan of the band. The songs on Accelerate are included, as are three or four from its sessions that didn’t make the final cut. But of the 39 songs on Olympia, 16 of them come from Fables of the Reconstruction or earlier. (There are also five great songs off Document.) And with so many selections, the majority of them weren’t the big hits. Yes, there’s “Driver 8” and “So. Central Rain” and “Gardening at Night” (the last track), but there’s also: “Maps and Legends,” “Auctioneer,” “Carnival of Sorts,” “Harbor Coat,” and “Little America.” Oh, and “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”!

After a spirited rendition of “Letter Never Sent,” Stipe says, “that was a ‘just go ooh and ah and let Mike and Bill do everything kind of song.’ ” After “Sitting Still” -- one of my favorite songs of theirs -- Stipe, presumably holding up a sheet of paper, playfully says, “This is why the Internet sucks. It says here . . . well, number one they never get the lyrics right, not that their were lyrics to begin with. But it says here, ‘Note: These lyrics are approximations. Stipe himself has no idea what he says.’ ” (This is a charming moment, but it’s even funnier as an infinite regression of sorts: Stipe admits the early songs didn’t all have established lyrics, but seems mock-angry that people are accusing him of not knowing what he sings, but also has clearly printed out lyrics from the Internet to sing along with because he hasn’t done the song in ages. So he’s singing fan-created approximations of nonexistent lyrics that he only half-admits are nonexistent.)

I’ve heard Live at the Olympia because . . . well, my lawyer is advising me not to say. In any case, it’s a must-have for fans. Unlike a lot of compilations and such that R.E.M. have done this century, the inspired song selections and the lively spirit of this make it essential. The band sounds tight and terrific through most of it, and anyone who reveres the old days has to be delighted with a live album that includes Stipe also saying, “This is another Chronic Town [tune] . . .”

And speaking of Chronic Town, the great discovery:

And I mean great. On YouTube are eleven songs from an R.E.M. concert on October 10, 1982, at a club called The Pier in Raleigh, North Carolina. I’ve seen pretty early things on there -- from 1984, etc. -- but this is kind of ridiculous. As one commenter concisely put it, “Jesus. This is important stuff.” It’s true that any rock archivist -- much less a die-hard R.E.M. fan -- would have to be glad for such high-quality clips. Considering that it’s homemade video from 1982, the sound and picture are incredible. And this is truly the early days of the band, just a couple of months after Chronic Town, their debut e.p., came out. It would be another six months before Murmur was released, another year before the band made its TV debut on Letterman, etc. Here, Stipe, all of 22 years old and wearing a sweatshirt bearing a fraternity’s letters, nervously yelps and bounces. Peter Buck and Mike Mills look a combined 14 years old. And Bill Berry keeps the beat, as God intended.

The crowd seems like it can’t be more than a few dozen people, tops (I’m picturing something like 35). The band sounds good, and Stipe was still in more of a punk phase, not very interested in singing particularly well -- though his most polished performance, I think, was in the song I embed below. (One of the reasons I love the band’s early ’90s work is because I think Stipe’s voice was at its best and most expressive then, richer and more confident than before but less gruff than it became. But of course, the early work was the most innovative, and I love it equally, if not more.)

Anyway, these videos -- which the saint who posted them describes as “a reflection of hard work & dedication in the trading circuit since 1991” -- are fascinating. They make me feel an intense nostalgia for something I never experienced. The list of all 11 clips can be found here. They include an experimental-sounding number called “Skank” as an encore. As one Internet fan site says, “ ‘Skank’ was kind of R.E.M.'s ‘All Purpose Jam.’ ” OK.

Here’s the band doing “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” -- again, October 10, 1982:

And here's "Catapult," a favorite singalong of mine:

Oh, hi. It’s me again. I’m just sitting here, listening to the version of “These Days” on the new live record I mentioned in the first half of the post, and thinking of the irony in a band maturing in some ways and spoiling in others. Nearly everyone would agree that the songs R.E.M. has produced on its last few records are, with exceptions, not up to the standards set by their earlier work. And yet, they’re as accomplished and confident as a band as they’ve ever been -- they’ve been doing it for about 30 years, after all -- so they can really hit the old material out of the park in a way they might not have even done back when they first wrote it. That’s not profound. But I was thinking it. Unrefined, unprofound thoughts transmitted immediately -- blogging at its best.



Post a Comment

<< Home