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!!!