Thursday, September 6, 2012

Greatest Hits Going Backward - Early R.E.M. Educates, Not Necessarily Satisfies With . . . And I Feel Fine

The Good: Very articulate, political, good writing, Some real winning songs
The Bad: Sounds VERY much like a garage (college) band, Musically limited
The Basics: R.E.M.'s early musical works easily demonstrate a band with potential, though even with two-discs, it does not reach it.

I believe it is quite possible that there are two groups of R.E.M. fans: those who were there in the beginning while the quartet was rising from essentially a college garage band in Georgia and those who became enamored with the group after its first few mainstream hits. A few years back, R.E.M. put out a greatest hits album for the latter fans, comprising their tracks from 1988 up. I heartily recommended that disc (In Time). I openly admit, I fall into my latter classification of R.E.M. fans. It was "Losing My Religion" that brought the group to my attention. I think In Time remains one of the most-played albums in my collection.

Enter now, And I Feel Fine . . . the Best of the I.R.S. Years, R.E.M.'s new greatest hits album featuring songs from 1982 - 1987. The thumbnail sketch for fans of the latter works is remarkably easy: if you are a fan of their later works, the only tracks on this two-disc set that you've likely ever heard are: The One I Love" and "It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." Two tracks. Odds are, the rest will be new to you.

If you were a fan of the I.R.S. stuff (I.R.S. refers to the label early R.E.M. works were released under), these songs are mostly all anthems of your youth and college days and I'm sure most of them (save some on the second disc, which is comprised of rarities and b-sides) are old news to you.

This two-disc set features forty-two songs and in that regard, it's well worth the money. R.E.M.'s early works are politically-involved, rock and roll from a distinctly young perspective. I hesitate to say a distinctly young male perspective, as many of the tracks are simply ambitious for activism (and I don't associate that with just young men).

In a way, that political activism is as timely now as it was when these tracks were originally written. On disc two, the Outtake version of "Bad Day" is both articulate and frightening for the way it acts as a harbinger of where we are now. While some look to "It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" as prophetic ("birds and snakes, aeroplanes . . ."), it is the more directly cynical and frightening lines of "Bad Day" which seem to indicate the dire state we have found ourselves in ("Whitewash presidency . . .The papers wouldn't lie, I cry"). Remarkably, there is little in the politically active songs, which are generally progressive and desirous of the People sharing a voice in the government that is supposed to be theirs, that is dated. So while the liner notes (which are quite extensive) mention things like Iran-Contra and other political events that define a time and place, none of the songs carry that entirely.

Sadly, one of their most political songs, "Exhuming McCarthy," did not make it onto either disc. I could have lived without "Hyena" on disc two, but I'm sure there is someone out there for whom that it R.E.M.'s pinnacle. But this seems to be a good place to explore what is weak about And I Feel Fine . . .

Songs like "Hyena," which are presented on Disc two in live or demo versions are some of the weaker tracks R.E.M. has created. "Hyena" involves a lot of screeching (of the title) throughout the song and it sounds amateurish more than musical. It sounds like a garage band and not a terribly good one. While I applaud R.E.M. for giving fans both a "standard" disc and a bonus disc to increase our appreciation of the group (R.E.M. and U2 both do this with their "Best ofs" and I highly recommend the two-disc over the one disc for either), in this instance, they have created an album that has more weaknesses than strengths. On disc one, we have the standard version of "Life And How To Live It," which is fine. On disc two, there is a live version of the same song preceded by the story behind the song. I tend to judge such things harshly because relistening to c.d.s is very important to me. That type of track almost never holds up over multiple listens. Already, I find myself jumping through that track.

As well, the sound quality on it is not ideal. At the climax of the story, Michael Stipe (I presume) tells the name of the book (which is also the name of the song) and the volume cuts down, so it can take several listens before one actually gets the whole story he is telling.

And outside sound quality, musical quality is also an issue in several of these recordings. Some of the songs are simply standard pop-rock songs that sound like exactly what they are; underdeveloped songs from a young band. I am certainly not an advocate of overproduction, but songs like "Driver 8" and "Talk About The Passion" are essentially using the same instruments and the result are tracks that sound remarkably similar. I still have yet to figure out what "7 Chinese Bros." is really about. It is, therefore, a treat for those who indulge in the two-disc version to get such songs as "King of Birds" which does use more instruments and has a very distinctive sound to it.

That said, there are some impressive aspects to R.E.M. outside the quality of their writing even in their early years. "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" remains a song that baffles me as to how it is actually sung. Seriously, try singing along to it sometime, it's near impossible. Michael Stipe sings the words with beautiful speed and clarity, it truly is a wondrous feat.

Ultimately, this is a much more hesitant recommendation for me. The quality is just not what it is for In Time, which is a VERY accessible collection of songs. This simply isn't. It is a less sophisticated sounding group, despite the power of their lyrics. It's a toss up as to whether people who were not fans of those early songs will enjoy it. I find myself henpecking tracks, which is a rare thing for me on any c.d. The tracks that are on, are ON, the tracks that aren't, are very much off.

The best tracks are "Gardening At Night" (Disc 1) and "King of Birds" (Disc 2), the weakest tracks are "Driver 8" (Disc 1) and "Hyena (Demo)" (Disc 2).

For other R.E.M. albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Life’s Rich Pageant
Out Of Time
Automatic For The People
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2000 (Deluxe)


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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