Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Best Of All That’s Left: R.E.M. Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions (Mostly) Satisfies!

The Good: Wonderful mix, Good vocals, A few decent reinterpretations of R.E.M. (and a cover) songs.
The Bad: A few unimpressive renditions, Two versions of “Losing My Religion”
The Basics: Definitely geared towards the hordes of fans missing R.E.M., Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions is more less enough to tide us over.

Not too long ago, I read an article by Jerry Seinfeld in which the comedian lamented the end of the television show Seinfeld and he empathized with viewers who were having trouble finding comedies to get into. Despite the obvious potential that he was publishing such an article to test the waters for a Seinfeld reunion or reboot, it got me thinking about how many shows and artists I truly miss. The more I listen to R.E.M. at nights while I work, the more I feel a bit cheated that the band did not have the same type of political activism or spirit during the Bush (II) Administration as it did during the Reagan Administration. Listening to songs from the I.R.S. years, it is clear R.E.M. started with a strong sense of political indignation about all sorts of (then) current events, largely at the national level. By the Bush Administration and Iraq War, they were more of a corporate entity than they were at their founding (and that’s fine). So, when the band disbanded a few years ago, fans who were more casual (I have four R.E.M. albums in my permanent collection, albeit two of those are multi-disc sets) R.E.M. fans were left wondering what the band left on the sidelines during their final years. Hope flared for me when it was announced that R.E.M. was opening the vaults and releasing a new album in 2014.

That album is Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions and it is a compilation album that is not going to light the world on fire. Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions is not at all disappointing, but it is not the indispensible album fans of any ilk of R.E.M. have been waiting for. Instead, the best that can be said of the two-disc album which culls all of the songs R.E.M. recorded for MTV’s Unplugged television show that was popular back when MTV still was more focused on music than reality television programming, is that it gives all of us who came to R.E.M.’s music far too late to ever see them in concert (I was a fan for years . . . when their ticket prices were prohibitively expensive to my budget, as opposed to fans finding the band after their break-up) a chance to have an R.E.M. concert experience.

That experience is a good one, though it is not absolutely incredible or precious the way a cache of never before released new R.E.M. songs would have been. As part of the MTV Unplugged series, R.E.M. recorded two concerts in 1991 and 2001. Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions is, as the title promises, the complete recording and it fleshes out the two television programs with eleven previously unreleased, unavailable recordings. With thirty-three tracks (32 songs, as “Losing My Religion” was recorded twice), the two-disc set has the volume one wants from a set of songs that are, for the most part, available elsewhere (it might not be the most exciting thing, but the portions are great!).

Because the album is clearly intended for fans, I find myself not wanting to follow a formulaic review; if you’ve never heard the music of R.E.M., Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions is not the album to start with to suddenly give you an appreciation for the band’s depth, scope, and sound. Stripped back to minimal guitars, bass, and muted percussion, Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions is a vocally-driven album that has the sound of being recorded at an intimate venue with minimal crowd sounds and a focus on the music and message of R.E.M.

What listeners are given is two concerts that actually blend well into one, making for a remarkably cohesive experience. Dedicated fans who have never managed to catch all of the words to “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” will have the pleasure of a slower version where R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe enunciates clearly each and every word. As a fan of the film Love Actually (reviewed here!), I was pretty psyched to actually hear R.E.M. cover the song “Love Is All Around” (which is the only non-R.E.M. song on the two-disc set).

The other real gem of the set is the first disc’s closing song. “World Leader Pretend” is one of R.E.M.’s songs that I had never truly heard before. With its lines “It's amazing what devices you can sympathize / Empathize / This is my mistake, let me make it good / I raised the wall / And I will be the one to knock it down” (“World Leader Pretend”), R.E.M. brilliantly blends the personal and the political to make a song that sounds fresh and gritty even decades later.

On the flip side, songs like “Find The River” and “Fall On Me” are virtually identical to their studio recordings. In fact, if nothing else, Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions reminds listeners just how much R.E.M.’s music was not dependent upon production values. R.E.M. grew up on a musical tradition where songwriters actually created music and tunes; Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions reminds listeners the power of the combination of clear vocals, decent musical tunes and poetic lyrics by stripping away the extraneous elements R.E.M. had on a few of their recordings. More often than not, though, listeners hear something that is entirely familiar to their ears on Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions. The clear vocals that are never produced to be sublimated to the instrumentals sound a lot like the early recordings of R.E.M., but on some of the tracks, that makes for difference enough to justify the existence of the album.

Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions is a decent-enough set for those who love R.E.M. and want something more from the band and will settle for non-dramatic reinterpretations of their previously-released recordings.

The best tracks are “World Leader Pretend” (disc 1) and “Country Feedback” (disc 2) and the low points are “Swan Swan H” (disc 1) and “Imitation Of Life” (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
New Adventures In Hi-Fi
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 - 2003 (Single Disc)
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2003 (Deluxe)
Around The Sun
. . . And I Feel Fine: The Best Of The I.R.S. Years


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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