Live At The Olympia
, November 2nd, 2009 13:06
Oh, R.E.M., how I love thee. Fear not that you haven't released a decent album since 1992, my devotion remains undimmed. Hearing a single word uttered in Michael Stipe's husky tones is enough to transport me back to a time when their music — both official and bootleg — comprised more than half of my meagre record collection. A time when trawling the secondhand record shops of Coventry and Birmingham in search of rare releases was punctuated by car journeys in which a tape of the band joking with the much-missed Deirdre O'Donoghue on Santa Monica's KCRW FM was ever-present.
Most non-R.E.M. purchases even had a link — bands they liked, were compared to, were influenced by. R.E.M. were the key to the kingdom. Never mind that for every Patti Smith, Velvet Underground, Robyn Hitchcock or Hüsker Du there was a 10,000 Maniacs, for each Television an Indigo Girls, it was a start.
Now it seems I'm not the only one longing for those urgent earlier days. This new live LP is the sound of a band nostalgic for its own creative heyday. Back in 2007, R.E.M. found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Having released the lamentable Around The Sun three years earlier to a lukewarm, at best, response, something had to change.
The band opted to showcase the songs that would form the backbone of Accelerate during five so-called 'live rehearsals' at Dublin's Olympia Theatre — alongside the toughest competition from their IRS label early back catalogue. The result is a live album that is defiantly hit free, and all the better for it. An album that documents a band attempting to reconnect with the early days when songs were tried out in the live arena (which wasn't, then, an actual arena) long before being recorded.
Only 'Drive', the curious choice of single with which to precede their downbeat eighth album makes the cut from Automatic For The People. Monster is represented by just Circus Envy, while both Green and Out of Time are completely out of luck. If last year's Accelerate is the ultimate result of the exercise that Michael Stipe (never knowingly under-melodramatic), called 'an experiment in terror', then the operation was relatively successful. More consistent than any since the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, and delivered with more conviction, the album is at least worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the early classics.
That they remain terrific live is not in question. If this double-album has a predecessor, it is the live video Tourfilm — all crackling energy, huge choruses and powerful politicking. "This is not a show, this is not a show," asserts bassist Mike Mills before the band crash into a (then) new track, 'Living Well Is The Best Revenge', the first of 39 songs here. Peter Buck's jangly power chords are to the fore, Mills provides a typically catchy counterpoint vocal. That it would fit seamlessly onto 1986's Life's Rich Pageant is as big a compliment I can muster.
The works-in-progress ("For anyone who has just wandered in, we're REM and this is what we do when you're not looking," says Stipe at one point) are intriguing, then. 'Man-Sized Wreath' missed out on the final cut (despite a glowing introduction from Stipe), 'Horse to Water' again revisits the sonic register of 'Life's Rich Pageant' with some success, while 'Disguised' is captured before its eventual transformation into 'Supernatural Superserious'.
That said, any LP containing Accelerate's 'I'm Gonna DJ At The End of The World', an embarrassing dad-dance of a song with a boorish, sledgehammer of a lyric, has at least one thing very wrong with it.
Back to the comfort of the rarely-heard oldies (only 13 songs here are from the post-Bill Berry era). 'Disturbance at the Heron House' gets a rare, beefed up live outing, with Buck's solo more successful than on my favourite bootleg, Acoustic 87: Live at McCabe's Guitar Shop. (But, then again, this LP doesn't feature the mash up of 'Sunday Morning' and 'Leaving On a Jetplane'). 'Kohoutek' sounds as though it hasn't been rehearsed since it was recorded in 1985, yet retains its fragile beauty.
The band's debut mini-album, Chronic Town, features heavily, another sign of the band's nostalgia. 'Gardening at Night' remains a rousing closing track, 'Wolves, Lower' retains its freshness, and 'Carnival of Sort (Box Cars)' and '1,000,000' are perfect pop. 'Cuyahoga', 'Sitting Still', 'Pretty Persuasion', 'Harborcoat', 'So. Central Rain' and 'Driver 8' pack more of a punch than in their 80s incarnations, while 'These Days' rounds off the first disc in powerful style, despite Stipe's wonky time-keeping and the conspicuous absence of Bill Berry's simple, pounding beat.
And these are the songs that best represent the soul of this great band, which is why, if far from essential, this live LP is such a welcome addition. For all 'Losing My Religion''s erstwhile omnipresence, and the singalong suitability of 'The One I Love' or 'Man On The Moon', it is on the early-80s albums that R.E.M. really shine.
By allowing new songs to sink or swim in this context (and allowing us to see/hear it), they are at least attempting to hold themselves to the same exacting standards that we do — and for that reason, they must be applauded.