I loved the experiment right from the start. R.E.M. gets together for some live 'rehearsals' to work out material for an upcoming album. The bootlegs that flew around the Internet confirmed that the band was revitalized and ready to shrug off rumors that they were about to call it quits. As a fan going all the way back to Chronic Town and Murmur, it was hard to not root for them. The post-Bill Berry R.E.M. seemed less solid in its artistic footing, making me wonder if the end was near.
This double live album, made from those five nights in Dublin, shows that the three-piece band has dug into their roots. What's important about this is that the material from Accelerate makes perfect sense presented alongside tunes from Chronic Town and Lifes Rich Pageant. Perhaps more important is that the 'older' songs seem just as fresh, at least in this high-powered,rock & roll environment.
With the band driving hard through old tunes like "Wolves, Lower" (from Chronic Town), "West Of The Fields" (Murmur), "Second Guessing" (Reckoning), and "Driver 8" (Fables Of The Reconstruction), I was reminded of the reasons why this band caught my ear in the first place. Sure, Peter Buck's guitar was one part, but it was the fantastic singing and bass playing of Mike Mills that did it. Mills' basslines weave their way through the songs, managing to both support and highlight Buck's guitar. Without Mills' background vocals, which often seem to circle their way around Stipe's lead, are a key to R.E.M.'s sound.
And speaking of sound, it's surprisingly good. Why be surprised? Compression. While there are a few spots where the compression monster pushes things into the red (particularly on Stipe's vocals), the whole recording seems slightly dialed back in comparison to a lot of modern releases. Compared to a few classic live records (say, Little Feat's Waiting For Columbus), Live at the Olympia is a tad too loud, but at least it doesn't sound like your head has been jammed through the speaker. There's a decent amount of space between the instruments and nothing is lost in the mix.
More important, nothing is lost in the message being delivered: that R.E.M. is back…if they ever left at all.