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Music Review: R.E.M. – Live

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"Listen my children and you shall hear the Fanboy Tretise on Live Albums…

I believe I speak for the majority – and I'm damn sure I speak for all right-thinking music lovers – when I say we desire complete, single-show performances that have been minimally edited and processed. Am I talking about live albums or chicken?

It's a simple concept, really, and the music industry continues not to get it and wonder why they can't sell records! You want to put the bootleggers out of business? Steal their business model and do it better than they do! You guys are the music business. You should be better at selling records than anybody. How fucking hard can this really be?

Bootleggers sell poor recordings of complete shows by popular bands and they sell them at exorbitant prices. How do you combat this? Sell good recordings of complete shows by popular bands at a reasonable price.

That brings me to R.E.M.'s live two-CD/DVD set aptly titled Live. There is much to like about this package. They came so close to hitting a home run with it, yet there are some stupid flaws that would have been so easy to correct. Let's get the bitching out of the way about what Live is not, and then we'll take a look at what they've presented.

Nitpick #1 – The Set : You had to see this coming after my rant about single-show releases. This release features performances from a two-night stand in Dublin, 22 songs in all.

The first disc has 17 songs, the second only five. This is okay if you're going to go with one complete show, but once you've decided to combine forces you have to wonder why they didn't fill that second disc out. By picking from two nights, they leave themselves more open to second guessing about what they did release and what they didn't.

Songs that didn't make the cut from these two shows include "Sweetness Follows," "Seven Chinese Brothers," "Electrolite," and "I've Been High." I don't even have to suggest we forgo the Around the Sun songs for those mentioned gems because there was still room on Disc 2.

You'll get complaints no matter what you do – a theme we'll pick up on later – but you immunize yourself from this by picking one night or the other.

Nitpick #2 — The Packaging: Wow, is this a turd! They would have had to try really hard to make this package less appealing. Michael Stipe looks like a mutant orc from Lord of the Rings. The five-page booklet is useless and the typeface they used is an ugly, blocky eyesore. The F.B.I. piracy warning on the back of the package might be the most interesting visual on the packaging.

It isn't the most important part of an album, but last week's Radiohead almost-a-release has me a little more packaging conscious. Radiohead's no package might actually be better than what adorns this.


All right, so there are a few warts. Is there anything nice to say about Live? You bet your ass there is!

The sound quality is mostly excellent and Michael Stipe is far less annoying than he was on the band's Perfect Square DVD release where every song was introduced with "We hope you like it" or "This is so-and-so's favorite song."

Michael Stipe is a wonderful singer, but a peculiar performer. Watching him on the DVD and listening to him sing, you get a feeling he loves to be center stage while at the same time wishing he could crawl underneath it. He can command the stage with confidence or he can give way to nervous chattiness. Throughout much of Live, Stipe is in strong voice.

I mostly hated Around the Sun, the album the band was promoting when these shows were performed, but those songs sound much better live than they did on record.

On Live, we're reminded that Peter Buck is still in this band. Listening to ATS you had to wonder if he'd joined founding drummer Bill Berry in retirement. Buck's guitar infuses these songs with more energy. "Electron Blue" is edgier and "The Ascent of Man" and "The Boy in The Well" sound more colorful and interesting. "Leaving New York" loses a little of its delicacy but is still terrific.

As for the oldies, "I Took Your Name" and "So Fast, So Numb" are energetic rockers that get the show off to a fast, great start. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth" has never sounded better. These guys have gotten tighter as a band over the years and can pull off nearly any song in their back catalog on any night.

Taken as a whole, Live is a good listen and well paced. If you didn't know it was two shows combined with some good songs omitted, you'd look at this set list and hear this show and be very happy with it. Armed with that knowledge, you can still enjoy this set even if your mind occasionally wanders as you imagine how easily this could have been so much more.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    you get a feeling he loves to be center stage while at the same time wishing he could crawl underneath it

    this is a change from when i saw them (Murmur tour)…Stipe could hardly look out into the audience.

    and wow, i hadn’t even looked at the booklet until you mentioned it. it’s basically credits for the dvd. gees, what a waste.

    –>complete shows: why is that such a difficult concept?!

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    I gotta agree about both chicken and live albums – they both should be complete. Except, however, Wendy’s nuggets, which, despite their mysterious texture and origins, are friggin’ awesome. So, if it works for Wendy’s, it can work once in a while for live albums, I suppose – it’s just pretty rare (for instance, Rush’s A Show of Hands, even though it takes a lot of hits from fans for sourcing so many shows, and the Flecktones’ Live Art which I think is actually a lot of fun due to the fact that they don’t even try to hide that it’s from a bunch of shows – songs are ended with the sound of doors closing, etc.)

    As for the packaging, that seems to be a trend they’re continuing from AtS, which might just be the worst packaging a modern major label release has ever had, at least as far as I’ve ever seen. Seriously, a one-fold Digipak with a lyric-poster folded up inside? Not even a slot to hold it? It makes me feel like the band themselves don’t value very highly the music they just made and, in the case of AtS, I can see why.

  • Steve

    For a long time I agreed with you about complete shows. But in 2007 if you’re still paying for bootlegs, you’re an idiot who doesn’t know how to use bittorrent or the internet.

    For someone like Springsteen or The Who, who have a plethora of live releases, I agree doing a single show would make a lot more sense.

    But for R.E.M., who for years publicly stated in interviews that they didn’t want to do a live album and thus have a major shortage of live recordings in their catalog, this album baffles me. Why a totally random 2005 show released in 2007? There was already an excellent pro-shot 2005 show from a European TV broadcast that covered much of the same material. Granted, you couldn’t buy it at Target, but R.E.M. doesn’t really have any casual fans left that would buy an album like this anyway.

    So to compensate for the lack of readily available “official” live R.E.M. recordings, why not a multi-disc compilation culled from the band’s archives, kind of giving a live history of the band? There are tons of great bootlegs available that document individual tours, but a kind of career overview from the band’s own vaults would be something the bootleggers couldn’t match, and would be a lot more interesting to most fans, I think. (especially since no one needs to hear 6 live tracks from ‘Around The Sun’)

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    good point steve, though i think the issue is less about money and more about how coveted a recording is.

    fans, covet an official complete show recording of Springsteen from the Darkness ara. fans covet a complete show from Murmur. the same can’t be said for material from Around The Sun.

    it would have been cooler if they’d released a full show containing the new material from the not-yet-released (or even recorded?) album. i’ve heard that stuff and it’s magnificent.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Yeah I would totally buy a live show from their early years. Heck I’d buy a hodge podge of songs from various shows from their earlier years. This, I’ll probably let sit on the shelves.

  • http://www.confessionsofafanboy.com Josh

    A live box set taken from over the band’s career would be a valid way to present live albums without flooding the market with 20 or 30 of them, but would be further validated by the presence of a complete, single-show performance.

    Wendy’s, Tom? I thought you were allergic to the world, dude. I didn’t think you could rock the Wendy’s.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    man, i’d really love a recording from the Murmur tour. i don’t remember a whole lot of detail about the show i saw, but do remember thinking that, Peter Buck’s guitar aside, Mills was the band’s secret weapon.

  • Adrian

    I’m a diehard REM fan but the DVD kinda bugged me. The direction and editing is aweful, sooo MTV (REM are not an MTV band, at least not anymore!).I perfer the simple, yet effective ‘Perfect Square’. REM are amazing live and don’t need some arty director to screw it up. The DVD will induce headaches!. They should have filled out the second CD and included ‘I’ve been High’ and ‘Outsiders’. No it’s not perfect but it will tide the fans over until the new album (which is set to be amazing).

  • http://www.myspace.com/magicjunk SRod

    I don’t have this album yet…But I’m so excited to get it. REM is great in concert. And I do agree ATS definitely sounded better live.