(Planet Me)
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
I'm Gonna DJ

REM Live gets reviewed.

REM once swore they'd never release a live album. Like everyone, they lied. Or maybe they just changed their mind. Whatever they did do, there's no denying that the prosiacally name “Live” album is a bit of an outdated notion. In the age of MP3 blogs, Torrent Trackers, and a gazillion music files flying across the internet this very second, the idea of going to a store and actually handing over hard cash money for a concert recording seems very old fashioned. Who else recently has actually released a proper live record?

What “REM LIVE” is something a little conventional by their standards : a straightforward document of two nights in Dublin at the end of 2005's “Around The Sun” tour packaged into a two hour concert film DVD and two audio CD's for a relatively low price. (Bands would generally release the DVD on its own for more than the cost of this total package). Several years on from their stadium filling years as Worlds Biggest Alt Rock Band, “Live” offers a glimpse into what the post-grunge career for Nirvana would have looked like : smaller venues, interesting new directions, a more selective audience. Then again, after selling something like 20,000,000 copies of “Automatic For The People”, selective for REM means playing to 7,000 people instead of 70,000.

After the muted critical and commercial reception to “Around The Sun” (which is probably the most anaemic, lifeless record in the REM canon), “Live” offers a thankfully vibrant and vital counterpoint. On stage REM are often a bristling, loud rock beast unafraid to dig out the effects pedals, power up the amps, and walking unafraid in the world of intelligent rock music. Sometimes big dumb rock riffs are not only dumb, but very very clever. Coupled with Stipe's superlative, obscure/obvious lyrics that put REM several miles above and beyond similar acts, REM are, by definition, messing with the medium and using the medium as the message.

The selection of material also clearly shames their former contemporaries who have taken the often easy route of retrospective, nostalgia, reformation tours. REM are always pushing forward, aware of their past, but not enthrall to it. Whereas you'd be hard pushed to find a Rolling Stones live DVD with one song recorded beyond the first 12 years of their career, REM offer what they feel to be a definitive 'best of' their entire ouevre as well as focusing on material that fits into the climate of these politically troubled times. The set opens with a crystal-clear “I Took Your Name” : no longer a murky backpage on the misunderstood “Monster”, the song sparkles and gleams as a role-playing glam monster. Similarly 1996's “So Fast, So Numb” - hardly seeming like an obvious choice for second place in the set – jaunts along as a literate piece of road-weary reportage. Reflecting the view from the inside of a tour bus.

A quarter of this set is taken from the underperforming, sterile “Around The Sun” : in the concert context these songs are light years removed from their studio incarnations, becoming (if not exactly lively, then) committed and passionate renditions that leap far beyond the accompanying studio record. “Electron Blue” no longer sounds like a mud of bleeps, becoming a more established, strong contender for best track from that album. “Everybody Hurts”, the communal singalong of mutual sympathy in misery is tossed away early in the set – as are “Bad Day” (sitting oddly between two slow paced recent numbers), and the fun “Cuyahoga”. From “The Great Beyond” onwards – barring a couple of 'breathers' from the latest record – the remainder of the set is a virtual Greatest Hits collection. Almost every REM song you'd expect is here with the notable exception of the neglected “Daysleeper”, and there's something from every REM album except “Murmur” and “Fables Of The Reconstruction”. Then again, with hundreds of songs to choose from, someone's always going to be disappointed.

Visually, the DVD is a fine concert document. Whilst Blue Leach (hint : not his real name) manages to annoy fans of the traditional film, he sticks to his trademarks of jump cutting, delibrate camera shake, switching film stocks, using grainy and degraded monitor footage, multiple panels, and other cheap tricks to provide 'excitement' where realistically none are necessary to reflect the thrill of live music. Visual purists would have preferred a more straightforward representation of the band – though “REM Live” is nowhere near as Attention Deficit as his Depeche Mode film, and therefore, a far more enjoyable proposition.

Sadly, the live 2 CD portion of this set duplicates entirely the live DVD soundtrack : as a fan I would've preferred a wider choice of material on the audio disc to include “The Outsiders” (the concert version far beats the limp album cut), as well as other songs recorded during the tour not on the DVD to expand the value-for-money element of the set and present two slightly different musical experiences. That said, “REM Live” is a fine addition, reflecting the groups musical aspirations, presenting favourites new and old, providing vibrant live versions of previously sterile studio recordings, a new song (in the tempting and curious “I'm Gonna DJ”) and is a fine representation of the spirit and joy of the bands 2005 tour. At this price, it's an idea to be commended and appluaded. REM fans will love this.

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