Loveable despite its flaws
R.E.M. seems like the perfect band to make an “Unplugged” album. Michael Stipe’s emotive voice, Peter Buck’s simple strumming and Mike Mills’ melodic bass lines would appear to be the ideal mix for a stripped-down singalong. But the key to making a classic acoustic album isn’t just in the parts, it’s in the execution as well, and one of the most important elements is song selection. Since everything is quieter and, ironically, more amplified, the mood has to be set just right, with each song taking it to another level until an emotional climax is reached.
Take Nirvana’s “Unplugged” for instance. From “About a Girl” to “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” there isn’t a errant track on that list and the many covers, including the elegiac take on The Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” surprise and delight, fitting right into the atmosphere and feeling like they were Nirvana songs all along.
With R.E.M.’s sessions, especially 1991, this just isn’t the case. Sure, there’s a lot of good stuff here – “Low” is like the quintessential acoustic track – but there’s always some misstep lurking around the corner that destroys the mood. The first one comes quickly with a rap-less version of the much-maligned “Radio Song.” Now, I’ve always been a fan of this song, despite the fact that most R.E.M. fans hate it and see it as a blemish on the otherwise flawless “Out of Time.” So, being a fan, I wouldn’t discount it outright. But in order to make up for the lack of rap, Stipe inserts some presumably spontaneous vocal ticks that distract and annoy. He ends the song by almost quacking (or something, but whatever it is, it’s unpleasant), completely detracting from any mood the song had created.
This happens again when the band plays the ill-advised cover “Love is All Around.” In the right place, at the right time, this song would be a nice shot of cheerfulness, but during an “Unplugged” recording, it’s woefully out of place. And the band’s timid performance, hinging on flat vocals by Mills, doesn’t help to sell the choice.
Luckily, the band does better the second time around with the 2001 session. The guys have a little less energy (seriously, someone get Stipe some coffee!), but a lot more confidence and the song progression is sure-footed, creating the cumulative effect one would want from an “Unplugged” session.
Before I listened to this double album, if someone had told me that I would vastly prefer the 2001 session to the 1991 recording, I would’ve said they were nuts. I mean R.E.M. was in its prime in the early ’90s. The band had had several minor radio hits with “It’s the End of the World,” “The One I Love,” and “Stand,” and was just getting ready to dominate the world with “Losing My Religion.” Where could one go wrong? But despite the fact that the R.E.M. of 2001 was a three-legged dog (drummer Bill Berry left the band prior to 1998’s underrated masterpiece “Up”) heading towards a long, painful end to its career, it made a better product.
“So. Central Rain,” with its inimitable hook, and the heart-wrenching confessional “Country Feedback” are emotional highlights (the latter includes a surprise verse from Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”), and gorgeous tracks from “Up” like “At My Most Beautiful” and “Daysleeper” all serve to make the 2001 disc a potent listen. The only downside to the second album is the focus on songs from the so-so 2001 record “Reveal,” but Stipe, as many rockers do, always overly favors new material (the 1991 session does the same thing with “Out of Time”).
But after all my complaining, I’m going to obsessively listen to this for weeks on end regardless. R.E.M. is my favorite band and I usually have an annual month in which I listen almost exclusively to the band that created college rock and then went on to refashion pop rock in its image.
One of my favorite musical memories is thinking of the time when it seemed like Stipe could toss off any silly little ditty and the world would sing along. And “Unplugged” serves to put me right back in that moment.
3 1/2 stars out of 5
DOWNLOAD NOW: “Country Feedback.”