The Best Of R.E.M. In Time 1988-2003 – Warner Brothers (2003)/Craft Recordings CR00166 [6/142019] 180-gram stereo double-vinyl, 76:15 *****:
(Michael Stipe – lead vocals; Peter Buck – guitars, mandolin, banjo, bass; Mike Mills – bass, piano, organ, keyboards, vocals; Bill Berry – drums)
As critics and fans argued over the exact genre of R.E.M., a near forty-year career unfolded. The pride of Athens, Georgia, the band formed in 1980, and blazed a trail in alternative rock (or college-friendly). Uniquely, they shared songwriting credits and seemed to accomplish the impossible, all for one and one for all. Their career got off to a rousing start with the single, “Radio Free Europe” in 1981. After signing with I.R.S., the band released their debut album, Murmur to disappointing sales, but critical success. After two more albums with different producers had no substantial effect, Document did the trick. A single “The One I Love” charted and the band moved to Warner Brothers. The initial album release, Green produced two more hits (“Stand” and “Orange Crush”). With the advent of MTV, R.E.M.’s reputation and accessibility grew. It hit an apex with Out Of Time that included the single “Losing My Religion”. Subsequent albums like Automatic For The People, Monster, and New Adventures In Hi-Fi added to the resume. Throughout their history, the band would be recognized as a cultural bridge from punk to alternative rock. In 2006 R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in the first year of eligibility. Their legacy is undisputed.
Craft Recordings has released a 180-gram double vinyl of The Best Of R.E.M. In Time 1988-2003. In a welcome surprise, this song anthology of an iconic band has a sequenced flow over the four “sides”. There are 18 songs that represent a cross-section of the band’s career. In keeping with R.E.M.’s independent musical vision, the hits are only a part of this collection. They have selected some obscure gems as well. Side One hits an immediate apex with “Man In The Moon” (described in the liner notes by Peter Buck as the quintessential R.E.M. song). All of the inherent qualities are meshed fluently. Buck’s versatility on electric guitar and mandolin is framed by the low-key rhythm of Mills and Berry. Stipe’s ode to Andy Kaufman is illuminated by nuanced catchy references (“…Here’s a truck stop instead of St. Peter…”, “…Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk…”). Even a snippet of an Elvis impersonation appears. The band increases and abates the rock prominence with edginess and hushed tines. From The Man In The Moon soundtrack, “The Great Beyond” is ethereal with atmospheric synthesized riffs that feel orchestral at times. A repeat chorus fits perfectly at the end. A 2003 composition (“Bad Day”) is universal in theme with a harder tempo, fast lyrics and a nice guitar echo. “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?” blasts off with acid guitar licks and traditional rock aesthetics. Buck’s note-bending guitar solo resonates.
Side Two capitalizes on the unusual fluency of this anthology. Starting with the twangy country pop of “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)”, there are weird sonic effects played against a classic “thick” guitar line reminiscent of 60’s Glen Campbell-like tunes. It’s no wonder the working title was “Jimmy Webb On Mars”. Then, the ultimate R.E.M. number “Losing My Religion” is still as vibrant as it was in 1991. Buck’s mandolin, the infectious tempo and Stipe’s vocal phrasing (“…spot…light!”) are exemplary of the intuitive chemistry of this quartet. This is a song for the ages. The talking lyrics of “E-Bow The Letter” rely on a ceaseless hypnotic groove and stream-of-consciousness beatnik lyrics. All of this is a tribute to music pioneer Patti Smith who adds some vocals. Going back to the late 80’s, “Orange Crush” is straight ahead rock with call and response vocals against distilled guitar licks. Mills’ singing complements Stipe. “Imitation Of Life” (yes, a reference to the movie of the same name) is one of four compositions without Bill Berry and has synthesizers and vocal-effects. Side Three opens with “Daysleeper”, an ear-catching waltz-time signature with acoustic guitar and layered sound. The sound of “modern” R.E.M. is palpable. “Animal” is the “newest’ recording and sounds like R.E.M. meets Revolver Beatles. In a surprising choice, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is uniquely weird with nods to Nescafe and Dr. Seuss. For pure mainstream accessibility, “Stand” is simple and fun. The swirling organ, wah-wah guitar and key modulations simply work. “Electrolite’ has a nice combination of banjo and piano, fiddle and some Hollywood references. It’s all framed by a Spanish-motif melody.
Side Four maintains the band’s essence. “All The Right Friends” (from the Vanilla Sky soundtrack) is a basic rocker with steady guitar and great Stipe/Mills vocals. Then there is “Everybody Hurts”. One of four cuts from Automatic For The People, it’s an alternative version of gospel soul, with Buck laying down groove-infused hooks. Stipe lets loose with exposed vulnerability to bring home the heartfelt context. You don’t have to read the liner notes to determine that “At My Most Beautiful” is a tribute to Brian Wilson. Mills’ jaunty piano and the heavily layered vocals are vintage Beach Boys. “Nightswimming” is more than a rousing finale. Mills’ piano coupled with Stipe’s phenomenal vocals is stunning. The specific imagery of this baroque-rock philosophical musing is evocative. Producer John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) added a tasty string arrangement.
The Best Of R.E.M. In Time 1988-2003 concentrates on the group’s big label catalog. There are some omissions from pre-stardom, but all four sides flow evenly. This is rare among greatest hits anthologies. Craft Recordings has done a superb job in the 180-gram re-mastering. The only input in the notes is from Peter Buck, but he is concise and humorous.
Man On The Moon
The Great Beyond
What’s The Frequency Kenneth?
All The Way To Reno
Losing My Religion
E-Bow The Letter
Imitation Of Life
The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight
All The Right Friends
At My Most Beautiful
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