Holiday Gift Guide Review: R.E.M., “Document: 25th Anniversary Edition”/Various Artists, “Athens, GA. – Inside/Out”
By The Second Disc, on 12 Dec 19, 2012
Even a year after R.E.M.’s sudden dissolution last fall, it’s hard not to be enthralled by their music and their message. Even before they said goodbye, their discography was a considerable sacred text of modern rock and roll – sustained success on both a strong independent and major label, songs that provided a fresh take on a classic musical formula and a singular, uncompromising vision as to how they were going to follow their art – a vision that happily rewarded them as one of America’s most popular ensembles.
This year, 25 years after R.E.M.’s ascension into the big leagues with the Top 10 hit “The One I Love,” two new catalogue titles offer intriguing looks into how they got there. The first, and more obvious, would be the expected 25th anniversary edition of Document (Capitol 50999 972306 2 8), newly remastered and expanded with a concert recorded on the band’s Work Tour of 1987.
“The time has come/to be engaged,” lead singer Michael Stipe sings at the start of opening track “Finest Worksong” (arguably one of the band’s most underrated tunes). And while it’s not a stretch for the always-aware R.E.M. to think that way, it certainly is something to hear them wear that declaration so clearly on an album. Indeed, Document is in some ways bolder than its predecessors; Murmur and Reckoning established the band’s trademarks – bright pop/rock with jangling guitars and propulsive if simple rhythms combined with Stipe’s oblique, stream of consciousness poetry – while Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant added further flourishes, beefing up the production value (Fairport Convention producer Joe Boyd John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman produced each of those albums, respectively) and focusing the sometimes confounding lyrics into richly metaphoric tales of anything from the American South to adverse environmental conditions.
Document’s clean production by Scott Litt, who’d oversee the band’s next five LPs, is complemented by some of the most striking R.E.M. songs on record. A growing sense of Reagan-era discomfort is implicit on tunes like “Exhuming McCarthy” (which samples Joseph Nye Welch’s famous “have you no sense of decency?” quote during the Army-McCarthy hearings) and even the kinetic, almost intentionally discombobulating “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” As upbeat as the album is, Stipe betrays a sense of weariness throughout, most famously the bait-and-switch of “The One I Love,” in which he sings not of a real lover, but “a simple prop to occupy my time.”
While expanded editions of Fables and Pageant featured lengthy bonus discs of demos, the expanded Document adds a live set from the 5,000-capacity Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Holland. Despite the decent sound quality, owing to a decent radio broadcast feed, this bonus disc is arguably the most disappointing of the R.E.M. 25th anniversary edition sets thus far. For one, the show doesn’t stray too far from the band’s typical fare (although much of Document is played). Far worse, however, is the deletion of several songs from the set list – mostly covers (including Wire’s “Strange,” as recorded on Document), which is a pretty weak way of saving on publishing royalties, but also the full, previously-released “Time After Time (AnnElise)/Red Rain/So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” which closed the set. (The arresting vocal-and-guitar closer of “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” remains; the other half is available only on the original “Finest Worksong” vinyl single.) Packaging enthusiasts, however, will enjoy the EMI-standard lidded box, sturdy photo inserts of Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry and the large, fold-out poster inside the set as well.
After the jump, take a fascinating trip to Athens, Georgia – the birthplace of R.E.M. as well as the home of a truly unique local scene that’s expertly captured in a rediscovered documentary!
“The groups that have come out of Athens have done it by their own personal honesty,” record store owner William Orten “Ort” Carlton observes toward the end of the 1987 documentary Athens, GA. – Inside/Out. “They haven’t tried to impress anyone with anything other than being themselves.” Of course, he’s talking about R.E.M., who at the time of filming were on their way to the then-career high outlined on Document – but what makes Athens, GA. – Inside/Out so wildly fascinating is he’s talking about maybe a half-dozen other talented bands in the same town.
The geography of music is a fascinating thing. Whole states separate Motown and Stax, and one label couldn’t have flourished where the other stood. Seattle was the epicenter of the grunge explosion. And, if you liked left-of-center, ringing pop/rock in the 1980s, Athens, Georgia seemed to be your place. Not only did R.E.M. flourish, but so did The B-52′s, the brief brush with success of Pylon, and a host of others that, while not commercially influential, live on as part of the documentary.
Omnivore Records has released what may be the definitive version of the film (OVCD-44), adding a generous amount of special features (film and features are a good two hours’ worth) and also remastering and expanding the original I.R.S. Records soundtrack, which featured stripped down and live takes of some of the bands’ most notable songs.
What makes the set so interesting is the diversity; not everyone was chasing the same sound. R.E.M. and Pylon may have been more straightforward rock, while the Flat Duo Jets were stripped-down stomping blues for guitar and hastily assembled drum kit. Bar-B-Q Killers and Dreams So Real took their rock influences a bit more left-of-center, couching their tunes in an almost psychedelic haze. Then there were poets, painters and other local color. There was Rev. Howard Finster, who answered a call from God to paint and earned national celebrity for his paintings, one of which was the album sleeve to R.E.M.’s Reckoning, or the Rev. John D. Ruth, another local preacher whose eerily captivating singing and organ playing clearly enthralled Stipe in an interview.
And the movie doesn’t attempt an overarching, clunky narrative. What you get instead is a little bit travelogue, a little bit concert film, and a lot of the weird, wonderful slice of life that the Athens cultural scene was – uncontroversial, uncompromising and a hell of a lot of fun. Athens, GA. – Inside/Out may not answer the sort of questions about R.E.M. you want it to; filmed two years before its release, it offers less of a picture of how they became one of the biggest bands in the world than, say, the Document expansion. But what you get instead is far too fun to pass up.