R.E.M. Under Cover

I’m looking forward to writing up an account of my trip to Athens, GA last weekend, but being on a particularly crazed schedule, it will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, I’d like to recommend a couple of R.E.M. “covers” albums that have been dominating my music system all week.

At the end of Sunday’s event – R.E.M. in Perspective: an Athens founder Jeff Mongtomery gave me a copy of Finest Worksongs: Athens bands play the music of R.E.M. It’s not your typical tribute album. It’s in fact a live album, a souvenir of an event Jeff promoted at the 40 Watt Club on 12 September 2006, for which he invited a number of local groups to play brief sets of their favorite, or most relevant R.E.M. covers. To Jeff’s genuine surprise and subsequent astonishment, all four founding members of the group – including the current farmer and former drummer Bill Berry – not only showed up to watch, but ended up joining several of the acts onstage and eventually played their own brief set. This is one of only three or four occasions the original quartet has played together since Berry sadly quit the band a full decade ago, and I imagine it must have been quite something to bear witness to. (I think Jeff called it the greatest night of his life, and who would dare argue?)

For understandable copyright reasons, R.E.M. do not show up as performers on Finest Worksongs – it wouldn’t make sense anyway, given that it was intended as a tribute event. But individual members do show up on some of the credits, Mike Mills and Peter Buck joining Five Eight on “Radio Free Europe,” and Michael Stipe then jumping in for the subsequent mass finale of “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

Finest Worksongs is every bit as enjoyable for the various band’s personal anecdotes, tributes. My personal highlights come right up front, with Liz Durrett’s delicate introductory rendition of “The One I Love,” which brings the song back down to its core meaning, Claire Campbell’s banjo-and-tap interpretation of “Wendell Gee,” almost unrecognizable from the original, and Tin Cup Prophette’s rousing “Leave,” with twisted electronic effects throughout. But I also like the Observatory’s lovably tuneless “Pilgrimage” and Patterson Hood’s marvelous story about seeing R.E.M. back in 1985 and the relevance to his subsequent performance of “Second Guessing.” Five Eight rewrite “Driver 8” to narrate their own story, and also play the most recent R.E.M. song of the night, the excellent “Leaving New York.” If only the rest of Around The Sun could have matched it for quality.

Indeed, R.E.M.’s own late-career crisis has resulted in the first live album of their career, released this past week. There’s no doubt which is the more polished, better recorded and better performed album. There’s also not much question which one better encapsulates R.E.M.’s original small town roots and creative sense of adventure – and better yet, Finest Worksongs benefits local charities. You can buy it here.

Though it’s not available on CD, Drive XV comes complete with album cover.

Drive XV is an altogether more ambitious project; as arranged and distributed by online magazine Stereogum, it finds different artists covering Automatic for the People on the occasion of that momentous album’s fifteenth anniversary. The results have just been put up online, for free streaming and download, no strings attached. Isn’t the Net a marvelous thing?

Tribute albums are always a difficult business; the re-recording of an entire studio album is even harder. So, understandably, not everything on offer is classic – and there are no versions I would take over R.E.M.’s own, given that I think Automatic For The People is one of the great albums of modern music. But that’s not the point. The point of a good cover version is to respect the original while bringing something new to the arrangement, and for that reason I have fallen in love with several tracks, most notably Rogue Wave’s fantastic reinvention of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” in which the west coast band, whose album Descended Like Vultures was one of the best of 2005, twist the melody and the rhythm, creating an almost entirely new song in the process, while never threatening to insult the original.

As a power pop fan, it’s no surprise that I also like the Shout Out Louds’ heavily harmonized and electronically conga’d “Man On The Moon,” and The Wrens’ almost impossibly delicate and creative “Nightswimming.” But I also dig the dirty covers too, such as the Meat Puppets’ (they’re still going?) messy version of “Everybody Hurts.” And I especially love what The Forms, as produced by Steve Albini, did to Ignoreland, keeping the arrangement simple and harsh and bringing the political (if arguably dated) lyrics right up front so that we can finally hear them. In the notes that accompany their MP3, the group’s Alex Tween writes, and I concur:

“There is much talk these days about the death of the album and singles being the future, but Automatic For The People is one of the best arguments to be made for preserving the album format. In theory, an album is supposed to be something more than a mere collection of songs, something with an overall theme or coherence, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more hard-hitting example than Automatic.”

Stereogum wisely asked for more music than they received, though it’s disappointing to see just how many acts went straight for “Everybody Hurts.” A bonus series of free downloads find this song covered by Frida Hyvnonen, Elk City and Bodies of Water, the cumulative effect of which is pure overkill. But who am I to complain? As previously stated, the entire package is available for streaming, standalone music player, and both individual or collective download, complete with essays, liner notes, individual comments from each band on each song, and accompanying comments from Mike Mills. There’s even an option to embed the MP3 player in one’s own website, an offer I will gladly accept. Here’s your free Friday music. Thanks to Stereogum for supplying it.

you should see the drive xv player here if you have flash

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August 2022