Friday, August 18, 2006

What The World Needs Now Is....

...Love, sweet love? Well, it would certainly help - but does the world really need another 'best of' compilation from R.E.M.? In fairness, '...And I Feel Fine' does focus squarely on the group's IRS years (up to and including 1987's 'Document') and this early period in their history has so far only been served by the less than comprehensive 'best of REM' and its inferior predecessor 'Eponymous'. The main motive for this release does seem to be the acquisition of R.E.M.'s IRS catalogue by EMI, and with the band currently on hiatus pending the writing and recording of a new album, the timing seems convenient for the industry. Although the IRS albums themselves seem to have been endlessly repackaged and recycled, there hasn't actually been a decent compilation of this music for over ten years.

CD1 is all familiar material, including debut single 'Gardening At Night', which whilst relatively insubstantial, certainly provided signifiers of the relentless backbeat-meets-Byrdsian twang that the band would refine to near perfection on their first three albums. Unlike, its predecessor, its arranged out of chronological sequence, so the development in the band's sound (and Michael Stipe's concurrent growth in confidence as a singer) are lost in favour of a comfortable flow. Some notable omissions from earlier compilations are now welcome inclusions, notably the punchy, strident opener 'Begin The Begin' and some of the more mysterious and elusive moments from 'Fables Of The Reconstruction' ('Feeling Gravitys Pull' (sic) and 'Life And How To Live It', the latter being one of my current favourite REM songs).

Listening to this material in a fresh context, it's striking how fully formed the band were at a remarkably early stage. Listening to 'Radio Free Europe' and 'Sitting Still', it's striking how taut and metronomic the band are. Mike Mills' simple but effective counter melodic bass parts, combined with Peter Buck's predilection for neat arpeggios, differentiated them from the distorted sturm und drang of less interesting indie bands of the period. It's worth noting how they have always avoided tedious chugging rhythms with all band members essentially regurgitating the same stale ideas - today's crop of stadium straddling bands, particularly Coldplay, could do with taking note.

As the confidence grew, the approach to production got bigger and more ambitious. Listen to how the relentless pulse and thunderous drums of 'Finest Worksong' actually seem to emulate the sound of heavy industry. Where the message and political inspirations in the songs were initially shrouded in enigmatic allusions, both lyrics and music became more direct, with 'Cuyahoga' and 'Begin The Begin' two of the most inspirational moments from 1986's outstanding 'Life's Rich Pageant'.

Inevitably, the big selling point here will be the bonus disc, full of the usual outtakes, offcuts, live recordings, demos and scrapyard pickings. All four members of the band (including the now departed Bill Berry) get to pick a personal favourite that missed the cut for the first CD. Mike Mills' selection is 'Pilgrimage', a most welcome inclusion as one of their best early recordings, mixing an infectious chorus with an inventive and minimal verse. It also neatly demonstrates the band's talent for arranging vocal parts, with the voices of Stipe and Mills integrating effortlessly.

Other curios on the disc include the original version of 'Bad Day', which sounds even closer to 'It's The End Of the World As We Know It...' than the re-recorded version for the 'In Time' collection. There's also the early version of 'All The Right Friends', which the band also re-recorded for the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's thoroughly ghastly and pretentious movie Vanilla Sky. The live recordings are of course welcome, particularly the more obscure selections not available on the regular albums. More superflous are the early demos, particularly a horribly sluggish take on 'Gardening At Night', where Stipe either seems to be abandoning all microphone technique, or simply forgetting the words. It really is peculiar to think that the band saw this as fit for release., although it at least elucidates the extent to which songs can be refined and improved between initial idea and finished product. Equally, the hib tone versions of 'Radio Free Europe' and 'Sitting Still' are simply carbon copies of the finished versions, but with much poorer sound quality.

If we accept that this endless repackaging is an inevitable biproduct of a music industry relentlessly keen to cash-in on every conceivable acquisition, then what we really need is a proper boxed set collating both the IRS and Warner Bros years, along with more rarities (how about a live recording of 'I'm Gonna DJ', the relatively insubstantial but highly entertaning song performed during encores on last year's world tour? Or some of the group's excellent covers perhaps - they did a killer version of Leonard Cohen's 'First We Take Manhattan'). Still, in the meantime, this will provide a reminder of the band's greatness for those disillusioned by the slick and plodding REM of 'Around The Sun' and the worst parts of 'Reveal'. For those still looking for a neat introduction to the band's early years, this is a great place to start.

Equally, I wonder whether the world really needs another epic psychedelic rock outfit with squawking guitar solos. There's a lot of very substandard MC5-inspired tosh around at the moment (Wolfmother instantly spring to mind), but there's something a little different about Comets On Fire. Their latest album 'Avatar' brings Ben Chasney (aka Six Organs Of Admittance) into the fold, and his dexterous guitar work provides some nimble and subtle balance to the exhuberant squall. In fact, this album covers many more bases than might reasonably be expected, with hints at Bert Jansch-inspired folk leanings, and even some slightly soulful arrangements. In fact, the penultimate 'Sour Smoke' (or at least that's what I think it's called - lyrics and tracklisting are both printed in frustratingly illegible scrawl) is positively groovy. Better still, the opening 'Dogwood Rust' hints that the band have absorbed the questing spirit of free jazz improvisers as much as the indulgent fretwork so common in this variety of music. The result is that the whole band sounds completely liberated - with thrilling and comelling results. With 'Lucifer's Memory', they opt for something more calm, almost sedate in fact, and achieve something akin to the quirky lilt of Kevin Ayers' 'whatevershebringswesing'. Naturally, there's not one track here that doesn't extend its welcome by a couple of minutes - but freeform rock groups aren't usually well known for careful editing. 'Avatar' works because it feels as exciting for the listener as it must have been for the musicians making it.

I've also just received the new album from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, but I need to listen to it a bit more first, as it's surprisingly long and dense.

Lots to look forward to in the next few days - M Ward at Bush Hall on Sunday, Quasi at the Luminaire on Monday and Hot Chip doing a free instore at HMV Oxford Circus next Thursday, where new material is promised.

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