Thursday, September 14, 2006
Take a picture here; take a souvenir: R.E.M.'s I.R.S. Years Collection
They broke their promise to break up if anyone in the band left, and their most recent single “Leaving New York” makes Air Supply sound like Iggy & the Stooges. But there was a time many moons ago when R.E.M. was the coolest band in all the land. Champions of integrity. Masters of melody. Arbiters of arpeggios. Emperors of enigma. Purveyors of Southern Eccentricity. And that era has been captured finally, joyously in the new compilation And I Feel Fine… The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-87. Be sure to spring for the 42-track special edition, featuring a bonus disc of rarities and hidden gems. It’s a must.
To sensitive music geeks who attended college in the Reagan era, R.E.M. were Beatlesque in stature, if not popularity. It was a late-August ritual to arrive for a new year of college with a crisp pair of dungarees, a suitcase of Busch, several Cups O’ Noodles and the new R.E.M. album. Like the Fabs, their albums followed a natural evolution. Each release had a distinct personality and aura of inevitability. And like no band before or since, they had an uncanny ability to evoke the uncertainties and euphorias of youth without directly singing or playing about them. It was a welcome contrast to the heavy-handed arena rock of Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp. To paraphrase a good friend, “I have no idea what R.E.M. is saying, but I know exactly what they mean.”
“And I Feel Fine…” was compiled by all four members of the band, even retired drummer/sushi chef Bill Berry. And they clearly took great care in selecting and sequencing the songs. So in addition to the obvious “Radio Free Europe,” “The One I Love,” “So. Central Rain” and “Fall on Me,” we also get “Perfect Circle,” “Cuyahoga” “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Welcome to the Occupation.” And the bonus disc has some real treats. A slowed-down version of their creative breakthrough “Gardening At Night” has the closing-time vibe of their Dead Letter Office trilogy of Velvet Underground covers. As Mike Mills says in the liner notes, “a good song will shine through completely different recording techniques.”
Also included are a 1983 trilogy of live tracks from the Paradise Club in Boston, and a couple others from their legendary 1987 show in Utrect, Holland. The time is clearly ripe for an archival full-concert release along the lines of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series. There are also some interesting cutting-room-floor tracks, like “Theme From Two Steps Onward,” which the band calls their soundtrack for a movie that never was.
They said it couldn’t be arranged. But the time to rise has been engaged. “And I Feel Fine…” is the compilation that Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe — and their fans — have long deserved. It’s a pistol-hot cup of rhyme. Put in on and you are young — despite the years.