R.E.M. - Blue (MTV Unplugged) (1991) Review


14. Jun. 2010, 23:10

Recorded in 1991 and released later that year, "Blue" is an unauthorized audio release of R.E.M.'s 1991 MTV Unplugged session. For those of you unfamiliar with the "Unplugged" format, it is fairly simple. Bands are invited by MTV to play stripped down versions of some songs of their choice without the use of electric instrumentation. Some of these songs that are performed are aired on TV, and audio bootlegs of the full shows sometimes surface. Occasionally, these performances are released officially. Nirvana and Eric Clapton have both released official Unplugged albums to critical acclaim. R.E.M. performed two Unplugged shows, one in 1991 and another ten years later. Neither of these performances were officially released, so the quality is less than stellar on both. Nevertheless, their first Unplugged show "Blue" provides an interesting new look at R.E.M. songs both well known and more obscure.

The show begins with the Out of Time standout "Half a World Away," a song the beauty of which transcends explanation. The performance is essentially note-perfect, and while the lush string arrangement and high production of the album version are missing, the stripped down nature of the song gives it a more honest and earthy tone, something that is best captured by a live performance. It is with this release that R.E.M. seem to assert their position as a folk/gothic country band, and while no songs from that album are present here, many of these performances evoke the more mellow cuts from their 1985 masterpiece "Fables of the Reconstruction." it pains me to listen to Blue without wondering how perfectly "Wendell Gee" or "Maps and Legends" would fit on here, but I digress. Rather than choose songs already tailored to acoustic performance, they instead chose to reimagine many of their songs new and old for the Unplugged setting. This is a bold choice, but one that pays off well on Blue. Their folk leanings are evident on darkly reserved "Low" from Out of Time, whose plodding bass stands out among the sparse instrumentation. When Michael raises his voice fully to sing "You and me, we know about time!" chills abound, before he continues the stream of consciousness outburst. On Blue, Low begins a remarkable five song run of fantastic performances. After Low comes a version of Murmur's "Perfect Circle", prefaced by a heartfelt dedication to an anonymous Donald. "Don't give up" Stipe says, before launching into the sparse, organ led performance. As the organ plays, Peters Buck and Holsapple (the latter of jangle pop band The dB's) play quiet acoustic guitar melodies, intertwining with each other to produce a very cathartic result. Stipe's own voice takes a backseat to the chorus harmonies of Mike Mills, stunning in their own right, but particularly beautiful here. All in all, it is perhaps the best performance on the record.

...that is, if it wasn't directly followed by Fall on Me, the best song on the band's 1986 record "Lifes Rich Pageant." Though my love for Fall on Me is well documented, I need to go on record once again to say that it is truly one of R.E.M.'s greatest accomplishments if not one of the greatest accomplishments in all of music. This song is mindblowingly good, and the Unplugged performance of it is no exception. The twin guitars shine once again, as do Mills' harmonies. Stipe sounds more harrowing than ever; his age gives the song a new, more mature sound, and while the average listener may be unable to understand his cryptic lyrics, he certainly sounds confident in what he is saying. After thunderous applause unexpected given the intimate nature of the show, the band segues into "Belong." While the Out of Time version suffered from immense overproduction, the version found here is quite wonderful. The guitars, bass and congas provide a flowing undercurrent for the gorgeous wordless chorus, rich in Beach Boys-like harmonies. The song is still marred by Stipes' borderline thought-provoking/borderline pretentious spoken word stuff in the verses, but it is a significant improvement over the original. The five song run culminates in a heart-warming cover of The Troggs' "Love Is All Around", for which Mike Mills takes lead vocals duties. Mills' child like voice gives the song a joyfully innocent tone, while Michael's dutiful "Ba ba ba ba ba"'s keep it centered.

Unfortunately, none of the performances elsewhere on this record match the quality of the aforementioned six. While some of them are performed well, they seem uninspired. Such is the case with the version of the then-megahit "Losing My Religion", as well as the Document song "Disturbance at the Heron House." Even the encore closer "Pop Song 89," fantastic on record, sounds contrived and out of place in this setting. Worse still is the performance of the abysmal "Radio Song" which is improved slightly over the original by removing KRS-One's inexplicable rap, but still suffers from general sucking. Finally, "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" is performed as something of a joke; a bitter kiss off to MTV who requested that it be played as an obvious cash grab. "We had to get the words on a computer," Michael says, "and I'm not sure they're right."

In all, Blue is great in concept and scope and while often well executed, it suffers from some poor song choice and occasionally weak performances. Nevertheless, it is a worthy addition to any R.E.M. fan's collection.
Akzeptierte Übermittlungen
Toribash Players, R.E.M., MusicBanter, The Feelies
Unbestätigte Übermittlungen
Quentin Tarantino, Morrissey


  • monoprint

    I agree. I was left rather unaffected by this performance. Pop Song 89 is my favorite on Green, and I was disappointed by the Unplugged version. Not a terrible performance all around, just didn't resonate with me.

    25. Dez. 2010, 16:46
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