I often wonder what would have happened to R.E.M. if things had not gone so well for them and their crossover into the mainstream in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They seemed to take such a long time to be the kings of alternative rock that it almost seems they would have been happy just churning out album after album of the kind of material that can be found on this record. I’m sure a lot of the early fans would have hoped that the band had continued on this track too.
For me, the two phases of R.E.M. can be summarised into two timeframes – before and after the introduction of Scott Litt as producer on 1987’s Document. Prior to that record, they’re very much like an American version of the Smiths, only with better harmonies. The sound is roughly similar from record to record, and from producer to producer, until Litt makes them sound like a different band altogether. The standard – although similar approach – would be to split the band’s output between the I.R.S. years versus the Warner Bros years, which is different by only one record, 1988’s Green.
The one thing that irks me about R.E.M. is their refusal to spell some of their songs correctly around this time. Fables Of The Reconstruction gives us Feeling Gravitys Pull and Cant Get There From Here, and those missing apostrophes nearly kill me. Follow-up record Lifes Rich Pageant takes the same approach in its title, clearly placing this era of R.E.M. as the missing apostrophe years.
I’m glad that MTV’s Unplugged shows are gradually becoming more and more available on vinyl. Only the other day I picked up a bootleg of Stone Temple Pilots’ fantastic Unplugged set from 1993. Of course, the really famous ones are Eric Clapton’s Grammy award winning record from 1992, and Nirvana’s swansong show in 1993, also a Grammy winner. Now if they would just release Aerosmith’s 1990 show, I’d be very happy.
As cynical as you want to be about the whole Unplugged thing – a soul-less cash-in by a corporate TV station only interested in producing programming content – it’s become a nice little time capsule of early ‘90s rock and alternative rock. Of course the show is still going to this day, but the last one recorded was by Miley Cyrus in 2014 which shows just how much it’s devolved over time. It’s just a ratings chaser and always has been. In the early ‘90s, it was Nirvana fans and Pearl Jam fans who were propping up the album charts, these days it’s tweens propping up the download charts.
R.E.M.’s first Unplugged set (they recorded another one in 2001) is dated between 1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People – effectively smack bang in the peak of their career. They take the time to go as far back as their debut record Murmur( for Perfect Circle), and of their studio albums only Reckoning and Fables Of The Reconstruction are passed over. The set does lean a little more towards the later albums – Green and Out Of Time – which is understandable considering how the music videos from those albums had opened the door to the wave of Alternative Rock which would fill the station for the first half of the 1990s.
The sound on this record is superb, and my only gripe is that the guitars all sound a little too clear and bright. That’s R.E.M. all over though – jangly ‘80s pop guitars rather than an authentic dusty blues guitar vibe.