R.E.M. hit a long, midperiod plateau about five years after its debut EP Chronic Town set indie rock alight. From the late Eighties into the early Nineties, as it switched to major label Warner Bros. and marched up the charts, the band was consistent, but merely middling. The jangly, mumbly boys from Athens, Georgia, had peaked prematurely.
If you think that's a harsh assessment, listen to one of Peter Buck's guitar tracks from Chronic Town, or from R.E.M.'s first album, Murmur. Most of the band's compositions from that era contain equally inspired work; Buck's long, slow three-chord senescence set in sometime around 1987 ("The One I Love"). R.E.M.'s music — for which all the band members share songwriting credit — reached its third and, we hope, last phase (the unlistenable, tedious one) following drummer Bill Berry's 1995 departure (Up! in 1998, Reveal in 2001, Around the Sun in 2004).
All of which makes the band's first official live album such a whopping disappointment. R.E.M. Live is the story of the band itself, which went from fresh to musty in such short order. The new album includes two CDs, and a DVD of the same 22 songs, culled from shows in Dublin from more than two years ago, when R.E.M. was touring behind Around the Sun. Thus one-third of the material dates from the band's last 10 years. The songs don't come close to the fire and inventiveness of its first 10, which are represented only by "Cuyahoga," "Orange Crush," "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" (sung by Mills), and the aforementioned slog "The One I Love." A fine 1995 addition to the set list, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?," might have looked good on paper, but the performance doesn't hold a stick to the studio recording of the same song on Monster.
R.E.M. Live is a showcase of sluggish songs given rote performances, proffered in an uninspired package. It's sadly representative of a band that rocked for like, five years — about 20 years ago.
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