R.E.M.

Live at the Olympia

Released: October 26, 2009 (international)/October 27, 2009 (US)

Live at the Olympia is the second live album by seminal alternative rock band R.E.M.. Unlike R.E.M. Live, which is a more ‘typical’ live album taken from a single performance – the final night of the Around the World tour in support of Around the Sun – this is a double album focusing largely on their less well-known work, and put together from five live performances.

Credits

R.E.M. are:

Michael Stipelead vocals
Peter Buckguitars
Mike Millsbass, backing vocals, keyboards

Additional musicians:
Scott McCaugheyguitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Bill Rieflindrums

Production/recording (I’ve shrunk the obscure ones as they’re of limited interest):

Produced by Jacknife Lee and R.E.M.
Recorded by Tom McFall and Jacknife Lee
Mixed by Jacknife Lee and Sam Bell
Mastered by Steve Marcussen, Marcussen Mastering
FOH Engineer: Joe O’Herlihy
Monitors: Paul Mini Moore
Backline: DeWitt Burton & Bob Weber
Stage manager: John “Shoes” Brogan
Local production: Eamonn Ryan
Tour manager: Bob Whittaker
R.E.M. Office: Kevin O’Neil, Sarah Petit Frierson, Chris Bilheimer, Mercer Brockenbrough Davis, David Bell, Amy Hairston
A&R: David May, Lisa Nupoff
Booking Agent: Bob Gold, Gold Artists Agency
Accounting: Tom Scott, Trinity Accounting Group
Legal: Gregg Harrison, Don Passman & Helen Souter, Gang, Tyre, Ramer and Brown
Art Direction: Chris Bilheimer and Michael Stipe
Special thanks: Denis Desmond, MCD, and “the good people at the Olympia Theatre
Liner notes written by Andy Gill of Gang of Four, and “39 Notes on 39 Songs” written by Peter Buck.


Background


After the commercial and critical failure of their 13th studio album Around the Sun, the band seemed in danger of falling apart – or even worse, fading into irrelevance and repetition. It didn’t take long for them to admit to the failings of ATS, with guitarist Peter Buck particularly regretting the record. In a recent Times piece (linked below), Buck summarises what seems to have been a creative nadir for a band which, in the eyes of many, had become stale:

“Released in 2004, Around the Sun was conspicuous for, in Buck’s words, sounding like “a bunch of people so bored with the material that they can’t stand it any more”.


And hindsight has done little to moderate the view of the guitarist, who threatened to leave if they made another record like it. “What did I learn from the experience?” he says on the phone from his home in Seattle. “I learnt that if we’re going to make another bad album I would like to do it in a lot less time.””

It was time to return to their roots, and to a rock sound that had been increasingly abandoned since the departure of drummer Bill Berry back in 1997. The Irish producer Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee, whose other credits include Bloc Party’s A Weekend in the City and U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, advised the band to revisit and relearn their oldest (and arguably most musically influential) songs. The decision was taken to test the songs for the next record (which ultimately became 2008’s Accelerate) in front of a live audience, in a five-night “experiment in terror” a few months before the album’s release. One song, Houston, was sung by Stipe for the first time on stage, without any rehearsal, having written the lyrics about 15 minutes before coming on.


“We are R.E.M., and this is what we do... when you’re not looking”


The new songs were played live at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, in 5 performances (Stipe stressed at the start of each performance: “This is not a show”), on June 30, July 1, July 3, July 4 and July 5, 2007.


Live at the Olympia is a collection of 39 tracks from this five-night “experiment”, and a reader only casually familiar with R.E.M. is likely to be very unfamiliar with these songs. This, in my view, is a Good Thing – by departing from the comfort zone of their setlists of the late 90s and early-to-mid 2000s, and having to relearn songs that in some cases hadn’t been played live for 20 years, the band was forced to reassess their output.


Unlike R.E.M. Live, this record is undeniably, as NPR put it, “R.E.M.’s gift to its most diehard fans”. At least in this country, there’s been very little in the way of public advertising, although the Times offered a free iTunes album containing five songs from this and five of the band’s best-known hits.


There was also an iTunes EP called Reckoning Songs from the Olympia, released on July 7, 2009 containing the following tracks in this order: 32, 3, 2, 37. It was a preview for this album and was also released shortly after the 25th anniversary edition of Reckoning, which came out on June 23, 2009.


NPR began streaming the whole lot for free on October 22 on their website – see below.


Track listing (relevant albums in brackets):


Disc 1


1.    Living Well is the Best Revenge (ended up on Accelerate)
2.    Second Guessing (Reckoning)
3.    Letter Never Sent (Reckoning)
4.    Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance (unfortunately didn’t make it onto Accelerate)
5.    Disturbance at the Heron House (Document)
6.    Mr. Richards (ended up on Accelerate)
7.    Houston (ended up on Accelerate)
8.    New Test Leper (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
9.    Cuyahoga (Lifes Rich Pageant)
10.    Electrolite (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
11.    Man-Sized Wreath (initially would have been a B-side, was popular enough to end up on Accelerate)
12.    So. Central Rain (Reckoning)
13.    On the Fly (written for Around the Sun, reworked for potential inclusion on Accelerate, ultimately not included on either)
14.    Maps and Legends (Fables of the Reconstruction)
15.    Sitting Still (Murmur)
16.    Driver 8 (Fables of the Reconstruction)
17.    Horse to Water (ended up on Accelerate)
18.    I’m Gonna DJ (ended up on Accelerate)
19.    Circus Envy (Monster)
20.    These Days (Lifes Rich Pageant)

Disc 2

21.    Drive (Automatic for the People)
22.    Feeling Gravitys Pull (Fables of the Reconstruction)
23.    Until the Day is Done (ended up on Accelerate, but first written for Automatic for the People, and it shows to some degree)
24.    Accelerate (obviously, title track on Accelerate)
25.    Auctioneer (Another Engine) (Fables of the Reconstruction)
26.    Little America (Reckoning)
27.    1,000,000 (Chronic Town EP)
28.    Disguised (ended up on Accelerate, retitled as Supernatural Superserious)
29.    The Worst Joke Ever (Around the Sun)
30.    Welcome to the Occupation (Document)
31.    Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars) (Chronic Town EP)
32.    Harborcoat (Reckoning)
33.    Wolves, Lower (Chronic Town EP)
34.    I’ve Been High (Reveal)
35.    Kohoutek (Fables of the Reconstruction)
36.    West of the Fields (Murmur)
37.    Pretty Persuasion (Reckoning)
38.    Romance (Made in Heaven soundtrack, released on Eponymous compilation of IRS hits)
39.    Gardening at Night (Chronic Town)

This is Not a Show

The deluxe edition of the album (which I own – awesome, right?) also comes with a DVD called This is Not a Show – a 59-minute film directed by Vincent Moon and someone credited only as “Jeremiah”, showing clips from the “live rehearsals” interspersed with shots of the band, the venue and the Dublin streets at night.

The concert sections are shot in the same high-contrast black-and-white as the band’s Ninety Nights promo videos (or Tourfilm), and are sometimes very kinetic, with grain and shaky camerawork reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s debut Pi. This can get a little annoying, but it drives the point home that this is not the languid, synth-heavy R.E.M. of Reveal and Around the Sun. The other minor issue is that the transcription of lyrics for subtitles is a bit dodgy at times. The DVD features these songs:

On the Fly (first half or so)
Drive (first few bars)
Accelerate
Until the Day is Done
Houston
Mr. Richards
Man-Sized Wreath
Drive
Horse to Water
West of the Fields (last minute or so)
1,000,000 (first half)
These Days (a bit)
1,000,000 (second half)
Pretty Persuasion (final chorus)
Harborcoat (final verse + chorus)
Second Guessing (final chorus)
Wolves, Lower (final verse + chorus)
On the Fly (second half)
Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars) (bits of)
Houston (intro synth riff)
Living Well is the Best Revenge


Credits:

Images, Edit: Vincent Moon, Jeremiah
Produced by Kidam
Special thanks: Bertis Downs, R.E.M. HQ, Dominique Pinto, Kevin Adam, Luc Adam, Paul Alkhallaf
Post audio/5.1 mixer: Sue Pelino
Assistant: Rebeccas Chandler
Post DVD/Audio Producer/5.1: David May
Associate Producer: Raena Winscott
DVD Coordinator: Drue Madrid
Authoring: Media Services
Advisor: Bertis Down

Is it good?/Should I buy it?

If you’re a fan, particularly one who prefers the IRS records to the post-Berry ones (and while I like most of the post-Berry output, and think even Around the Sun was by no means all bad, I’m inclined to agree) you owe it to yourself to buy this. Anyone who has ever tried to discuss World Leader Pretend with a so-called “fan” who knows nothing earlier than Losing my Religion or later than WTFK should be at home seeing and hearing the older, more obscure songs performed with the showmanship and energy of a band with decades more touring experience. Stipe no longer mumbles the enigmatic, almost indecipherable lyrics of those earlier albums, but belts them out to his adoring audience. The wit and energy which characterised R.E.M.’s live performances, even when their recorded output seemed to have lost its way, is here in abundance, with the band joking around, occasionally messing up, and giggling at the internet posters who’ve tried and failed to work out IRS-era lyrics.


Not only that, but the IRS songs came out at a time when R.E.M., and Stipe in particular, were notoriously secretive about the creative process involved, an album like this is a superb insight into how Accelerate was made. As a result, what you think of this record may depend on what you thought of Accelerate, or at least on what you think of the IRS catalogue, or both. For the record, I love both. Luckily you can go and listen – see the NPR and REMDublin links below – and make up your own mind...


Links

Wikipedia has details of what songs were played which night
R.E.M. HQ
Free streaming of several tracks at REMDublin.com
Reckoning Songs from the Olympia
NPR First Listen
The Times – How Michael Stipe and R.E.M. rediscovered their best songs
Pitchfork review

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