R.E.M. – What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

Way back in the stupid mid-90s R.E.M. decided that all of the singles from their “Monster” album would be live songs, most of them from a show for Greenpeace in Athens, Georgia. I know this because “This is the first in a series of CD singles featuring”, the cover of the box continues, “songs recorded live in Athens, GA for Greenpeace.” Also, you can look up the show online and see that they skipped a couple songs for brevity.

So that’s pretty exciting. For further joyousness, this is the lead single from the album (did you know that all old albums used to feature a single made of LEAD?), so you get the big recent singles from the last album, “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” which I’ll get much more used to over the next couple months as the band put new live versions of them on every fucking single.

So, first you get the “Radio Version” of the title track, which is the old big honkin’ rock song, still way too slow and old mannish but still rocking an awesome guitar tone and interesting lyrics, only now the line “don’t fuck with me” is replaced by “the frequency” to avoid frightening young ears. That was a close one! People in 1994 almost heard Michael Stipe say the f-word! But yeah, WTFK is a pretty rad song, inspired by a crazy man ranting at Dan Rather, and has some pretty solid lines going on (I’ve always been partial to “you said that irony was the shackles of youth”) that remind me that, at their prime, Michael Stipe was a killer lyricist of the sort that comes along once or twice per generation, one of the last of the warrior poet lead singers and all, but the song is on the album with swear intact! Let’s hear some B-sides!

So, the thing about R.E.M. live is that they’re perfectly serviceable. By this point they’re in their 30s and play slow rock songs. Who cares? “Monty Got A Raw Deal” is a great song, and “Everybody Hurts” is a little less annoying without the orchestra, and “Man on the Moon” has a line about “Mister Andy Kaufman had the balls to ask” that gets pronounced as if the line is “Mister Andy Kaufman had the balls to ass” (hee!) but it’s completely uninteresting oh my god in hell. Unless you’re really into hearing Michael Stipe breathe awkwardly before playing “Everybody Hurts.” That’s pretty cool, right there.

I mean, this series of singles was actually probably some pretty buttery cookies back at the time, when R.E.M. had been around for forever but never released a live album. It was a glorious chance for their long time fans to realize they don’t need to see them live, for instance, or hear Michael Stipe say they’re very generous for applauding after the band plays a giant hit, but now with the calendar ready to turn to 2013 this release feels particularly redundant. Go fuck yourself, Stephen Metcalf.

5 / 10

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