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R.E.M. collection includes best of early work

Brian Doxtader | Thursday, February 8, 2007

It’s easy to forget, in the wake of their downhill slide throughout the 90s and beyond, that R.E.M. was once one of the best and most popular bands in the world. Yet most people forget that R.E.M. were once the godfathers of alternative, with an appealing sound that blended garage rock, folk music and mumbled lyrics.

Essentially, R.E.M.’s career has two distinct eras – the independent days (with IRS) and their time with a major label (Warner). Their first (and arguably best) albums were on IRS, and those works form the bulk of “And I Feel Fine…: The Best of the I.R.S. Years,” a new compilation showcasing their early work.

The band originally consisted of Michael Stipe (vocals), Bill Berry (drums), Mike Mills (bass) and Peter Buck (guitar). R.E.M. is now a trio, with Berry having departed following an on-stage aneurysm. The band first formed in the late 70s, with their oldest work appearing in the early 1980s.

It’s hard to believe after the mess that was the post-“Automatic For the People” days, but R.E.M. were one of the great American bands for a brief moment in time, forging the way for a myriad of alternative groups. The band’s first five albums form the core of early American independent music, striking at the moment in which post-punk was evolving into alternative.

This isn’t the first disc to compile songs from R.E.M.’s early days, but it’s easily the best, rendering 1988’s “Eponymous” obsolete. The two-disc set contains all of the band’s hits from the period, such as “Radio Free Europe,” “Fall on Me,” “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” all while mixing in a good selection of album tracks and fan favorites like “Pretty Persuasion” and “Begin the Begin.” The earliest songs jangle like The Byrds and feature Stipe’s pleasant, mumbled vocals – thankfully, few of these tracks have the keening strain that he would adopt later on.

The second disc completes this set and creates a full portrait of the band by compiling outtakes, b-sides and rarities. Among the highlights are the original version of “Bad Day” (which became a hit in a re-recorded version that appeared on “In Time”) and the classic “Gardening at Night,” one of the band’s earliest songs. There are few notable songs missing, like “Superman” and “Wolves, Lower,” but on the whole it’s a pretty complete set. Even lesser known fan favorites like “Life and How to Live It” and “Cuyahoga” are included, adding real depth to the collection. It’s these tracks that both illustrate the breadth of R.E.M.’s early catalogue as well as help explain why they were such an influential act in the 1980s.

Along with “In Time,” a previous compilation that documents the Warner years, “And I Feel Fine” summarizes R.E.M.’s career succinctly. At its height, they were a great band that released a lot of classic albums. But most importantly, R.E.M.’s early work retains a timelessness that doesn’t necessarily evoke any particular era. This is a hallmark of truly great music, which is why “And I Feel Fine” is such a welcome compilation.

It’s a reminder that, while R.E.M. may be best known for their hits, their greatness was borne in the misses.