Anyone looking to put together a tribute album should look to Finest Worksongs for ideas on how to undertake that much maligned enterprise. Finally, a collection of covers with both heart and nerve. Tribute discs usually take one of two forms: totally obscure bands giving the love to an enormously successful act, or chart-toppers seeking cred by paying homage to an under-appreciated influence, both resulting in over- and under-cooked studio renditions that flatter no one. Finest Worksongs concerns itself with neither of those agendas. In this case, the recording wasn’t even the point. Of the 19 R.E.M. covers on the album, 18 were performed at a live benefit show in September 2006, using the occasion of that band’s greatest hits record release to benefit local organizations in their hometown of Athens, Georgia.
Since 1992, Athens’s favorite sons have held listening parties and/or concerts at the legendary 40 Watt Club, but ‘06 marked the first time a tribute had been staged, and with the band (including former drummer Bill Berry) all in attendance. While no doubt it was a fun night for the band to see their back catalog run through by various scrappy local outfits reminding them of their early, hungry selves, it’s an even bigger treat for fans who have had to deal with diminishing returns on the past few R.E.M. records to reconnect and reaffirm the band’s very real and still-felt impact on contemporary music.
The participating bands and artists took on a surprising array of tracks for their interpretations, from oldies (“Radio Free Europe”) to newies (“Leaving New York”), radio hits (“The One I Love”) to curiosities (“Underneath the Bunker”), and all varying degrees of faithfulness to the original recordings. While the performances aren’t all equally mesmerizing, the inconsistency and lack of polish is what makes the whole thing fresh and fun. An all-star Madison Square Garden version of the same would likely turn out dreadful and dull, but the scruffiness on display here harkens back to the grass-roots early days of R.E.M., when the band played pizza parlors and used lemon juice to wash their hair.
Among the more straight-up versions is Tin Cup Prophette’s reading of “Leave”, from 1996’s underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi, going so far as to replicate the song’s bleating air-raid siren with perfection. Props for not copping out and going with the glassy alternate version featured on the bonus disc for In Time, boldly choosing annoyance over cool beauty. The great honking ugliness represented by the siren has always been the balancing factor in R.E.M.‘s music, the nasal flipside of Michael Stipe’s highly evocative voice, and seems to have been purposefully eradicated since Berry’s departure. But it’s welcome and wonderful here, evident in Amanda Kapousouz’s dry, direct vocal performance and sawing fiddle, brambles entwined around the song’s sweet melodic heart. Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers offers a number of tunes, most notably the early b-side “Burning Hell”, a ridiculous, faux-metal song, recreated here with loving, high octane detail. Hood also does fine justice to Out of Time‘s “Belong”, another odd choice for its spoken word verses and soaring, wordless choruses.
Other highlights include Bain Mattox’s slowed down take on the classic “Fall On Me”. After a straight-up reading of the song’s intro, Mattox turns the familiar R.E.M. standard into a dirge, and it works remarkably well. Exceptionally well in fact, breathing new life into a song that never appeared to need it. The chugging opening chords shine light on the mostly hidden link between R.E.M. and Creedence Clearwater Revival (whose “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” was featured in the former’s live sets right around the time of Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant), sounding for all the world like “Effigy”. Claire Campbell’s deconstruction of Reconstruction‘s “Wendell Gee” is less immediately pleasing, but the daring, bizarre rearrangement proves to be a worthwhile grower after a few listens.
Not everything on Finest Worksongs is tip-top of course, according to taste, and consistent with all tribute albums. Five-Eight’s choice of the recent single “Leaving New York” is admirable, improving on that song’s staid flatness, but no amount of youthful verve can ultimately redeem the tune for me. Liz Durrett, who was scheduled to perform that night but fell ill, is still represented by “The One I Love” from a different show. It’s as lovely, haunting, and spare as you’d expect, but it would have been nice to hear her choose a song seemingly less tailor-made for her considerable strengths. In a petty quibble, it also would have been great to have the entire tribute concert represented even if it meant splitting the show across two discs. One Patterson Hood performance was offered as a perk in digital purchases, and four other cuts (two by R.E.M. itself, and one each by Tin Cup Prophette and the Observatory) are available only on R.E.M.‘s recent fan club holiday single. Cool treats for the faithful to be sure. But overall, Finest Worksongs is a tribute deserving of the name, and of its honoree.