Various Artists: Finest Worksongs: Athens Bands Play the Music of R.E.M.

Finally, a tribute album with both heart and nerve.

Various Artists

Finest Worksongs: Athens Bands Play the Music of R.E.M.

Label: Iron Horse
US Release Date: 2007-03-18
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.