REM - Green (CD & DVD-Audio set)

Warner Bros 8122-73948-2

For many a discerning fan, it would be too obvious to state "Automatic For The People" as REM's best work, which was hailed heavily by critics. The one that the fans like me really adore the most is "Green", primarily because it's much more coherent as an album, but also because in many different ways it has a contrast of emotions. For me, it was also the first REM album I purchased, and one of the first CDs I ever bought, and for that reason it's been one to stay with me. The songs also are most excellent, and most REM fans won't argue with the fact that the likes of Orange Crush, Stand, Pop Song 89 et al are regarded as true classics, as is the vastly under-rated (The Eleventh Untitled Song), only credited with an 11. in the track listing.

So when Warner decided this year to re-issue all REM's Warner output as 2-disc sets you could accuse them of cynical marketing bearing in mind that the band are touring this summer and also that some of the albums already had a DVD-Audio release (Reveal, which I own, and Automatic For The People). Nonetheless, the sets themselves would probably be a good introduction to anyone new to the band, not least if they have high-end audio gear to sample DVD-Audio at its best. Thankfully my trusty Pioneer DV-646A was called into action for the DVD-Audio testing along with my surround rig, and the results, as you'll see, were surprising.

No introduction needed for Green then for most of you: eleven tracks of the finest REM you'll find, and with no filler whatsoever. Really, it's that good. From the anger and power in Orange Crush and Turn You Inside Out, the ever so poppy but we don't care feel of Pop Song 89 and Stand, the desperation of I Remember California and then the hope of (The Eleventh Untitled Song) thereafter, it's all here and in bucketloads. Suffice to say if you're getting started with REM, then Green is the place to get started, in my view.

Anyway, this two disc set has the entire album in CD and DVD-A formats, while this might seem a waste not many in-car stereo systems have DVD-A on board, so it makes sense in that way. The CD itself is the sameas the 1988 original, and playing them side by side reveals no difference. It's mainly the acoustic instruments that seem to sound more clean and crisp (possibly down to the age of my original), but to be honest if you have the original release CD there isn't much of a change. On the actual CD itself, a different typeface is used to the one on the original release - minus points for that because it doesn't have the look and feel.

On to the DVD-Audio disc, and there's plenty of surprises in store. If you don't have a DVD-A capable player, you can still play the disc in either 5.1 or DTS surround (would have been nice also if you could pick those using a DVD-A player as well for comparison - Warners take note). Anyway I did rig up a 5.1 capable DVD player to test out DTS in particular, and that sounds not too bad at all, sounding much more open and fresh, showing the acoustics up even nicer than before. However, there's a caveat with this, and that applies also to the DVD-Audio advanced resolution mix (see below).

Playing the DVD-Audio advanced resolution in surround was in most parts an absolute joy, the acoustics were beautiful and crisp, the drums of I Remember California really coming at you with intent also, and the vocals sounding much more in the centre of the whole soundstage. Listening to the whole album track by track is on the whole a rewarding experience and one that really brought out the most of the surround resolution offered. My Pioneer handled it all without any hassles and, like the mixer's previous surround mixes of REM on DVD-A, has kept the soul intact along with the passion without getting too carried away with the surround toys.

Well, almost. There's two annoyances which spoil things a little: the first is on Pop Song 89 when you listen to the vocal parts: there seems to be an echo going on doesn't there? I had a quick check of my DVD player and Sony receiver settings just to make sure all the speaker distances etc were set correctly (which they were), and playing back the vocal joint parts on I Remember California just enhanced my view further (as that track is perfect with the vocals in surround). It might not be a massive delay, but it's noticeable and somewhat frustrating that it wasn't spotted and corrected.

The other annoyance is the one which will have REM diehards screaming "Oi! Warner! No!" and that's to do with Stand. Near the end of the song the verse goes "So Stand - STAND!" then a pause in the vocal before the "think about direction.." line, which works perfectly on the CD. But in the surround mix, you get the shouted "STAND!" but it's down in the mix with the line "stand in the place where you live" over the top of it. Might not have been intentional as the vocal track might have been there in the multi-track masters but mixed down on the CD for release, but it's there and it's darned annoying compared to the impact the original had. A listen and compare to the CD would have reinforced that view - okay so you want to get all the surround bits in but amending a song that's a classic is a bit of a sin, really. One final thing to note: you can't select (The Eleventh Untitled Song) from the track list menu. You can press Next on I Remember California, but that defeats the point really. Maybe Warner left it that way as a deliberate easter egg type feature?

But the other nice thing DVD-A has is extra stuff as well as the music itself. In this case you get a pretty rare documentary on the making of Green which has an interview with the band members: fascinating stuff, not least to see how different Michael Stipe looked back then. The interview has the promo videos for Orange Crush at the start and Stand at the end, which I guess just promoted the album more. Nonetheless the interview is fascinating, even if the picture quality isn't that good it gives you a good sense of what the band were about then and what they wanted to do. Mike Mills was particularly excellent in the interviewee role in this mini-documentary.

Not only that, you also have some promotional pictures which you can access during the tracks (if you like) which show REM as they were back then. There's also a couple of tracks from the Tourfilm DVD which you can watch - they're basically Turn You Inside Out and World Leader Pretend. Only thing is - you can't access them from the menu anywhere on the UK release - select Title 5 on a normal DVD player or Group 3 from a DVD-A player and you're in business. Another sloppy mastering error - and one which could have been easily avoided really. Still, it's worth if you can find it.

Anyway, on the whole it's a solid effort and certainly the documentary on the DVD-Audio disc makes it more than worthwhile, as does the advanced resolution surround mix most of the time. If you already have the CD though, you'd probably need to be a diehard to convince yourself to buy the DVD-A/CD edition, but if you're a newbie to the band, then this two disc set is an excellent place to start, despite my more diehard fan reservations. Be interesting to see how the rest of the releases sound.

Warren's rating: 77%