Creators: Bob Small; Jim Burns .
Originally released as a quadruple-vinyl Record Store Day exclusive then later a double-CD set, Complete Unplugged Sessions captures two separate acoustic shows from R.E.M.: one from 1991, performed just after the release of Out of Time, the other from a decade later, just after they released Reveal, their second album without Bill Berry. Oddly, of these two performances, the one that feels the most like classic R.E.M. is the 2001 gig; even with the absence of Berry and an emphasis on latter-day Baroque pop typified by "At My Most Beautiful," this is a band that's playing as a band, augmented by some extra musicians -- trusty Scott McCaughey, along with Posie Ken Stringfellow, fill out the band while Joey Waronker provides percussion -- but nevertheless evoking nearly every era of R.E.M. by providing tight, assured versions of "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)," "Cuyahoga," and "The One I Love," along with a savvy acoustic revision of "Country Feedback." Naturally, there are quite a few selections from Up and Reveal, but those songs sound a bit richer when stripped down and placed in context with the rest of the band's catalog. In contrast, the 1991 set seems like a snapshot of a particular point in time, namely the florid folk-rock of Out of Time. Berry anchors the band on congas, Peter Buck never skimps on mandolin, Peter Holsapple offers sonic coloring (sometimes via an organ), and Mike Mills harmonizes sweetly with Michael Stipe. This is a sound the group never tried before and never did again (Automatic for the People grew out of this but its melancholy stands as a counterpoint to the essential lightness of Out of Time). R.E.M. also peppered their 1991 set list with song choices that remain surprising -- the Troggs' "Love Is All Around" is covered, the B-sides "Fretless" and "Rotary 11" are unearthed, and they performed a nimble rearrangement of "Radio Song," which was distinguished on record by KRS-One's rap -- and that, along with the distinct instrumentation, keeps the 1991 set fresh. Together, these two Unplugged Sessions -- which, in this incarnation, include 11 performances not featured on either broadcast -- make for a bit of a treat for hardcore R.E.M. fans, a document when the group was near the peak of their powers. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine