It is true that R.E.M.'s music matured and developed new layers in the '90s, but it never truly became sophisticated: at its heart, it was still folk and pop-based pop/rock, following three- and four-chord patterns. What was remarkable is how R.E.M. continued to find ways to make it sound fresh, especially on their brooding masterpiece Automatic for the People. This was due to the band's unique chemistry and arranging skills, along with their sharp songwriting. No matter how good these songs were -- and some of them were extraordinary -- they were never the kind that would benefit from puffed-up, semi-orchestral, easy listening arrangements, which is exactly what they're subjected to on The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays the Music of R.E.M.. With the exception of the opening track "The One I Love" and "Stand," the album consists of '90s R.E.M. material, with the majority of the songs derived from Out of Time or Automatic. These albums were somewhat more appropriate for easy listening arrangements than, say, Reckoning, but the end results are awkward: the sax melody of "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight," the bombastic "The One I Love," the overwrought "Everybody Hurts." It's not good easy listening, nor is amusing kitsch; it's just poorly done, near-Muzak. The only good thing about the record is the cover: it's a clever play on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, an album that isn't represented at all on Plays the Music of R.E.M.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine