Like the concert from which it is largely drawn, held at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA, on September 12, 2006, Finest Worksongs: Athens Bands Play the Music of R.E.M. is a benefit with proceeds going to Community Connection of Northeast Georgia and Family Connection/Communities in Schools. With those charitable intentions, seven local acts performed R.E.M. songs. (An eighth, Liz Durrett, was scheduled, but bowed out due to illness. She was allowed to add the leadoff track, "The One I Love," from a performance recorded two months later.) The concert coincided with the release of an R.E.M. compilation, And I Feel Fine, chronicling the band's early days on I.R.S. Records, and the performers seem to have taken that as inspiration for their choices; only three songs out of 19 date from after 1987. But then, it may be that contemporary indie musicians feel more comfortable with the music of R.E.M.'s own independent period, before it signed to the major label Warner Bros. Records. In any case, the performers clearly are paying tribute to artists they view as heroes. One boasts that Mike Mills of R.E.M. autographed his bass. (The honorees were in attendance and even performed, although their efforts were reserved for a fan-club disc; they do help out here and there on this collection, however.) Patterson Hood spends a couple of minutes describing his experiences at an early R.E.M. show as an introduction to "Second Guessing." And Five Eight's Dan Horowitz transforms "Driver 8" into "Fiver 8," freely improvising a new set of lyrics concerning the band's experience opening for R.E.M. That track is the most indulgent on the set and the least entertaining. For the most part, the better performers, Bain Mattox and Hood, turn in good, fairly faithful versions of R.E.M.'s better known early songs, along with a few obscurities, while the Observatory combines three songs into a noisy suite that manages to be effective. There's never much danger of anyone upstaging Athens' most famous citizens, but the performers demonstrate the strength of R.E.M.'s early catalog two decades on.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann