Since R.E.M. had to date failed to deliver a Warner Bros.-era sequel to Dead Letter Office, The Automatic Box had to satiate hardcore fans looking for an easy way to collect the odds and ends, rarities, and B-sides the band released between Green and Automatic for the People. During this time, R.E.M. became less prolific in their B-side output, choosing to rely on instrumentals, alternate takes, live tracks, and covers instead of the original songs that functioned as B-sides for their IRS singles, and this trend intensified following Monster, when they began releasing almost no B-sides of note whatsoever. Which means that the 17 songs on the four-disc set The Automatic Box -- there's really no reason for these cuts to be spread out over four discs, other than it makes for a true collector's item this way -- are in many ways the last batch of worthy non-LP tunes the band produced, which makes it all the more useful for hardcore fans. But be forewarned: just because this is a good summary of their best rarities from this era doesn't mean its necessary. As a matter of fact, there's only one great song here, the eerie "Fretless," and "It's a Free World Baby" is the only tune that comes close to rivaling that. There's also an interesting acoustic version of "Pop Song 89" and an alternate of "Star Me Kitten," plus six good covers: "Arms of Love," "Dark Globe," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," "First We Take Manhattan," "Ghostrider," and "Funtime." The remaining eight songs are all instrumentals, none of which are particularly interesting. That won't matter to some fans, but for those with discriminating tastes, The Automatic Box has a handful of cuts that are worthwhile, but too much dreck to make it a true bargain.
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