Wednesday, August 24, 2011

R.E.M. 5: Dead Letter Office

R.E.M.’s fans could have easily contained their first four albums on two Maxell 90-minute tapes, with room for the various other songs that had crept out on B-sides. All of a sudden, the band made their searches a lot easier with Dead Letter Office, a collection of such rarities. Such a thing wasn’t as common for an active band, but this group, record store geeks all, would have certainly been familiar with similar compilations by Elvis Costello and The Clash. And despite Peter Buck’s self-deprecating liner notes, it’s a highly cohesive album.
Said liner notes make the point that a B-side tends to be a dumping ground for half-assed performances captured on tape that wouldn’t fit on an album. So like any other band, R.E.M. recorded their share of covers in the early days. Three of them were Velvet Underground songs, and their mostly acoustic takes on “There She Goes Again”, “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale” might have turned the unsuspecting on to that band. “Crazy” was borrowed from the Athens band Pylon, though it could easily have been an original. Their take on Aerosmith’s “Toys In The Attic” is a hoot, but in a different way from the drunken stab at “King Of The Road”, which apparently none of the band knew all the way through.
Of the songs they did write, perhaps they might not have fit onto the albums, but they still are of quality. Especially entertaining is “Voice Of Harold”, a legendary early take of “Seven Chinese Brothers” sung using the words from the back cover of an obscure gospel album. “Burning Down” and “Ages Of You” may be rewrites of the same song, but each would be fun to hear live. “Burning Hell” matches a plodding riff with a strangled vocal that spews such gems as “women got legs, men got pants/you got the picnic, I got the ants”. A few instrumentals show off the band’s tightness, and even “Bandwagon”, another reaction to constant touring, manages to charm.
The album wasn’t a huge commercial hit, but it was never meant to be. But in a very smart move, the CD version included as a bonus the entire Chronic Town EP, which to date was only available on LP or cassette. It makes a nice inclusion, and really does enhance the collection. The five songs are a little more tentative than what would comprise Murmur, the standout being “Gardening At Night”. While overlooked in the band’s 25th Anniversary archival program, Chronic Town could certainly anchor a strong second disc for an update of Dead Letter Office, with the addition of the remaining handful of live takes and other rarities from those early days. But they didn’t, and phooey on them for leaving money on the table.

R.E.M. Dead Letter Office (1987)—4
1987 CD: same as above, plus 5 extra tracks

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