The fathers of American alt-rock, R.E.M. have been together for well over twenty-five years. Over those years they have recorded thirteen studio albums and numerous compilations. One of these compilations is their 1987 release of B-Sides and covers (including songs by Pylon, Velvet Underground, Aerosmith, and Roger Miller), Dead Letter Office
. This material spans their early career with the IRS label, regarded by many as their best period. However, it focuses on the material that wasn't quite good enough for the five classic albums from which these tracks were culled.
For those unfamiliar with this era of R.E.M's work, let me explain. Before the mega-hit of "Losing My Religion" and their monster (no pun intended) magnum-opus Automatic for the People
, R.E.M. was a simple jangle-rock band from Athens, Georgia (Which is also the home of the reviewer at the time being). The songs were not epic statements about deep philosophical musings; likewise, the music followed simple, catchy structures that didn't feature blazing guitar solos or virtuosic drum fills. With a blend of country, punk, and pop, R.E.M. forged a unique sound that still remains a good listen today.
However, Dead Letter Office
is not the place I would recommend starting to listen to this part of the band's career. For every great song on here (Excepting the last five; I will explain later), there are two or three lackluster tracks. While bands like Radiohead excel at releasing top-notch B-sides that sound like album tracks cut off at the last minute, with Dead Letter Office
, you can tell that most of these songs were just not quite good enough to be released.
But that's not to say that the entire album is a wash. The first track, Crazy
, sounds like it would have fit in well on Fables of the Reconstruction
. It's dark and murky, with that jangling guitar that permeates all of R.E.M's work at this point. Burning Down
is a great rock song that would have fit well on Reckoning
with a bit more polishing. Then there is still the great duo of Bandwagon
and Femme Fatale
, more songs that appear to be worthy of release, had they been tweaked some more.
However, much of the rest of the album is plain forgettable. Voice of Harold
is the music to "7 Chinese Brothers" with the words being replaced with Michael Stipe reading a promotional flyer. Walter's Theme
and King of the Road
are both a drunken mess (The latter may qualify for worst cover of all time). The cover of Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic
is almost laughable. Other songs just go by without much notice.
I would be inclined to give this album an even lower rating if it weren't for the closing five tracks I saved for last. After Stipe's drunken rendition of King of the Road
finally ends, you are shocked by the guitar intro of Wolves, Lower
. As it slowly builds intensity, you say to yourself, "Holy crap, this is actuallygood." This starts the five tracks that made up the band's debut EP, Chronic Town
. After this dark, mysterious song, you're treated to a light, airy song, Gardening at Night
(A better vocal mix for this song was recorded and later released on the hits record Eponymous
). The last three songs continue this upswing, full of the jangle rock that would pave the way for R.E.M. to release Murmur
and change alternative rock forever.
This album is mostly intended for the R.E.M. fan who wants everything. The Chronic Town
tracks are a must-have, but the rest of the album is honestly a letdown. If you want to hear some of the band's truly weaker songs or you really want to complete your collection, by all means buy this. However, I strongly advise the casual listener to stick with the more familiar material.
Final rating: 2.5/5