16 February 2006

Rediscovered! REM - Dead Letter Office

    I suppose if we had any shame we would have never allowed this little gem to see the light of day.
      Peter Buck

Often lately I find myself at a loss for what to post. I've decided I need a few recurring themes I can fall back on when nothing else strikes me. To that end, here is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series titled "Rediscovered!" Every so often, I dig a CD out of our collection and say, "I haven't listened to this in ages." Then I rip it, fire up the long neglected tracks, and remember why I liked them so much.

So, I figured I'd highlight some of this rediscovered music and talk about it a little. As the title says, today's rediscovered album is REM's Dead Letter Office. I dug this out after Jeri posted a Megashuffle that included "Ages of You," the second song on the second side (when there were such things as sides). The album is an apropos choice in that the album itself is a collection of dusted-off rarities and b-sides from their days at IRS records. Most bands put out one of these collections at some point. This came out as REM made the switch to the Warner label.

Not everyone likes rarity collections, and often you need to be a fan to appreciate this type of work. I think material Dead Letter Office is stronger than what you'll find on the average collection. There are several decent covers, including three of Velvet Underground songs ("There She Goes Again," "Pale Blue Eyes," and "Femme Fatale") and one of Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic." Then there's the cover of Roger Miller's "King of the Road," the song REM guitarist Peter Buck is talking about in the quote above, taken from his liner notes.

While I'm on that subject, Peter Buck's liner notes are one of the particular treasures of this album. They're have a dry, often self-deprecating humor to them. Of "King of the Road," Buck goes on to say that, "If there was any justice in the world, Roger Miller should be able to sue for what we did to this song." They also provide insight into the band's musical influences, and they capture the pure fun they were having. (You can find the liner notes when you click on Dead Letter Office in the discography section of REM's web site.)

In addition to the covers, there are several straight-up songs reminiscent of REM's early years. "Ages of You," which I mentioned earlier, "Burning Down" and "Crazy" fit this build. Once track, "Burning Hell" is something of a window into the distorted guitars and growling vocals of REM's future work on albums like Monster. There are a couple catchy instrumentals, my favorite being the surf-rockin' "White Tornado." And of course, there's "Voice of Harold," where Michael Stipe sings the liner notes of a gospel album over the backing track of Reckoning's "Seven Chinese Brothers." That song is, a its "lyrics" proclaim, "A must!"

One last observation, then I'll call it quits and publish.... A nice thing about rediscovering an album is that you might find something you never noticed before. That happened with Dead Letter Office. Early on in "King of the Road" you can hear Mike Mills shouting in the background. I always though he was shouting along with the song, or saying "yeah!" or "yee-haw" of something. I'm not pretty sure what he is shouting out the chord changes, something I've seen bands do often when working out a new song.

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