R.E.M. - Dead Letter Office (1987) Review


Feb 17 2010, 18:52

In the months following Lifes Rich Pageant and before the release of Document, I.R.S. Records and R.E.M.compiled a collection of B-sides, covers and alternate versions of various album tracks. In an effort to capitalize on R.E.M.'s devoted college fan base, this compilation was released as Dead Letter Office.

1. Crazy (B-Side of Driver 8 and Wendell Gee)
Crazy was originally written by fellow Athens, Georgia band Pylon for their 1983 album Chomp. Like their New Jersey counterparts The Feelies, Pylon were incredibly influential to the alternative rock movement and instrumental in its evolution from post-punk to college rock. R.E.M. pays tribute with this well played cover; nearly as dark as the original but more accessible. Mike Mills bass stands out against the murky textures of Buck's guitar, making Crazy an early highlight of the compilation.

2. There She Goes Again (B-Side of I.R.S. version of Radio Free Europe)
In their earlier years, R.E.M. had always had a penchant for Velvet Underground covers. While the Velvets originals are often forebodingly rough and dissonant, R.E.M.'s versions have been melodic and melancholy. Unfortunately, when they try to "rock out" to the VU and Nico classic, it simply doesn't work. Mills' harmonies are a mess; not fitting those of the Velvet Underground's at all. The original song only works because of Lou Reeds end monologue "She's gonna work it out, bye bye", and that too is missing from R.E.M.'s cover.

3. Burning Down (B-Side of Wendell Gee)
The first original song on the compilation, Burning Down is actually quite good, with a catchy chorus and trademark jangley guitar licks throughout. While not stylistically in tune with Fables of the Reconstruction of Lifes Rich Pageant, Burning Down would have been well suited on the more pop inflected Reckoning. My only qualms with this song is the length. While the lyrics and instrumentation are decent, the 4:12 length is simply too long. Still, Burning Down is a highlight.

4. Voice of Harold (B-Side of So. Central Rain)
Reckoning fans will love Voice of Harold, even for its somewhat gimmicky nature. Set to the backing track of the Reckoning classic 7 Chinese Bros., Michael Stipe sings the liner notes of The Joy of Knowing Jesus, a gospel album by the Revelaires. It may seem like a joke, but it's actually quite good, at least until he starts reading the "thank yous." The song is definitely a testament to Michael's inability to sing clearly... who knew he was saying "The Joy of Knowing Jesus, Produced by Joel Gentry, Cover/Backliner Design/Reesor?"

5. Burning Hell (B-Side of Can't Get There from Here)
Burning Hell is either a bad joke or a horrible attempt at sounding br00tal. I've always thought that Michael's atrocious vocal delivery was parodying hair metal vocalists of the day... let's hope so, because this song is really bad.

6. White Tornado (Recorded during the 1981 Radio Free Europe sessions)
This lackluster instrumental serves as proof that in 1981, Bill Berry was the only member of R.E.M. who could actually play an instrument.

7. Toys In The Attic (B-Side of Fall on Me)
Wow, thank god this arrived when it did! On paper, R.E.M. covering Aerosmith sounds like a joke. However, somehow this cover is incredible! The instrumentation is very tight, with a stellar guitar solo and a grooving bassline. R.E.M. are in top form here, keeping the song under three minutes and breathing new life into a tired "classic". Not only is it perhaps the best song on Dead Letter Office, this cover was one of my favorite childhood songs.

8. Windout (From the Bachelor Party soundtrack)
Remember the live version of Windout from the Reckoning reissue? That was some hardcore playing, and one of the most raw performances put to tape by the band. Unfortunately, this studio take is soulless and boring, but serves as a testament to the power of a live show to make better any song.

9. Ages Of You (B-Side of Wendell Gee)
Another song that would have fit well on Reckoning, Ages of You is slightly better than Burning Down, with a better chorus and imagery filled lyrics that give it the edge. The syncopation of the guitar and bass in the bridge is nice also. As a result, Ages of You is the best R.E.M. original on Dead Letter Office. I just wish I could understand the chorus beyond the "ages of you" line. The rest sounds like "Wadada da da eh"

10. Pale Blue Eyes (B-Side of So. Central Rain)
The Velvet Underground's 1969 original version of Pale Blue Eyes is one of the saddest and simply greatest songs ever. R.E.M.'s version begins similarly, with a hushed and fragile Michael Stipe delivering that unforgettably paradoxical opening line "Sometimes I feel so happy, sometimes I feel so sad." However when the chorus comes around, Peter Buck's guitar tracks chime to Berry's confident drum, making the song a much livelier countrified track. Since the original is so heartbreaking and this version is so upbeat, one might think it blasphemous. However, something about this version saves it, making it one of my favorite Velvet Underground covers. Also, Peter Buck's guitar solo > Lou Reed's.

11. Rotary Ten (B-Side of Fall on Me)
Rotary Ten is another somewhat pointless instrumental that does little else than showcase Peter Buck's guitar abilities, which sound pretty good hear. It's also more than a little Tom Waits-y.

12. Bandwagon (B-Side of Can't Get There from Here)
This song was co-written by Michael's sister Lynda of the band Oh-OK, whose complete discography record is pretty good. This song, however, is bland and boring, and Michael's affected southern accent is annoying.

13. Femme Fatale (B-Side of Superman)
Femme Fatale is yet another classic Velvet Underground song, originally sung by Nico on the Velvets' debut record. I actually prefer Michael's vocal, as well as Mill's understated harmonies to the original version. The guitar line is classic R.E.M., but not to the point that it detracts from the song's innocent beauty.

14. Walter's Theme (B-Side of So. Central Rain)
This song is so stupid. Apparently they were drunk when the band recorded this. Stipe is rambling in the backround, and I don't know what's going on.

15. King Of The Road (B-Side of So. Central Rain)
This is equally stupid as Walter's Theme but much more fun and kind of hilarious. I think that this song, a cover of Roger Miller's 1965 hit is meant as a joke. Apparently it was recorded when they were drunk as well. [/center]

In summation, R.E.M. are simply not a b-sides band. Many of these songs, while fun, are not nearly up to par with their album material. However, the few quality songs present are enough to make this compilation worthwhile.
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