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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

REMtrospective, 6: Dead Letter Office

deadlettercover.jpg

Title: Dead Letter Office

Released on: April 28, 1987

Favorite tracks: “Voice of Harold”

My "REMtrospective" project, a chronological, album-by-album review of the work of R.E.M. from the band's first EP Chronic Town through its latest release Accelerate, seems to have experienced a "Can't Get There From Here" episode. Despite having been derailed in late May (thanks in part to a couple of family vacations), it's ready to start up again, bearing in mind that I'm more of an interested amateur than a pro rock critic or musicologist. If you missed them the first time, here are the entries for Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant. As Stipe sings on the latter, "Let's begin again."

The evolution of R.E.M.’s sound from murmured jangle to hammering clarity was well underway with 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant. Dead Letter Office, a collection of rarities and B-sides, nevertheless serves as a fitting transitional album, winding up REM’s early period. (The timing seems particularly appropriate to me personally, since I got my undergrad diploma a few weeks after Dead Letter Office came out.)

For me, most odds-and-sods song collections serve as appendices or supplements to a musical artist’s work, but they don’t stand on their own as well; I’m thinking of XTC’s Rag and Bone Buffet and Bruce Springsteen’s 18 Tracks, which have some songs I like and a lot of songs I can’t remember. Dead Letter Office is much the same. For many of these albums, it’s kind of interesting to hear them cover artists they clearly admire, or chew on a musical idea that came to fruition more successfully elsewhere. A lot of times “rarities” tracks remind me of deleted scenes from DVDs: there’s a reason why they didn’t make the final cut. But there are exceptions.

My favorite track on Dead Letter Office is “Voice of Harold,” a reprise of “Seven Chinese Brothers,” with Michael Stipe, instead of singing the proper lyrics, reading the liner notes from the back cover of a gospel album (The Joy Of Knowing Jesus) by The Revelaires. I think it inadvertently blows the original track out of the water. Exclamations like “A must!” reveal that it’s a deliberate joke, but it’s not ironic in a nasty way. To me, it sounds like the musical equivalent of one of the ‘American Primitive’ religious paintings by their pal Howard Finster: it’s playful and Jesus-y and has a ton of splashy energy. When I rediscovered Reckoning a few weeks ago, hearing “Seven Chinese Brothers” vividly reminded me of “Voice of Harold.”

I appreciate the covers on Dead Letter Office, and it’s interesting that they do three Velvet Underground/Lou Reed songs: “There She Goes Again,” “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale.” Still, I don’t think they really ‘claim’ the covers as forcefully as they did with The Clique’s “Superman” on Pageant (or Wire’s “Strange” on Document). They sound more like they were tossed off for the fun of it, and it’s really easy to imagine “Toys in the Attic” as a raucous encore at the 40 Watt Club in Athens or 688 in Atlanta. The cover of Pylon’s “Crazy” is pretty interesting, but Pylon’s original has a lot more punch.

I prefer their originals on Dead Letter Office, like the rave-up “Wind Out” (from the Bachelor Party soundtrack). “Ages of You” sounds pleasantly like an out-take from Murmur, and “Bandwagon” is an infectious, delirious goof, “Yessiree, Bob!”

Somewhere I heard Peter Buck say (I think in regards to the “Can’t Get There From Here” video) that REM was "not known for their sense of humor." Dead Letter Office, in contrast, shows them having fun. Buck wrote appealingly self-deprecating liner notes for the album, and overtly apologizes to Roger Miller for their boozy stumble through “King of the Road.” Sometimes, simply hearing a talented band having fun is, itself, a fun experience.

Early listening conditions: My tape dates to May 1, 1987 (with Elvis Costello’s Taking Liberties on the reverse side), so I clearly recorded it within days of its release. The tape itself, incidentally, sounds pretty bad – the audio quality has either degraded worse than my other 20 year-old REM tapes, or it was recorded more poorly than the others. Or maybe Dead Letter Office just sounds worse than the other REM albums, but I doubt it.

My friends and I thought that the fun songs on Dead Letter Office were a hoot: we especially liked quoting “Bandwagon” and “Voice of Harold” in Stipe’s more conspicuous-than-usual drawl: “A must!” I remember arguing with a friend about the lyrics for “King of the Road.” The line is “I’m a man of means by no means,” but my friend said that maybe it was “I’m a man, a man by no means…” And in fact, I think we’re both right, because Stipe seems to be singing it the 'wrong' way.

Look for Document to go up on Friday afternoon, Aug. 22.

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