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 1986s Lifes Rich Pageant. Dead Letter Office, a collection of rarities and B-sides, nevertheless serves as a fitting transitional album, winding up REMs 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 artists work, but they dont stand on their own as well; Im thinking of XTCs Rag and Bone Buffet and Bruce Springsteens 18 Tracks, which have some songs I like and a lot of songs I cant remember. Dead Letter Office is much the same. For many of these albums, its 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: theres a reason why they didnt 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 its a deliberate joke, but its 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: its 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 its interesting that they do three Velvet Underground/Lou Reed songs: There She Goes Again, Pale Blue Eyes and Femme Fatale. Still, I dont think they really claim the covers as forcefully as they did with The Cliques Superman on Pageant (or Wires Strange on Document). They sound more like they were tossed off for the fun of it, and its 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 Pylons Crazy is pretty interesting, but Pylons 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 Cant 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 Costellos 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 Stipes more conspicuous-than-usual drawl: A must! I remember arguing with a friend about the lyrics for King of the Road. The line is Im a man of means by no means, but my friend said that maybe it was Im a man, a man by no means And in fact, I think were 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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