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R.E.M.: The Best of the Rarities

R.E.M.: The Best of the Rarities

“Dark Globe” (Warner Bros. track #3)

R.E.M.’s cover of Syd Barrett’s “Dark Globe” is by no means faithful to the original artist’s approach or, arguably, intent. Barrett’s version, a cut from his first solo album The Madcap Laughs (1970), indeed sounds like more of a raving: the lone acoustic guitar accompaniment loses composure as Barrett stumbles ahead. His mind races, and momentum gets the best of him (which, upon reflection, carries its own symbolism and grace).

This reinterpretation is polished and down-tempo, Stipe’s voice alone over the expressiveness of a trickling piano. “My head touched the ground/ I was half the way down/ Strumming the sand” – Stipe hangs suspended here, teetering on that note before resolving the phrase with the humble plea “Please lift a hand.” He might not have gotten the lyrics exactly right, but his choice to inhabit this song solemn and naked suits it perfectly, and lights a candle for its creator. – Stacey Pavlick

“Love Is All Around” (Warner Bros. tracks #11 & 57)

If you tuned into R.E.M.’s classic “Unplugged” session on MTV back in 1991, you’ll remember Michael Stipe cheering “Mikey Mills!” after their cover of this 1967 Troggs charmer. Mills was taking the mic more often during this Out of Time era, supplying lead vocals on “Texarkana” and “Near Wild Heaven” – essential tracks, both. There are two alternate versions offered here: one live and one studio from the I Shot Andy Warhol soundtrack. Stipe’s harmonies and countermelodies are carefully balanced so as not to overtake Mills – though admittedly it is the final strain of Stipe’s high register “bas” that elevates this from a good to great cover. The role reversal pays off here; who doesn’t want to see good guy Mikey Mills get some love? – Stacey Pavlick

“It’s a Free World Baby” (Warner Bros. track #15)

Is the soundtrack to SNL movie/skit The Coneheads (1993) part of your permanent music library? No? Lucky for you that this soundtrack single is archived as part of the Warner Bros. rarities. While it wasn’t recorded on the planet Remulak, there is somewhat of a futuristic quality to this track, as it strikes me more as something you’d find on Up than the then-contemporary Automatic for the People or Monster. Perhaps this is because it’s not a particularly percussive track – the stanzas set Buck’s winding bassline against a stabilizing pattern of flute chords. An abrupt drum fill leads into a full-band chorus, with a multi-tracked Mills as Stipe’s harmonizing echo: “I don’t need it (I don’t need it)/ I hit my head (He hit his head).” Lock the Coneheads in the time capsule, but allow this song reentry into your world. – Stacey Pavlick

“First We Take Manhattan” (Warner Bros. track #17)

Leonard Cohen is one of those artists that any band worth its salt eventually covers. Nick Cave did it. Johnny Cash did it and on the 1991 tribute album, I’m Your Fan, R.E.M. took a stab at Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan.” Doing away with the canned drums and hollow synths that time stamp the original version, R.E.M. opts for a somewhat heavier approach. A double-tracked Stipe vocal adds an eerie presence to the verses while Mills replaces Sharon Robinson on the bridge. Released at the height of the band’s popularity, their inclusion on the tribute led its curators to re-arrange the tracklisting, bumping R.E.M.’s song to the top of the order for the US release. – David Harris

“Arms of Love” (Warner Bros. track #22)

It’s hard to decide which version of “Arms of Love” is best. There’s the progressive bloom of Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians’ original from their album Respect, or the more torch song-like covers R.E.M. released over the years. The track on this collection was pulled from the “Man on the Moon” single, but its first appearance came in 1993 on the In Defense of Animals compilation as a solo offering from Michael Stipe. Where Stipe’s treatment is achy and pining, the full-band version here is temperate and drifting, almost folksy. Choose according to the shade of your heartbreak. – Stacey Pavlick

“Fretless” (Warner Bros. track #27)

“Fretless” could easily be the best R.E.M. song that never made it to one of the band’s proper records. First appearing on the soundtrack for the Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World and featuring backing vocals by the B-52s’ Kate Pierson, “Fretless” fits in with the brooding, minor-key sound the band favored during its Automatic for the People sessions. It’s all there: Stipe’s mysterious, yearning lyrics, Buck’s arpeggiated guitar, Mills haunting keyboards and chilling harmonies. Another evocative single from a band at the peak of its powers, “Fretless” has been thankfully put back into circulation via the Warner Bros. rarities set. – David Harris

“Drive [Live at the 40 Watt Club, 10 1992]” (Warner Bros. track #33)

Also from the Greenpeace show, this reimagines one of the slower, acoustic numbers as a full-on rocker, swaying under Buck’s full-throated guitar and organ chords. It makes the case that even when R.E.M. wasn’t trying to be much of a live band it still succeeded. Where Automatic was the band’s lushest and most densely-arranged record, Stipe and company strip it down to the bare essentials of rock two years before they would do so on record for Monster. – Rob Rubsam

“I Don’t Sleep I Dream [Live at SNL, 1994]” (Warner Bros. track #38)

Appearing on an episode hosted by Sarah Jessica Parker, this performance is a strange one. Buck wears a massive puffy hoodie, Mills looks like a lounge singer and Stipe wears a gold and silver jumpsuit and spends most of the performance holding, but not playing, a very expensive guitar. For an SNL performance, this is surprisingly electric, with the dense swirls of guitar and keyboard burbling around Stipe’s mumbling vocal as occasionally it swoops up to falsetto heights. Just a taste of the touring beast R.E.M. would become over the next decade or so. – Rob Rubsam

“Country Feedback [Live at the 40 Watt Club, 1992]” (Warner Bros. track #45)

The sole stop on their Automatic for the People “world tour” was a charity show for Greenpeace in the band’s native Athens. The show was allegedly recorded in a solar-powered van, and the result is pretty spectacular. Michael Stipe’s favorite R.E.M. song (and for that matter mine too) is a pretty sparse affair, with acoustic guitar and pedal steel and Stipe’s bare, searing vocal merging spectacularly. For those who are interested, the other songs on the set are included in a bootleg entitled “Automatic Live,” which comprises the solar-powered recording. Google it. – Rob Rubsam

“Wall of Death” (Warner Bros. track #52)

R.E.M.’s gentle cover of “Wall of Death” appeared on Beat the Retreat, a tribute album to Richard Thompson, shortly after the band’s own rocking album Monster bowed in 1994. While it is hard to beat the original version (which appeared on Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1982 masterpiece Shoot Out the Lights), R.E.M.’s cover contains all of the things the band does best. They refract “Wall of Death” through a pop music lens, adding a shimmering buoyancy to the song that replaces the exhausted sigh of the original version. Stipe sounds absolutely joyous in his vocals, especially during the late game key change that takes this pleasant ride up into the ethers. – David Harris

“The Great Beyond” (Warner Bros. track #72)

It makes sense that a biopic about Andy Kaufman would feature original music by R.E.M., especially since the band immortalized the comedian in their hit “Man on the Moon.” “The Great Beyond,” a song written specifically for the film, is one of the band’s final big hits, its highest placing song on the UK’s singles charts. It has all the hallmarks of a classic R.E.M. song from its infectious chorus (“I’m breaking through/ I’m bending spoons/ I’m keeping flowers in full bloom”) to its lush production, a precursor to single “Imitation of Life.” It would be one of the band’s final gasps of radio glory, even earning a Grammy nod for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture. Keep pushing that elephant up the stairs, Michael. – David Harris

“Star Me Kitten” (feat. William S. Burroughs) (Warner Bros. track #90)

Taking a moment to diss Marlene Dietrich first, William S. Burroughs gives a recitation of the lyrics to “Star Me Kitten” over the instrumental track. Recorded in 1996 as a contribution for Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by the X-Files, just a year prior to his death, Burroughs delivers his spoken word with an elderly croak that is nevertheless remarkable and tinged with a token understanding for the crazy. There’s a dark, hypnotic sexuality to this song, and while his cadence is certainly worlds away from that of Michael Stipe’s, something extraordinary happens when Burroughs exclaims “You are WILD!/ And I’m in your possession/ So fuck me kitten.” – Stacey Pavlick

“Leave [Alternate Version]” (Warner Bros. track #92)

“Leave” is one of R.E.M.’s strangest and most beautiful songs, more than seven minutes of Stipe emoting over a startling siren-sound. Recorded during a sound check, like much of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, “Leave” featured a bold new direction for the band, one that presaged the sonic realms they would explore on Up. An alternate version that first appeared in the 1997 film A Life Less Ordinary removes the noise and replaces it with spare, ghostly production that recalls some of William Orbit’s collaborations with Madonna. While the remix is often erroneously credited to Radiohead, it was the late Jonny Dollar, producer of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, who deserves credit for this haunting version. If you’re a fan of trip-hop, this atmospheric iteration, coupled with Stipe’s lyrics, is a must! – David Harris

“Pretty Persuasion [Live, NYC 2003]” (Warner Bros. track #103)

I’m fascinated by the process of recording songs and how artists tinker with their work until they get it absolutely right. This version of “Pretty Persuasion” isn’t as good as the final recorded version, but I think the alternate mix gives an interesting insight into how the song came together. Particularly, the mix here pushes Stipe’s lead vocal farther down, thus giving us a chance to hear Mike Mills’ excellent backing vocals. Peter Buck’s guitar is also rougher and looser here, which gives the song an unfinished charm. It helps, of course, that any version of “Pretty Persuasion” is bound to be pretty damned great. – Kevin Korber

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