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Finest Worksong: R.E.M. 7IN-83-88

Finest Worksong: R.E.M. 7IN-83-88

remsinglesNow that LPs are back in style, it didn’t take long before the music companies started reissuing 7″ records, as well. But while a LP creates two or more satisfying listening experiences, 7″ records are still a pain in the ass. Not only do you have to flip them over after one song, you have to fit them with a plastic adapter. Back in December, Capitol/I.R.S. put out a box set collecting R.E.M.’s singles on I.R.S. from 1983 to 1988. We will tell you if they are worth the effort or just too much work.

R.E.M.-Radio-Free-Europe-single“Radio Free Europe”/ “There She Goes Again”

A-side: R.E.M.’s first I.R.S. 45 was practically a mission statement, its incomprehensible lyrics, chiming guitars and driving beat defining the future of college radio for years to come. Even if you couldn’t make out all the lyrics, the band’s signature sound was made for indie rock anthems, and there was more to come.

B-side: It’s hard to believe that in 1982 there was not instant streaming access to every Velvet Underground recording ever made. But even in 2014, this probably wouldn’t be your jangly-guitar band’s first choice of Velvets cover. It’s a passable version of a song that doesn’t play up either band’s strengths.

Worth The Effort?: Yes and Maybe. R.E.M.’s very first release featured alternate, even better versions of “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still” on a Hib-Tone single that is a double-sided classic. Their I.R.S. debut is only half-essential, establishing a pattern of B-sides that has more to do with name-checking influences than making great songs.

R.E.M._-_So._Central_Rain_(I'm_Sorry)“So. Central Rain”/”King Of The Road”

A-side: This is one of R.E.M.’s finest hours as a band, as well as one of their strongest singles. “So. Central Rain” is arguably Michael Stipe’s first attempt at clarity; there’s a defined melancholy to the song, and while he’s still not fully enunciating, the pain behind the repeated chorus of “I’m sorry” is clear to anyone who hears it. While R.E.M. arrived fully formed on Murmur, this was the first real indication of how great they could be.

B-side: R.E.M. paired one of their saddest songs with one of their silliest covers here. “King Of The Road” finds the band at their goofiest, drunkenly stumbling through Roger Miller’s country standard with just a hint of disrespect. Sure, it’s a total throwaway, but the band are having so much fun that it’s hard not to just go with them for a little while.

Worth the effort?: Based solely on the A-side, absolutely. Admittedly, “King Of The Road” is the sort of charming-yet-slight diversion that can only really appeal to die-hard fans, but “So. Central Rain” is a must-listen for anyone with an interest in R.E.M. It’s worth throwing in the adapter, but if you didn’t feel like getting up to flip to the B-side, I wouldn’t blame you.

rockville(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville/Catapult (Live)

A-side: Still the greatest contribution Mike Mills has ever made to mankind, the mousey little twerp. Mills wrote it to implore his then-girlfriend not to move away from Athens, thereby making it the most endearingly plaintive songs in the R.E.M. catalog – it’s hard to imagine Michael Stipe, who during that time was still singing about “your luck, a two-headed cow,” writing such straightforward lyrics. The band started performing “Rockville” at some of its earliest concerts as a new wave-y rocker, but it eventually morphed into the country-tinged version, complete with Mills’ approximation of honky tonk piano, found on Reckoning.

B-side: “Catapult” is about as Ramones-y as R.E.M. ever got, which isn’t saying much, but still. This airtight live version, recorded at a show at Seattle’s Music Hall in June 1984, comes with the added bonus of some mostly incomprehensible muttered Stipe banter about Mel Torme at the end, which has to be worth something.

Worth the effort?: Without a doubt. If nothing else, it will give you a newfound appreciation for Mike Mills, who not only wrote “Rockville,” but whose rumbling bassline drives “Catapult.”

R.E.M._-_Cant_Get_There_from_Here“Can’t Get There From Here”/ “Bandwagon”

A-side: Released as the first single off their third LP Fables of the Reconstruction, “Can’t Get There From Here” is R.E.M.’s homage to the soul records they loved, and benefits from Mike Mills thumping bass line and backing vocals, “I’ve been there/I know the way.” While it was never meant for a record, it was a hit with their early live crowds, and shows a lighter side of the band, and here, is supplemented with a horn section.

B-side: Eventually released on the 1987 rarities disc Dead Letter Office, “Bandwagon” is either a song about a horse-drawn wagon or a fuck you to followers. Tinges of Stipe’s Southern accent peer through and featuring a jaunty Peter Buck chord progression. This is a perfect snapshot of the band in the mid-80s.

Worth The Effort?: “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Bandwagon” are both enjoyable songs for any R.E.M. fan, and these are two upbeat songs together for a band whose sound get seem a bit dark. Here, the b-side feels like the highlight and a rather nice complement to the lightness of “Can’t Get There From Here.”

wendell“Wendell Gee”/”Ages Of You”

A-side: R.E.M. were in a weird place when making Fables Of The Reconstruction, an album rife with Southern mysticism and blurry textures. “Wendell Gee” is somewhat of an outlier on the album, as its arrangement is different from the rest of Fables and from most of R.E.M.’s catalog up until that point. It is beautiful at times–Stipe and Mills sound fantastic–but the band seem a little unsure about the shift in direction.

B-side: On the other hand, “Ages Of You” is R.E.M. at their most comfortable and effortlessly brilliant. It’s one of the oldest songs in the band’s catalog–it was almost included on the Chronic Town EP–and the performance here deftly recaptures that raw, nervous energy that characterized the band’s earliest years. It’s a welcome infusion of excitement from one of the band’s most dour periods.

Worth the effort?: “Wendell Gee” is one of the stronger songs on Fables, but it’s hard to sincerely say that it’s one of their best singles. “Ages Of You” is great and definitely worth the price of admission, though, so this just gets a thumbs up.

R.E.M._-_Driver_8“Driver 8”/ “Crazy”

A-side: The second single from Fables was this brooding minor-key rocker inspired by a Southern Railroad passenger train. If the album resembled at times an indie-rock Winesburg, Ohio, “Driver 8” proved Stipe’s ability, now that you could understand him, to make hit singles out of short stories.

B-side: The soon-to-be superstars from Athens, Georgia give props to lesser-known homies with a cover of this Pylon single that shoulda been a hit. Its somber mood fits well with Fables, but Stipe’s vocals pale next to Vanessa Briscoe’s intense performance on the original.

Worth the effort?: Yes and No. R.E.M. has impeccable choice in cover bands, but only rarely (cf. “Superman”) have they made covers into their own image. Like their Velvets cover, you’re much better off tracking down the real thing.

“Crazy”/”Burning Down”

A-side: R.E.M. love their hometown of Athens, Georgia, and this single–which was originally written and recorded by Athens stalwarts Pylon–reads like a love letter to the scene that birthed them. Peter Buck has insisted that this version pales in comparison to the original, and while the original is a lost classic worth tracking down, Buck’s humility is unwarranted. While this isn’t as adventurous as their covers of, say, Aerosmith, R.E.M. make “Crazy” all their own with an inspired performance.

B-side: The Athens love-fest continues with a studio version of one of the band’s early live staples. On record, the song could have easily slid into the tracklist of Reckoning as it shares that album’s bright, live energy. It may be a bit of a by-the-numbers song for the band–Buck’s jangling guitar is ever present and Stipe seems more focused on his vocal performance than his lyrics–but the band treat it as anything but rote.

Worth the effort?: Athens and R.E.M. are forever tied together, and this single shows just how highly the band regarded both their hometown and the scene that gave them their start. As a part of the band’s history, this single is essential. It helps that the songs are pretty good, too.

R.E.M._-_Fall_on_Me“Fall on Me”/ “Rotary Ten”

A-side: Perhaps the epitome of R.E.M.’s timeless mid-‘80s folk rock jangle. All the classic elements are right where they should be: Peter Buck’s pristine electric/acoustic arpeggios; Stipe’s hesitant drawl breaking out and soaring over the expurgatory chorus; Mills and Berry’s seamlessly intertwining vocal countermelodies. It’s supposedly an environmental awareness song, though it’s always so hard to tell with Stipe’s obtuse I.R.S.-era lyrics – good luck finding the Al Gore campaign slogan in “There’s a problem, feathers, iron / Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys.” But this one’s all about the pure cut melodicism. As with most ‘80s R.E.M. classics, Stipe could have just recited the phone book and it would still be great.

B-side: An utterly pointless, likely-improvised two-minute faux jazz instrumental recorded during the Lifes Rich Pageant sessions. In fairness, Peter Buck is one of the least likely jazz guitarists of all time, so the guitar line may at least feel pleasingly off kilter the first time you hear it. But that first time should ideally be the last.

Worth the effort?: “Fall On Me” may very well be one of the greatest pop songs of the ‘80s, but the energy you expend getting your butt off the couch and flipping the record over will be greater than that which Buck, Berry and Mills put into laying the turd that is “Rotary Ten.” So no.

R.E.M._-_Superman“Superman”/ “White Tornado”

A-side: A happy pop number for the group, this song is a great example of how well Stipe and Mills would get at harmonizing and sharing vocals throughout their history. Mike Mills handles the lead vocals on this awesome 1969 Clique cover, which was a Top 20 mainstream rock single for R.E.M. in 1986, and became a mainstay in the band’s live performances throughout the years.

B-side: Less than two minutes long and featuring Bill Berry pounding out a beat as Peter Buck does his best, twangy surf guitar. One of many R.E.M. instrumentals throughout the years, but not necessarily something you’ll come back to many times.

Worth the effort?: Depends how much you like surf rock instrumentals, or if you’re a true archivist. For the latter, it seems like a no brainer.

oneilove“The One I Love”/ “Maps And Legends (Live)

A-side: Document found Michael Stipe writing and enunciating more clearly than ever, without sacrificing a bit of the band’s sound. The result was their first platinum album, and in this, their first top ten single, a dark ballad that you can sing along to without having to guess any of the lyrics.

B-side: This live acoustic version of the Fables track strips away Joe Boyd’s dense, murky production for an intimate, intense performance that beats the original. It also updates the old R.E.M. template to its clearer Document iteration.

Worth the effort?: Yes and Yes. The A-side really is one of their greatest hits, and unplugged covers of a band’s back catalog are the stuff that makes B-sides worth flipping over.

R.E.M._-_It's_the_End_of_the_World_as_We_Know_It_(And_I_Feel_Fine)_(United_States)“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”/”Last Date”

A-side: The endurance of this song is amazing. “End Of The World” is one of R.E.M.’s most overplayed songs to this day, yet it’s hard not to dance around and recite the parts of the song that you remember whenever you hear it. It’s one of those songs that only R.E.M. would consider trying, and they’re also the only band who can pull it off.

B-side: Here it is, R.E.M.’s honky-tonk torch instrumental. Typically, instrumentals are a sign of an unfinished song or idea that the band couldn’t bother to finish, and it’s not as if “Last Date” is a lost masterpiece. However, it is still an interesting snippet from R.E.M.’s vault, one that could have been turned into something bigger.

Worth the effort?: This is one of the singles that broke R.E.M. into the mainstream, and it remains a classic. The B-side, while one of the band’s slighter offerings, is decent enough as a nice comedown after the manic pace of the A-side.

finestworkshop1“Finest Worksong”/ “Time After Time Etc.”

A-side: The music of “Finest Worksong” is apt, considering Stipe spends the tune brashly bellowing about “throw[ing] Thoreau” and seemingly calling for a union uprising. Berry’s mighty, reverbed snare tromps like heavy work boots on a factory floor humming with Buck’s grinding-gear guitars and Mills’ metallic-sounding bass. This was the last single R.E.M. would release for I.R.S. before making the jump to Warner Bros., and its radio-ready punch makes it clear they were already well-prepared for the big leagues.

B-side: Michael Stipe’s often tenuous relationship with proper pitch has never been more tenuous than the time he walked out on stage for the third encore of a marathon September 1987 show in the Netherlands and started singing the Reckoning cut “Time After Time” a cappella, only for Peter Buck to join in on guitar after a couple of lines and reveal that Stipe had been singing in the complete wrong key the whole time. Whoops! Perhaps attempting to cut his losses, Stipe then began warbling Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain” a cappella, but Buck understandably got bored with that pretty quickly, so he started playing “So. Central Rain,” and singer and guitarist finally got in sync and gave a good performance. This historic instance of “Michael Stipe and Peter Buck trying to get their shit together” was thankfully recorded and released for all of us to relive over and over again.

Worth the effort?: Sure, why not? “Finest Worksong” is great, and while “Time After Time Etc.” isn’t exactly the most polished effort R.E.M. ever put to tape, those few seconds in which Stipe realizes he’s in the wrong key and tries to figure out what the hell is going on are pretty amusing.

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