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On Dead Letter Office and Eponymous

On Dead Letter Office and Eponymous

Is Dead Letter Office an admirable failure or just a failure?

Jeremy Winograd:

Hi, Kevin! I hope you, like me, are glad that Michael Stipe was able to take enough time off from his retirement, which appears to consist mainly of growing out his bushy grey beard, making pretentious visual art and attending Manhattan cocktail parties, to approve reissues of Dead Letter Office and Eponymous on vinyl. Because he knows that there’s nothing hipsters love more than out-of-print B-side collections from the ’80s on vinyl.

Anyway, for me, Dead Letter Office is a tough record to talk about because almost everything on it is a dumb, half-assed joke. There’s plenty of entertainment value, but it comes almost entirely from the absurdity of the cover choices and near-satirical genre pastiches, as well as the goofiness of stuff like “Voice of Harold.” I do recognize the historical significance of the fact that a couple of these songs are remnants of a primordial time when R.E.M. were just a college party band, but expectedly those compositions are pretty slight and forgettable. Basically, a lot of DLO is pretty funny—and we can talk about all the reasons why—and there are a couple of solid cuts, but taken as a whole it has virtually no repeat listening value. Like, it’s fun to have as a novelty, but is anyone ever going to listen to it all the way through more than once? And, if not, do you really want to shell out a ridiculous $20 for this reissue?

Kevin Korber:

Hi there, Jeremy. I agree that a vinyl re-issue of this—arguably one of R.E.M.’s least essential releases—seems like a blatant cash grab. In a way, that’s in keeping with the spirit of the original album, which was itself an obvious attempt by I.R.S. to get whatever money they could out of the R.E.M. name before the band made the jump to Warner Bros. at the tail end of the ’80s. Even for a cash grab, though, Dead Letter Office is a weird creature. Almost no care was made towards things like sequencing or a general flow to the album. I can picture Peter Buck going through reels of tape, picking 15 songs and going, “Eh, good enough” before calling it a day. How else do you explain the presence of a jingle for their favorite rib joint?

Having said that, I have a soft spot for a few songs on here. “Ages Of You” may be one of my favorite songs from the band, and the version here perfectly captures the tight, measured energy that they so effortlessly exuded right from the start. And the recasting of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” as a folk-rock torch song was a stroke of genius, even if Stipe’s put-on Southern accent is a bit much. Still, those are moments, and great individual moments don’t always make for a great album.

Then again, R.E.M. were always sort of an idiosyncratic band, and a collection like this would fit in entirely with their ethos at the time. What do you think, Jeremy? Is Dead Letter Office an admirable failure or just a failure?

Jeremy:

Oh, I definitely agree that DLO fits well within the I.R.S.-era R.E.M. ethos of doing weird, quirky shit that no one else would do cause they feel like it. In that sense, its existence doesn’t dilute their legend – in fact, it may even enhance it. That doesn’t make it listenable, however.

You are not the first person I’ve heard express deep affection for “Ages of You,” which I find odd because I don’t see it as anything more than a middling, generic early R.E.M. song. I just re-listened to it to make sure for like the hundredth time that I wasn’t missing anything, and I came away with the same impression I’ve always had: it’s fine, but it lacks edge and the melody is too cottony for me to put it in the same category as even the band’s second-tier mid-tempo janglers from the same era (“Maps and Legends,” “Time After Time,” etc.). Care to defend it further?

I do like “Pale Blue Eyes,” as well as “There She Goes Again.” However, can we both agree that “Femme Fatale” was one VU cover too many? Holy fuck, that has got to be the single most grating, off-key and ugliest vocal that Michael Stipe has ever performed – which is saying something. He makes Nico sound like Renee Fleming by comparison.

So, do you think any of the songs on DLO deserved to appear on R.E.M.’s proper I.R.S. albums? Personally, I think there’s exactly one: the cover of Pylon’s “Crazy,” which is excellent and basically the only song on DLO I can actually take seriously. What say you?

R.E.M._-_Dead_Letter_OfficeKevin:

Oh man, that Pylon cover is great. A considerable improvement over the original, but I doubt anyone outside of Athens ever heard the original to begin with. Listening to them side-by-side only emphasizes just how ahead of their peers R.E.M. were. The other covers… maybe not. I agree that three Velvets covers is far, far too many; their presence feels more like the band flexing their cred muscles more than anything else. Then, there’s the Aerosmith cover, which is…weird. Not really the fun-weird that R.E.M. are capable of being either, just weird.

I get that “Ages Of You” is light and airy, but that’s what I like about it. This band had such a knack for bubblegum pop that they would take too far later on in their career (hello, “Shiny Happy People”), and they just nail that on “Ages.” It’s effortless pop, and while I get why it ultimately didn’t make the cut on Chronic Town—it doesn’t really fit in with the meandering Southern goth vibe of that EP—I think it deserved more than its B-side status. Then again, if it were placed on, say, Reckoning or Lifes Rich Pageant, it may not have gotten the “lost classic” tag that many fans attached to it. Or it may have. R.E.M. fans are funny like that.

Other than “Ages” and “Crazy,” though, I don’t know if anything else on DLO would ever fit on an album. Maybe “Bandwagon,” which is a neat little throwaway in the vein of “We Walk,” but I can’t see “Toys In The Attic” or “King Of The Road” making on to any finished, polished R.E.M. record. The truth is that R.E.M. weren’t a B-sides band in the way that, say, the Smiths or Nirvana were. Not a lot on Dead Letter Office could be regarded as spillover from a creatively fertile period. Hell, some of these songs are literally drunken studio takes.

Having established that this isn’t for the casual R.E.M. fan, Jeremy, do you think die-hards would find some value in this, especially given that the vinyl version doesn’t have the re-mastered Chronic Town EP on it?

Jeremy:

You know, I had never actually listened to the original version of “Crazy” until just now (thanks, YouTube!). I knew about Pylon, but, like most people, that was solely because of R.E.M. My impression is that the original doesn’t sound any less like a prototypical early R.E.M. song than R.E.M.’s own cover does. Was everyone in Athens just ripping each other off in the early ’80s or what?

As for your question, I fear we may have been approaching our discussion of DLO in the wrong way – specifically, as if it’s a serious record that demands serious analysis. But it’s not! It’s a fucking joke! And it’s a pretty good one! So even though I stand by my assessment that no one ever needs to listen to it more than once, every diehard R.E.M. fan should listen to it once and only once because it displays a side of the band that we don’t get to hear anywhere else: the drunken, goofy side. “King of the Road”? Complete dogshit from an objective listenability standpoint. But the concept of R.E.M. doing a drunken, barely together cover of “King of the Road”? Priceless. “Burning Hell”? A dumb cock rock song. But R.E.M. doing a dumb cock rock song with tongues planted firmly in cheek? The self-aware irony makes it fun. Honestly, the most entertaining track on here is, for me, “Voice of Harold.” That’s partially because “7 Chinese Bros.” is one of my absolute favorite R.E.M. Songs, and, for those who may be unaware, the backing tracks of “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Voice of Harold” are one and the same. But it’s mostly because the vocals of “Voice of Harold” consist of Stipe reading the liner notes off an old gospel album – an exercise devised by Reckoning producer Don Dixon to get Stipe to stop singing like his jaw was wired shut for once. Not only did it work, but the absurdity of the results actually makes me laugh – and how could it not, with Stipe reciting lines like “Chill bumps appear and I am frozen in the web they weave/ As they reveal their innermost selves with the outpouring of their hearts” in an exaggerated drawl. All that being the case, if you ever considered buying DLO because they tacked on Chronic Town to the CD version (plus a lovely acoustic version of “Gardening at Night” and the original version of the later re-recorded “All the Right Friends,” which were added to a 1993 reissue), you were doing it for the wrong reasons. Instead, think of DLO as a pseudo-comedy record. It’s essentially useless otherwise.

So what about you, Kevin? Do you have a favorite comedic moment on DLO?

Kevin:

I think you’re right; the humor of Dead Letter Office is where its value lies. Even when they started, R.E.M. had this sort of self-serious, po-faced quality to them that only seemed to become more pronounced over time. On the surface, this was a band who were so principled that Michael Stipe sang live in the music video for “So. Central Rain” because lip-syncing was an affront to their art. Imagining that band getting drunk, walking into the studio and deciding that recording a jingle and a Roger Miller cover in one take would be a good idea…it’s delightful.

That couplet (“Walters Theme/King of the Road”) is the comedic highlight for me. Part of it stems from the drunken fun that the band seem to be having throughout, but I also think it does a lot to debunk the myth of Athens. Between them, the B-52s, and everyone featured in the Athens: Inside-Out film, there was this idea of Athens as a mythical art-college utopia where Things Were Happening (which is something that happens any time a bunch of bands come from somewhere that isn’t New York or Los Angeles). On these songs, R.E.M. give us a peek of Athens as just another place, a place where people eat ribs and listen to drunken country-rock covers. It’s their most unpretentious moment on an album that’s really all about being unpretentious, and I love that they let that side of themselves out.

You know, even if it’s not essential listening, I do think that DLO is essential to what R.E.M. were and what they became. Without this record, they become U2 in the sense that they become humorless rock demi-gods deathly afraid of displaying their humanity. DLO is a reminder that these guys were people as well as artists, and they were just as capable of fucking around as they were of making great art.

Jeremy:

I think you nailed it regarding DLO‘s role in preventing R.E.M. from becoming (barf) U2. There are obviously a lot of similarities between the two bands – emerging at virtually the same time, guitarists with highly idiosyncratic styles rather than technical prowess, political, self-righteous frontmen, etc. But unlike U2, no matter how popular and self-serious they got, they never failed to give off the vibe that they were just four dudes from Athens. DLO certainly helped build that persona. The day Bono allows something similar to be released, I may just stop taking potshots at him on the internet every chance I get. Probably not though.

Anyway, speaking of “making great art” as opposed to “fucking around,” let’s talk about the other overpriced slab of wax R.E.M. are reissuing: Eponymous, which collects the band’s biggest hits from its I.R.S. era. While in my opinion it’s rendered mostly obsolete by the existence of the 2006 I.R.S.-era comp And I Feel Fine…, which is much longer and more comprehensive and thus better, the new reissue may actually not be a total waste of money, unlike the DLO one. That’s because of the presence of three tracks that are unavailable elsewhere: the Murmur outtake “Romance,” which first appeared on a film soundtrack in 1987, a remix of “Finest Worksong” featuring horns and, most notably, the original 1981 single version of “Radio Free Europe.” This is not insignificant. “Romance” is great, and while I could take or leave the horns on “Finest Worksong,” many people, including Peter Buck himself, seem to think that the original “Radio Free Europe” is superior to the eventual Murmur version. Me? I think they’re all out of their minds. The single version just sounds like a sloppy demo to me; the Murmur version is a masterpiece in every sense.

So what do you think, Kevin? Do those three songs make Eponymous worth purchasing? And which version of “Radio Free Europe” do you prefer?

eponymousKevin:

Honestly, Jeremy, Eponymous is a bit of a conundrum to me. I go back and forth on “Romance.” On some days, I think it’s brilliant and one of the best songs they ever recorded. On other days, I think it’s fine but a little unspectacular. At any rate, it’s probably the best of the band’s “compilation-exclusive” tracks (not difficult when your competition is “Animal”).

I’m with you on the single mix of “Radio Free Europe,” though. Often, I think Buck’s assessment of his own work is spot-on, but if he really thinks that the shambling, demo-quality version of “Radio Free Europe” is superior, then he might need to get his hearing checked. The Hib-Tone version of “Europe” is fine, worth a listen for curious fans, but it pales in comparison to the superb version that we hear on Murmur. A band more straightforward than R.E.M. would’ve put that on a collection of rarities akin to Dead Letter Office, but as we’ve established, R.E.M. don’t do things in a straightforward manner, so here it is, this crappy sounding version of their first single alongside “Fall On Me” and “The One I Love.”

Honestly, I had forgotten about the horn mix of “Finest Worksong” until you mentioned it, and having listened to it again, I’ll probably go back to forgetting it. Not bad, but nothing really eye-opening either.

All told, “Romance” is probably the only song that makes Eponymous worth seeking out. Other than that, you’re left with two lesser versions of familiar songs and a collection of singles that, if you’re as big an R.E.M. fan as we are, you’ve heard hundreds of times already. As someone who owns all the I.R.S. albums, the new I.R.S. comp and the most recent career-spanning collection, I won’t be revisiting Eponymous anytime soon.

However, that’s the perspective of a diehard fan. What about the casual fan, Jeremy? Does Eponymous have anything to offer to someone just discovering this band for the first time?

Jeremy:

I think that at the time it originally came out, Eponymous was an acceptable introduction to what the band had done to that point. But in a 21st Century word in which the aforementioned And I Feel Fine… exists, it just seems inadequate. And I Feel Fine… was my introduction to R.E.M.—I distinctly remember buying for super cheap at the clearance sale at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square just before it closed—and it literally turned me into a fan on first listen. By comparison, Eponymous is just missing too many of the songs that hooked me the first time I heard them. No “Begin the Begin”? No “Pretty Persuasion”? Why is there only one song from Murmur, and why the hell is that song “Talk About the Passion”? I mean, Eponymous is serviceable as a basic primer, but if you’re gonna spend a bunch of money on an I.R.S.-era R.E.M. comp, choose And I Feel Fine…, unless you’re a hipster and all you care about is it being on vinyl. Plus, And I Feel Fine… comes with a second disc loaded with a bunch awesome demos, live cuts and outtakes that puts Dead Letter Office to shame.

What do you think, Kevin? Are the mere 12 songs on Eponymous anywhere near enough to summarize the pure awesomeness of R.E.M.’s I.R.S. catalog? Which songs would you add (or take off)?

Kevin:

I mean, if Eponymous is an introduction, it’s a pretty basic one at best. It sticks strictly to the most recognizable singles from the era, which I think does a disservice to what the band accomplished on the albums of that era. Fables of the Reconstruction, for example, is a dark, moody, off-kilter piece of work that found new, interesting shades within the band’s well-tested formula. But would you gather that from “Can’t Get There From Here”? Absolutely not. Nor does the (admittedly great) “Fall on Me” give you a sense of the band’s expert synthesis of ambiguous folk-pop and arena rock on Lifes Rich Pageant. And, yeah, why is “Talk About The Passion” here ahead of “Sitting Still,” which was also part of the Hib-tone single that gave us this lackluster version of “Radio Free Europe”?

I don’t know, man. I’m sure there are a few people older than us who may have some attachment to Eponymous, but as far as it being a way to turn casual listeners on to R.E.M. in 2016, I don’t think it can serve that purpose anymore.

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