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

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

remThe Record Store Day release of R.E.M.’s “Unplugged” sessions would likely have been enough to occupy their fanbase for a while. Yet just weeks later, the band issued two “complete” rarities collections (divided up into I.R.S. vs. Warner Bros. eras) available as digital downloads. Between them we are looking at 181 tracks – 50 for I.R.S. and 131 (!!) for the Warner compilation. Even for the most devoted, this is a lot to digest.

For a pretty penny, Michael Stipe will unload his backhoe into your iTunes. A dream come true, sure, but there seems to be a lack of organization and oversight here; it feels like a track dump. The content of Dead Letter Office makes up part of the I.R.S. collection but is spread throughout the tracklist instead of appearing as a sequential group – no great sin, but contrary to expectation. The Warner Bros. compilation has a handful of “known errors” – duplicates, missing songs, poor labeling. And to come by this exhaustive collection of rarities in a digital download means the songs arrive without the context that curated liner notes would provide (though one wonders if a physical format is on the agenda for RSD 2015).

So… hooray, hooray, hip hip hooray? A conditional yes. Most of this material was previously released on other (of their many) compilations, so “rarities” is a relative term. But especially if you haven’t been enthusiastically collecting these comps over the years, there is plenty to get excited about: a sleep-slow version of “Gardening at Night,” an affecting cover of Syd Barrett’s “Dark Globe,” a stinging, live performance of “Country Feedback,” not one but three iterations of “Shiny Happy People.” (Just kidding about that last one.) After much consideration and debate, we present to you the 25 tracks we consider to be the best finds among the two collections. – Stacey Pavlick

“Sitting Still [Original Hib-Tone Single]” (I.R.S. track #2)

According to J. Niimi’s invaluable 33 1/3 volume on Murmur, the original “Radio Free Europe”/“Sitting Still” single was recorded in Mitch Easter’s garage for a bargain after the band flubbed several previous sessions with other producers. Of the initial 1,000 copies pressed, 600 were given away as promos, setting the bar pretty low for sales. Perhaps due to a remastering job or some other factor, this is a surprisingly muscular recording, with Mills’ harmonies and the mix surprisingly full. This is key to the band’s underdog mythos, creating a classic in someone’s garage and slowly rising to become the biggest band in the country. – Rob Rubsam

“Gardening at Night [Acoustic]” (I.R.S. track #4)

They say a great song can be played in any way and still work as a song, and R.E.M. certainly tested that idea with the various versions of their first great song, “Gardening at Night.” The slower full-band take of the song takes the jangle of Buck’s guitar and stretches it out; in the process, the tense atmosphere of the original turns into something closer to traditional folk-rock. Its slowness is almost mournful, adding a layer of melancholy that the original only seems to hint at. The song is still intact, though, and Stipe’s vocals – which are much higher in this mix than on the original recording – are precise and excellent. What the band does here is fascinating, but it is really, really hard to mess up a great song. – Kevin Korber

“We Walk [Live at the Paradise]” (I.R.S. track #12)

The set this song is excerpted from was included as bonus tracks to the recent reissue of Murmur, but for those who didn’t shell out, we get a buoyant, upbeat take on one of the album’s more standard tracks. Recorded on the tour supporting their debut, R.E.M. is already a furious live band, a job they would later resent so much as their most famous years were spent off the road. – Rob Rubsam

“1,000,000 [Live at the Paradise]” (I.R.S. track #13)

For a long time the R.E.M. mystique was very much about not having any idea what Michael Stipe was singing, prompting one to just free associate and make shit up on your own. (I almost hesitate to research lyrics at this point because I’ve grown so attached to my own translations.) Part of the power of “1,000,000” was that out of the cryptic mumblings emerged this divine mantra, articulated clearly for all to acknowledge: “I could live a million/ I could live a million/ I could live a million years.” The Chronic Town studio version seems merely assertive compared to this live track – Stipe towers over the thing, delivering the lyrics with snarl and spit. Bookended by warnings of “Don’t drink the water!” this performance suggests that maybe it was too late for him, a transmorgrified Stipe embodying the description of “not only deadlier but smarter too.” – Stacey Pavlick

“Pale Blue Eyes” (I.R.S. track #17)

Most R.E.M. fans will have owned the rarities collection Dead Letter Office for decades, wiping out most need to download the recently-released I.R.S. rarities compilation. First appearing as the B-side of “So. Central Rain,” R.E.M.’s soulful take on the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” is one of the more indelible tracks from this odds-and-sods collection. Featuring Buck’s requisite jangly guitar, Stipe’s emotive vocals breathe new life into lyrics such as “I thought of you as my mountaintop/ I thought of you as my peak/ I thought of you as just about everything I had but couldn’t keep.” While it may never trump the original version, R.E.M. comes pretty damned close to stealing the song for their own. – David Harris

“9-9 [Live]” (I.R.S. track #23)

Murmur is a fantastic album, but if it has any failing, it’s that it doesn’t quite get across just how good the band was as performers. Much of Murmur is subdued and moody; even the more uptempo tracks like “9-9” don’t really rock in a strict sense. However, once the band got on stage, a lot of these songs really began to pop, and “9-9” translates especially well. Stipe’s manic, unhinged vocal performance carries this version of the song; he’s in absolutely rare form, blowing through the song with an intensity that’s surprising even for his early performances. The records only tell a part of R.E.M.’s story, and now – with the group disbanded – live recordings like these are all the more important. – Kevin Korber

“Ages of You” (I.R.S. track #26)

The fact that this song ended up getting cut from Chronic Town should tell you how good Chronic Town really is, but it’s still a damn shame that “Ages of You” stayed in the vaults until the release of Dead Letter Office in 1987. Everything about this song is vintage early R.E.M.: the jangle on Buck’s guitar, the wonderful contrast between Stipe and Mills’ voices, and the eternally-underrated drum work from Bill Berry. The song’s structure adheres closer to the ‘60s pop traditions that informed the band’s early work, which could be why they decided to leave it in the vault for so long. Still, as a part of the band’s early burst of creativity, “Ages of You” is essential. – Kevin Korber

“Romance” (I.R.S. track #40)

The years and albums that R.E.M. produced after 1988 have made their first singles compilation, Eponymous, something of an inessential oddity. Exactly what drove the band (or I.R.S. Records) to slot “Romance” in with a collection of previously-released material is anyone’s guess, but it’s one of the real reasons why Eponymous is worth checking out at all. It straddles the line between what R.E.M. were and what they were about to become: structurally, the song is very much a product of their early work, but the performance is filled with the sort of arena-ready bombast that was already present on Document and would eventually become the standard practice on Green. It helps make sense of the band’s stylistic shift after their jump to Warner Bros.; it’s just a shame that few people heard it at the time. – Kevin Korber

“Maps and Legends [Live]” (I.R.S. track #45)

Fables of the Reconstruction has the double distinction of being R.E.M.’s most mysterious album and the one album that the band doesn’t seem to like all that much. Joe Boyd’s murky production probably has something to do with the former, so it’s not much of a surprise that the band would peel back that murkiness in later renditions. Here, Stipe is only accompanied by an acoustic guitar, and his subdued, enunciated delivery gives an affecting touch to his mystic, symbol-laden lyrics. While I’ve never quite gotten the band’s hatred for Fables, there are moments where the record seems like a missed opportunity, and this version of “Maps and Legends” serves as a bittersweet reminder of what they could have done. – Kevin Korber

“Swan Swan H [Acoustic]” (I.R.S. track # 48)

This recording is from the film Athens, GA: Inside/Out, a document (nerd pun intended) of the Athens music scene circa the mid-‘80s, with music from Pylon, the B-52s, and many also-rans. R.E.M.’s big scene has them performing in a dilapidated theater, Stipe shaking some sort of staff as band knocks out the song acoustically behind him. “Swan” is a bleak ditty, narrating the fall of the army of Virginia, and by stripping the song of any studio gloss the band makes this point ever clearer. – Rob Rubsam

“(All I Have to Do Is) Dream” (I.R.S. track #49)

At their core, R.E.M. is a classist-leaning pop band; people tend to forget that songs by the Monkees and the Turtles were part of their early repertoire. Therefore, a cover of an Everly Brothers tune makes more sense than one would think. R.E.M.’s covers are often underappreciated in how they pare a song down to its bare essence, and their rendition of “(All I Have to Do Is) Dream” is a perfect example of this. Stipe and Mills give the song the simplest of treatments while following the Everlys’ path emphasizing the strong vocal melody. It’s a version that only R.E.M. could ever think of doing, and as a result, their take on the song could compare to the classic Everlys version. – Kevin Korber

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