Monday, June 2, 2014

Monday Mix: The Best R.E.M. Rarities

Embracing the theme of "'re too old" a bit here at the blog, welcome to a new feature that I hope we can keep up with a bit. The rise of digital and streaming has really cramped the one thing I spent a ridiculous amount of time doing, and that's making mixtapes and mix CDs. Yes, now I have a rotating Spotify playlist for myself, but the days of trading mixes on CD and such are long, long behind us.

So Spotify makes it easy to share mixes and make mixes, so why not? It's goofy, but maybe you'll find something new and enjoyable. Either way, it's scratching my itch, so at the very least this is a harmless indulgence, right? On occasional-to-every Mondays, we'll share a 20 track mix of something, whether it be a collection of new tracks or some silly themed mix. Have a mix you've been working on? Let us know, and maybe we'll let you feature it here as well!

Today's inaugural mix concerns the recent digital dump of rarities R.E.M. released alongside the Unplugged release last week. While many of these were available in different formats (and, in the case of a few, on a rarities collection called Dead Letter Office in the mid-1980s), this is the first time it was easy to get most of the b-sides and soundtrack pieces from the band in their history. As a completest R.E.M. fan, I had bought countless soundtracks and import singles to basically collect everything they've put out up through Accelerate, so to have them all in one place is great even if some of it kind of isn't.

This mix is more a collection than a cohesive thought. Best heard on shuffle, best enjoyed with an open mind in some cases.

1) "Wall of Death": "Wall of Death" was first a song by Richard and Linda Thompson from their 1982 album Shoot Out the Lights. This version of "Wall of Death" R.E.M. recorded for the 1994 tribute album to Thompson, Beat the Retreat, and was later featured as a b-side to the R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi-Fi track "E-Bow the Letter." This is probably my favorite cover that R.E.M. has ever done, making a nice, folky, straightforward song that would have fit right in with pretty much anything the band was doing during the Out of Time/Automatic for the People era. This is in contrast to the Thompson version that goes for a more country-rock style flavor to the R.E.M. stylings, but listening to the original shows pretty quickly why R.E.M. gravitated toward this song for the tribute.

2) "King of Comedy" (808 State remix): Another New Adventures in Hi-Fi b-side, this is a remix of the Monster track that exchanges its fuzzed out, gravelly form for a more danceable alternative. Released sometime in 1996 on the single for "Electrolite," it's really reflective of the state of electronica at the time, and while I still have a lot of warm feelings toward this remix, I can't honestly say it holds up that well. Definitely more of a curiosity than anything else.

3) "The Great Beyond": In 1992, Automatic for the People had the hit single "Man on the Moon," an homage to Andy Kaufman. The song at least partially inspired the 1999 Jim Carrey biopic of Kaufman with the same name, and R.E.M. was enlisted to score the film. Along with the score came "The Great Beyond," truly one of R.E.M's better Warner Bros. singles and a sequel of sorts to "Man on the Moon." The song is classic R.E.M. from start to finish and might be completely forgotten by you if you weren't into Kaufman or R.E.M. at the time. For a fun Easter egg, listen closely to the last repeat of the chorus toward the end.

4) "Drive" (live version, 1994): "Drive" is another Automatic single, I think the third from the album. The album version is a deliberate, slow folkish song that is truly one of their great songs and sets the tone for Automatic for the People, but R.E.M. pulled out an interesting rock version for a concert in Georgia. I honestly wish a studio version existed for this, and maybe one does in the archives, but this little-heard version is incredibly different from the Automatic version.

5) "Revolution": During the tour for Monster, R.E.M. worked out and recorded a bunch of songs that would later be on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, to create a live album that really wasn't. This also meant that we got a number of songs that didn't end up on the final album, and "Revolution" was one of them. Played enough on the tour that it was featured on the live concert film for the tour, the song was eventually used on the Batman & Robin soundtrack, meaning that arguably the worst Batman of the era still had something good going for it.

6) "Star Me Kitten" (feat. William S. Burroughs): Beat poet William S. Burroughs offered his take on the vocal track for the Automatic for the People song "Star Me Kitten," and it takes an already creepy song and somehow makes it more unsettling. Eventually placed on the X-Files soundtrack compilation, this is one of those weird things that, generally, only a band of the stature of R.E.M. can pull off without it coming across as indulgent.

7) "Fretless": Much like "Revolution," "Fretless" is a track that was left off of Out of Time but still made it into a few R.E.M. playlists along the way, most notably on their 1991 Unplugged appearance. On the HDCD reissue of Out of Time, guitarist Peter Buck bemoaned the fact that the track didn't actually make it on Out of Time and at least implied that the band may try to put it on there on a future reissue. The song was eventually put on the soundtrack to Until the End of the World and offered as a b-side to "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite," so it's gotten its fair share of releases. Fun fact: the song's title comes from the fact that Mike Mills plays a fretless bass on the song.

8) "Funtime" (live 1992): "Funtime" is originally an Iggy Pop song from 1977's The Idiot, and R.E.M. has, for whatever reason, released multiple versions of this cover over the years. I'm still not convinced the song is a great fit for the band, but the 1992 live version does have its fun quirks along the way.

9) "King of the Road" (live in studio): Going back to the IRS years for a bit, "King of the Road" is a, well, classic cover of the Roger Miller country track from 1964. This song was placed on Dead Letter Office, and it's admittedly terrible. The liner notes suggest a drunken recording, it's hard to argue otherwise, but in terms of interesting rarities that show a band's growth, it's hard to ignore.

10) "Bandwagon": "Bandwagon" is another IRS-era track, also featured on Dead Letter Office, and is known for its rapid chord changes and its overall goofy (or, as said in the liner notes, "fruity") tone. Not for nothing, this might be one of the better R.E.M. songs never featured on a proper album, and certainly the best from the IRS years on a whole.

11) "Crazy": Decidedly not the classic country song, this is instead a version of the song by Athens, GA band Pylon. I still hold that Pylon got more publicity from R.E.M. than they ever did on their own, and, well, when R.E.M. arguably does your song better, it might say something (and I say that as someone who became a fan of Pylon). The original is mired in that early-1980s reverb that the R.E.M. version loses in favor of a more straightforward piece.

12) "Toys in the Attic" (Aerosmith cover): It's weird to think of R.E.M. covering an Aerosmith song given what Aerosmith has become since their late-1980s/early-1990s resurgence, but in terms of R.E.M. cover versions, this is at least interesting.

13) "(All I Have To Do Is) Dream" (Everly Brothers cover): It's probably impossible that you don't know the original Everly version, but the R.E.M. version is faithful in all the right ways, and is really one of my favorite covers of theirs. Fits in with their sound quite well.

14) "Romance": "Romance" might be the "Fretless" of the IRS era, a really solid song that would have fit easily on Murmur or Reckoning but instead got placed on the soundtrack to Made in Heaven. It was later put on the compilation Eponymous, which is why most people know it today, but it does have a lot of those great early R.E.M. qualities that are easy to forget with their later work.

15) "It's a Free World, Baby": "It's a Free World, Baby" is another track from the Out of Time sessions that failed to make the cut. In terms of fun songs, it's certainly better than "Fretless" and "Radio Song" from the same sessions, but I can at least understand, from a tonal point of view, why the band chose not to feature it on the album. It was later featured on the soundtrack to Friends (of all things), and definitely worked better on that album on a whole. If you don't know this song, you'll probably dig it.

16) "First We Take Manhattan": This is a cover of the Leonard Cohen song, offered up on the I'm Your Man tribute album as well as the single for Automatic song "Drive." I've long maintained that cover versions of Leonard Cohen songs are far superior to their original versions, and "First We Take Manhattan" is no different, offering a sense of urgency and complexity that isn't readily apparent in the original.

17) "The Lion Sleeps Tonight": A cover of the classic Tokens song, this was featured on the single to "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" for obvious reasons. Completely goofy from start to finish, but still really fun. Not much else to say.

18) "Be Mine" (Mike on Bus version)": "Be Mine" is one of the more underrated songs from New Adventures in Hi-Fi, being a weird stalkery love song in many regards. Eventually released on the single for "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," the stripped down version at least implies that Mike Mills is the singer, but I'm honestly not 100% sure anymore. Regardless, it's an interesting version in comparison to the fuzzed out, complete version on Hi-Fi.

19) "Sponge" (Vic Chestnutt cover): Also from the "How the West Was Won" single (as well as the 1996 Sweet Relief benefit album for Chestnutt), the song is really a different take on the original, that relies on a lot of strings and more folky elements. Michael Stipe is doing his best Vic Chestnutt delivery throughout, which can often be a little questionable, but, on a whole, this is a very cool take on a little-heard song.

20) "Love is All Around" (Troggs cover): If someone told me that this was collectively R.E.M.'s favorite song, I wouldn't be shocked, as I can think of no fewer than three different versions of this song being released over the years. This version is a studio version, recorded for the I Shot Andy Warhol soundtrack and also a "How the West Was Won" b-side, and really reflects the fact that the band had been playing around with this song for at least five years and probably longer. Also, you usually can't go wrong with a Mike Mills-lead effort, so it's a fine way to close things out here.

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