Deep Cuts: REM
Statistics show – and please don’t ask to see the statistics, because someone set their coffee down on them, it spilled, and now the ink’s all smeared, so you can’t read them, anyway – that there are essentially only two types of R.E.M. fans: those who discovered the band prior to the release of their 1987 album, Document, and those who discovered them when the band’s single, “The One I Love,” unexpectedly began its stampede into the Billboard Top 10.
Me, I cut it pretty close. I discovered them with Dead Letter Office, a B-sides and rarities collection that showed up in stores scant months before Document... but, still, if there’s a fence, I’m on the side where I can wave over it and point and laugh like Nelson Muntz, saying, “HA-ha!”
I first heard R.E.M. when “Fall On Me” scored some minimal mainstream radio airplay in 1986, but, on a field trip with my high school journalism class, I ended up hearing Lifes Rich Pageant – the album from which “Fall On Me” originates – in its entirety, which piqued my interest enough to invest in a cassette copy of the aforementioned Dead Letter Office. I must’ve read Peter Buck’s liner notes about the origins and histories of that album’s contents a hundred times – no small feat, given the tiny type in that tape cover – and I decided that I was definitely going to be picking up more of the band’s recorded output.
So I did.
It’s almost 20 years later now, and I’ve got all of the band’s studio albums, as well as a handful of CD singles, a best-of collection, a rarities disc, and – shhhhhhh, don’t tell anyone! – even a bootleg or two. I’ve seen them live three times, and even had a close encounter with Bill Berry as he wandered the campus of the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, before the band’s show – with openers 10,000 Maniacs, no less – at William and Mary Hall. You may be familiar with the concert in question; Peter Buck immortalized it in the pages of Rolling Stone when he bitched about getting nailed in the head by a wet sweatsock...which, come to think of it, would explain why our encore got cut short.
So armed with that knowledge and experience, here are my picks for some of R.E.M.’s best deep cuts:
1. “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars),” Chronic Town EP – From the get go, it was obvious that Michael Stipe was not going to be going out of his way to have his lyrics understood, but you can at least make out that this is where the title of the band’s first EP came from. Dig the creepy circus music that starts the song; it makes for a great mix disc opener.
2. “Perfect Circle,” Murmur – One of the loveliest songs in R.E.M.’s catalog, it remains a favorite of many fans...and, apparently, of the band themselves; even 22 years down the road, they still break it out in concert once in awhile.
3. “We Walk,” Murmur – It’s an inconsequential little number buried near the end of the album, but damned if your head doesn’t bob every time you listen to it.
4. “7 Chinese Brothers,” Reckoning – Peter Buck’s chiming guitar, with a little helping from the occasional plinking of a piano, is what drives the song. The track was revisited on the flip side of “So. Central Rain” in the form of “Voice of Harold,” where Stipe recited all new lyrics over the same music. But it’s the original that’s “a must.”
5. “Second Guessing,” Reckoning – It’s a pop song, pure and simple, coming in at under three minutes in length...2:50, to be precise. Stipe spends most of the time asking, “Why are you trying to second guess me,” but it’s the bit where he and Mills harmonize on the line, “Here we are,” that makes the track.
6. “Feeling Gravitys Pull,” Fables of the Reconstruction – The guitar bit that opens and runs through this song is to Peter Buck what the riff in “How Soon Is Now?” is to Johnny Marr: it’s instantly recognizable as his. A dark opening to an album that doesn’t really lighten up much from there.
7. “Auctioneer (Another Engine),” Fables of the Reconstruction – Berry pounds his way through the verse, Buck gets off-kilter during the chorus, and Stipe actually sounds a little scared when he’s singing...which is understandable, as it’s kind of a creepy song.
8. “These Days,” Lifes Rich Pageant – It’s a rocker, it’s a stomper, it’s practically jet-propelled. Take this joy wherever you go.
9. “Underneath the Bunker,” Lifes Rich Pageant – Say what you will, but I will defend this throwaway semi-Mexican instrumental with my dying breath. Cha cha cha.
10. “I Believe,” Lifes Rich Pageant – The country banjo that begins the track might throw you off for a few seconds, but when the pop song portion really kicks in, just surrender to the soaring chorus.
11. “Bandwagon,” Dead Letter Office – Peter Buck says it better in the liner notes than I ever could. “This song was originally called ‘the fruity song’ because of all the stupid chord changes. Still one of the funniest songs we’ve ever written.” It really is pretty goofy, but it’s fun as hell.
12. “King of Birds,” Document – There was a joke a few years ago about how Oasis stole their album title Standing on the Shoulders of Giants not from Isaac Newton but from the lyrics to this song. It might well be true. Berry sounds like he’s playing in a military band during the verses, and Stipe’s voice is at its best when he sings, “A hundred million birds fly away.”
13. “Romance,” Eponymous – Okay, so it’s not all that deep a cut if it’s on the band’s first greatest-hits collection...but once upon a time, it was. (It was originally only available on the soundtrack to Made in Heaven.)
14. “You Are The Everything,” Green – After the stomp of “Pop Song ‘89” and the bounce of “Get Up,” this mandolin-led track, which opens with the sound of crickets chirping, is the first time the band’s Warner Brothers debut takes a moment to relax.
15. “First We Take Manhattan,” I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen – On a tribute disc that includes Cohen covers from the likes of Ian McCulloch, Lloyd Cole, Nick Cave, the Pixies, and John Cale, it’s quite an accomplishment that R.E.M. got to lead the pack out of the starting gate. The decision to have Stipe sing the verse and Mills the chorus is inspired.
16. “Texarkana,” Out of Time – Michael Stipe steps into the role of backing vocalist and Mike Mills takes the lead. It's a rarity in the band's catalog - it occurs on "Superman," as well as on "Near Wild Heaven" - but hasn't happened since, so the change in dynamic must’ve really freaked the band out; that’s a shame, as Mills does a solid job here.
17. “Ignoreland,” Automatic for the People – Stipe undergoes voice distortion as he goes on a vitriolic rant about President Bush the First. It’s a song that doesn’t necessarily fit the mood of the album on which it appears, but it’s still a strong track.
18. “Star 69,” Monster – No, it’s not a great album...but this is a great track. It’s a punky little rocker, with Stipe turning up the vocal distortion again as he howls, “I know you called.”
19. “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” New Adventures in Hi-Fi – Lots of folks swear by this album, which was recorded in hotel rooms and backstage rooms around the world, but it’s always been a real snooze to me, which makes it all the more disappointing that this, the lead track, is so solid.
20. “Beachball,” Reveal – Apparently, Stipe and Buck had been listening to their Brian Wilson and Jimmy Webb albums during the recording of this song, given how it drips with strings, horns, and sun-drenched harmonies.
21. “The Outsiders,” Around the Sun – Although the album as a whole is disappointing, this is a great track, highlighted by a surprising but effective appearance from Q-Tip, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest.
Bonus track: “I Got You Babe,” 20th Century Boys – Don’t bother looking for this in your local Wal-Mart; not only is it a bootleg, but it’s long since out of print. But if you do, by some slim chance, happen to stumble across an opportunity to hear this Sonny and Cher cover, take advantage of it, because you’ll never, ever forget it. They’re drunk, they don’t know the words (I’m pretty sure there’s no lyric where Sonny says, “I’ve got you to wash my clothes”), and they’re sloppy enough to make even the late, great Bob Stinson go, “Damn, man, ya’ll sound pretty rough.” It’s complete and total shit, and yet, you can’t help but grin all the way through it. Michael Stipe has become such a pariah over the years that it’s somehow comforting to hear this and remember that, once upon a time, he was just another guy fronting a bar band.
If you think I’ve left anything out, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.