[17 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
R.E.M. never really released a Warner Bros. sequel to rarities collection Dead Letter Office. The band had enough material to do so, and it’s too bad they didn’t cash in on it in the pre-Napster days of high CD sales. No, the closest this legendary band ever came to doing that was with the bonus CD for limited pressings of In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003. R.E.M.‘s Warner Bros. tenure was a difficult thing for the band and for the fans, many of whom consider the group’s wild success to be a mixed blessing at best. After all, with a major label contract comes major label expectations. Not only do the album sales have to justify the recording budgets; the band also has to hit the road for a world tour. And when you hit the road, play the hits! But don’t go making them sound too different lest you ruffle the feathers of the average Joe who discovered you the night before last on the radio. And if you’re going to continue to do silly covers, do them on your own time. We have people lined up who want to remix your songs so that we can sell them as b-sides.
To say it was difficult for everyone is an understatement. R.E.M.‘s popularity exploded globally and many a fan in the indie crowd turned a cold shoulder. Then, drummer Bill Berry collapsed onstage from a brain tumor during the Monster world tour, only to quit the band two years later. They parted ways with longtime manager Jefferson Holt and longtime producer Scott Litt. Sales fell and the band came close to breaking up at least twice during the whole thing. You can accuse R.E.M. of selling out if you like, but it’s almost as if they were just not cut out for mainstream success. They had it, but it didn’t seem to agree with them. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that Complete Rarities – Warner Bros. 1988-2011 is all over the place, making its companion release Complete Rarities – I.R.S. 1982-1987 look cut-and-dry by comparison. The first thing that catches your eye is just how enormous it is—131 tracks lasting over eight hours. That means you can get work at 9:00, start the playlist, and hear nothing but R.E.M. until quitting time. It took a tremendous amount of time to download and an extraordinary amount of time just to unzip the file. This is, after all, 23 years worth of scrap recordings.
When R.E.M. was deep in its post-“Losing My Religion” fame, the band’s writing process began to change. Before, the members seemed to always have a surplus of originals that could be used on a future album or as a b-side or none of the above, like “Burning Down”, “Ages of You”, “Bad Day”, and “All the Right Friends”. After R.E.M. began filling stadiums, that surplus shrunk to mostly tossed-off covers or Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry indulging themselves in some light instrumental experimentation. And I can only guess that’s why Complete Rarities - Warner Bros. 1988-2011 is mostly live tracks and covers, because R.E.M. were no longer just writing “batches” of songs but were writing songs specifically tailored for albums. Complete Rarities - Warner Bros. 1988-2011 is a broad canvas that captures that changing dynamic, for better and/or worse.
This collection is way too large to discuss in minute detail, so first I’ll address what’s missing. First, they could have included the sequel to “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” since it’s a non-album track. Secondly, nothing from the remix album for Reveal is here. And thirdly, I know there are scads more live recordings made since 1988 than what they have here. There were many high-quality ones piggybacking on some of the Out of Time singles. Even the heavily-bootlegged but still solid Songs for a Green World showed fans what “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” could really sound like under some heavy adrenaline. But most of the live tracks on Complete Rarities – Warner Bros. 1988-2011 are short on such vitals, making R.E.M. sound like a bored jukebox at worst. The megahit “Losing My Religion” appears three times on this package and never in those three renditions does it stray from the original single. This rings true for most of the live material on Complete Rarities – Warner Bros. 1988-2011. Of the seventy-odd live tracks here, be they acoustic renditions, studio rehearsals, soundchecks, or in-concert, only a handful improve upon or differentiate from their originals.
R.E.M.‘s tastes for covers was inconsistent through their Warner Bros. tenure. One moment they’re doing Syd Barrett’s “Dark Globe” and Robyn Hitchcock’s “Arms of Love”. The next they’re doing Iggy Pop’s “Funtime” and Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, the latter sounding like Stipe was hungover when recording his vocal take. If R.E.M. ever had a specific musical influence, they did a good job of hiding it when paying tribute to the Ohio Players, the Troggs’ Richard Thompson, and Leonard Cohen. Their cover of “First We Take Manhattan”, recorded somewhere around 1991, probably would have fit on the Out of Time album without distracting anyone too much. Out of Time‘s two well-known outtakes, “Fretless” and “It’s a Free World Baby”, have seen the light of day for a while. And like the Cohen cover, their inclusion might have given the album some more substance, despite “Free World”‘s corniness (call: “I hit my head”, response: “he hit his head!”).
Like the I.R.S. rarities collection, Complete Rarities – Warner Bros. 1988-2011 runs chronologically. As the collection moves along, the live tracks multiply. You hear songs from New Adventures in Hi-Fi being tested on crowds on the Monster tour (if I’m not mistaken, the takes you hear on H-Fi come from soundchecks). You also get to relive the three Monster songs the band performed on Saturday Night Live. This is noteworthy for two reasons. First, Michael Stipe played guitar on “I Don’t Sleep I Dream”, albeit for maybe four bars. Secondly, he got away with singing “Don’t fuck with me” on “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Speaking of Monster, “Kenneth” and “Bang and Blame” are included as a “radio edit” and “album version without between-track noise”. Worthless. The 2003 single “Animal” has a “new mix”. “What’s the big deal?” goes the chorus. Indeed, what is the big deal?
But a collection would have to work a lot harder at sucking to drag down over eight hours of music. “Revolution” always sounded too fast for Monster and New Adventures, so it’s nice that it finally has a home that isn’t a limited-edition bonus CD. I’ve always liked the alternate, ambient version of “Leave” just because I was driving through heavy snowfall when I first heard it 11 years ago. And the demo for “The Lifting” shows how hard the band worked at making the song sound the way it did on Reveal. Another sort-of perk is that the iTunes exclusive EP Live from London is featured in its entirety. The band bulldozes through five songs from Accelerate and four songs from various points in their past, including an amped up “Auctioneer (Another Engine)”.
R.E.M.‘s Warner Bros. career was, politely put, inconsistent. It stands to reason that a rarities collection would be even more all-over-the-map than the albums of the time. The good moments approach great and the lesser moments can be downright baffling. Not everything deserved the remastering treatment, but this is one of those instances where a track’s obscure status trumps overall taste. Considering the asking price for the download as of this writing, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. But some people love The Beatles’ White Album because it’s too big and inconsistent. Does a double album with 30 songs, one of them being “Revolution 9”, diminish your enjoyment of The Beatles? If the answer is “no”, then proceed to click on download button. Just be sure to come up for air every once in a while. This is a lot of R.E.M., even for those who prefer their Warner years.