You are looking at a large digital package of mostly previously released material. These 50 tracks spanning two hours and 45 minutes qualify as “rarities” in the sense that they were not initially included on the five LPs and the one EP that R.E.M. released for the I.R.S. label. Apart from that, many of these have seen the light of day before now. The odds and sods collections Dead Letter Office and In the Attic: Alternative Recordings 1985-1989 doled out covers, b-sides and a few alternate mixes while the I.R.S. summaries Eponymous and the bonus disc for And I Feel Fine…: The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 plucked out the occasional lost song in a sea of alternate takes, demos and live recordings. Combine that with what on Complete Rarities – I.R.S. 1982-1987 wasn’t accounted for until now and it’s hard to imagine R.E.M. cupboards being any more bare at this point. Don’t get too used to the idea of a “new” R.E.M. release, because this and its companion release Complete Rarities – Warner Bros. 1988-2011 might be all there is left.
Unlike one of their English counterparts at the time the Smiths, who released b-sides that could rival their a-sides in quality, American college radio favorites R.E.M. often used the flipside of a 45 as an excuse to screw around. Guitarist Peter Buck even admitted to this in the Dead Letter Office liner notes. All of the hard work, spinning of southern myth and frustrating tension went into Fables of the Reconstruction and Murmur. The Floyd Cramer and Aerosmith covers landed elsewhere. Complete Rarities – I.R.S. 1982-1987, the ultimate elsewhere, runs more-or-less chronologically, neatly laying out another side of the band’s history. It’s starting point even predates their I.R.S. contract — tracks one and two are both sides of their Hib-Tone single that managed to draw the attention of the Village Voice reader’s poll in 1981. A-side “Radio Free Europe” is the punked-up version that greets you at the door of Eponymous while the b-side “Sitting Still” sounds comparatively closer to its brother recording on Murmur . “Gardening at Night” appears four times. While it’s debatable to say that this is one of R.E.M.’s greatest I.R.S.-era songs, its prominence in the compilation shows the listener just how many transformations a band can impose to just one song.
If you’re looking to slim down your CD collection, this package includes everything from Dead Letter Office, everything that was exclusive to Eponymous and everything from In the Attic with the exception of one track (the radio edit of “Can’t Get There From Here”, if you really wanted to know). It’s even got their cover of “All I Have to Do Is Dream” where Bill Berry botches his entrance, their cover of “Femme Fatale” where Michael Stipe overshoots his note in the chorus on the word “please”, and their cover of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” where someone drunkenly shouts out the names of the chords. The three tracks from a 1983 show in Boston — “Ages of You”, “We Walk” and “1,000,000” — can give listeners a good shot of regret for 1) never catching R.E.M. live at this time and 2) realizing that many of these shows were delegated to the status of the lo-fidelity bootleg. This release goes just part way in making up for that. The three songs from the Boston show along with live versions of “9-9”, “Catapult”, “Gardening at Night” and live “in the studio” takes of future album tracks like “Just a Touch” absolutely pummel the illegally recorded and distributed shows that my brother and I used to pick up from the underground stores near the local university. Why, oh why didn’t R.E.M. release a legitimate live album during their I.R.S. tenure?
Because R.E.M. could also be sloppy live. Some of the live “in the studio” tracks find Michael Stipe struggling to hit the right notes, especially on their cover of (gulp) “Moon River”. Stipe seemed to be particularly vulnerable in intimate settings. Live acoustic takes of “Disturbance at the Heron House”, “The One I Love” and “Maps and Legends” find him just hanging in there for most of the time, but the biggest error is saved for last. Track fifty is a live medley that I distinctly remember from my “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” CD single. It’s just Stipe and an electric guitar, presumably played by Buck, quietly taking their time through the Reckoning tracks “Time After Time” and “So. Central Rain” while paying a brief visit to Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain” in between. Buck must have given Stipe the root note for his a cappella start, but Stipe mistook it as his starting/pickup note. By the time Buck enters with his guitar at the 0:20 mark, it’s clear that these two men are in two different keys. Stipe realizes this at the 0:26 mark and mutters his way down to the correct key by 0:34. It’s kind of funny because this live medley sounds so deathly serious otherwise.
I haven’t even addressed the goofiest moment of this collection, which is R.E.M.’s cover of Archie Bell’s “Tighten Up”. It’s not that bad, as far as R.E.M. covers go. Michael Stipe uses the moment to chew the microphone, announcing Mike Mills as “Mr. Bass!” and Buck as “Mr. Guitar Man!” He introduces the vibraphone player as “Mitch”, leading me to believe they are in Mitch Easter’s studio at this point. Speaking of tightening up, those who got excited about the Warner Bros. collection In Time will recognize looser cousins of “All the Right Friends” and “Bad Day”, the latter being previously known as “PSA”. “All the Right Friends” would grow significantly more concise by the time it made it to the Vanilla Sky soundtrack and “Bad Day” would receive just enough polish to warrant a single for R.E.M.’s casual fans circa 2003.
And that’s not who this collection is for. This collection is for the people who want to hear the songs that never made it past the demo stage like “Theme from Two Steps Onward” and “Mystery to Me”. It’s for the people who don’t mind sitting through four different versions of “Gardening at Night”. It’s for those who would rather hear Michael Stipe hit ten flat notes before hearing anyone else hit the right note. It’s for the people who embrace the band’s blemishes just as unconditionally as they embrace their classic moments. In other words, you have to care more about R.E.M. than you care about your own family. You don’t have to be that fanatical to buy the thing, you just need to be that fanatical to love it. For everyone else, it’s pretty good.