R.E.M. made some of the very best albums of the eighties, but they were also a fabulous singles band in a decade when gimmicky one-hit wonders often dominated radio and MTV. The totally organic jangle of “Talk About the Passion”, “Fall on Me”, “Driver 8”, and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” provided a nice contrast (some may say “antidote”) to all of the new romantics, hair bands, and MOR popsters. R.E.M. didn’t just make the most of their short-players to put forth their top-shelf material; they also took advantage of the B-sides to slip out their quirkiest ideas. On the flipside of the brooding “So. Central Rain” you’d find a shambling version of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”. Behind the topical “Fall on Me” is the jazzy noodling of “Rotary Ten”. Under the cape of “Superman” is the surf-movie rush “White Tornado”. On the other side of “Can’t Get There from Here” is the wacko heavy metal pastiche “Burning Hell”. These B’s weren’t all goofs either. The original flips “Ages of You” and “Burning Down” are even more top-shelf than the A-side they support (“Wendell Gee”). The version of “Crazy” that supports “Driver 8” is even better than Pylon’s original, and dare I say, R.E.M.’s breathless, totally sincere, totally killer, totally unexpected cover of “Toys in the Attic” slays Aerosmith’s original. I dared.
A new trio of vinyl reissues showcases all sides of eighties-R.E.M. nicely. Representing their 45 A-sides is the marvelous 1988 compilation Eponymous, a must-have even if you already own all of the albums because of its superior versions of “Radio Free Europe” and “Gardening at Night” and the really good “Romance”, a song much more enduring than the movie for which it was recorded (has anyone actually seen Made in Heaven?). The B-sides are collected on Dead Letter Office, which may not be the most essential R.E.M. album but does contain a lot of essential tracks as described above. Finally, R.E.M.’s long-playing prowess is present on the classic Life’s Rich Pageant, which does double-duty by filling out the R.E.M.-on-45 story with the inclusion of the band’s elating cover of The Clique’s “Superman”, an A-side that was not included on Eponymous for some reason.
The vinyl is standard thickness, which means it isn’t top-of-the-line quality but authentic to the way I.R.S. Records originally issued R.E.M.’s albums (for whatever that’s worth). A bonus of Chronic Town would have been a great supplement to Dead Letter Office since R.E.M.’s debut E.P. is appended to the CD release of Dead Letter Office and quite possibly the best thing they ever did. Lack of mastering details suggests that digital masters were used for these reissues, but they still sound excellent when compared with the original I.R.S. release of Document (the only R.E.M. record I had on hand for comparison purposes). Compared to their original CD equivalents, Life’s Rich Pageant is less muddy and Eponymous and Dead Letter Office are both considerably warmer (the bass solo at the end of “Finest Work Song” is shockingly present), so there are sonic improvements from CD to vinyl all around.