Welcome to the third edition of my Non-Album Tracks series, dealing with a selection of my favourite B-sides, standalone singles and other songs from releases that were not studio albums. In the last installment, I managed to go wildly off-topic multiple times – something I’m keen to rein in. Since my massive R.E.M. obsession which lasted the bulk of the 1990s was covered in one of that post’s many digressions, I’m hoping that, by choosing an R.E.M. song this time, I will be less prone to my typical tangents. We’ll see how that works out. I have a feeling I might be starting off with a preamble…
R.E.M. – ‘Wolves, Lower’
Chronic Town [EP – 1982]
Also available on:
Dead Letter Office [CD] 
Ah, EPs. Strange beasts. They’re longer than singles; shorter than albums. But since there are an array of definitions and interpretations of what singles and albums are, that puts the format in a massive grey area, dense with confusion. While there are plenty of archetypal, 5- or 6-song, 15- to 20-minute examples, there are many anomalies. A recent high-profile example would be Lady Gaga’s late-2009 release, The Fame Monster: it is eight songs and over 34 minutes long; three of its tracks were released as individual singles. And yet it, like Nine Inch Nails’ similarly-sized Broken by , is not an “album”. In years to come, Gaga’s back catalogue of studio albums will read “The Fame , Born This Way …” and so on. This is possibly down to its planned/alternative life as a bonus add-on to the re-release of the fame, but regardless, the end result is that this release holds a somewhat awkward position in the artists canon of releases.
This odd, in-between status is shared by the more typical EPs. And unlike Gaga’s stupendous popular “EP”, these are more likely to be forgotten about – or lose their individual identity if/when they are absorbed into compilations or other releases. Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ utterly excellent 5-song, self-titled debut release has been eclipsed in the history books by Fever to Tell. The now-standard inclusion of Pixies Come On Pilgrim* on the CD version of Surfer Rosa (in this part of the world at least) does a double-disservice: the former becomes a tacked-on extra, while the latter’s structure becomes perverted (à la the bonus track thing I complained about here) – ‘Brick Is Red’ is brilliantly realized album closer, yet so many listeners don’t know that it closes an album!
R.E.M.’s first EP, Chronic Town is 20 minutes long, contains five songs and was first released in 1982 – a year after their debut single and about eight months before their debut album. However, I’m willing to wager most people who are familiar with it know it as those five tracks at the end of the Dead Letter Office CD. That’s certainly how I first came to know it – though, predictably enough, it took me a while to figure out that it was actually a separate entity, as opposed to the preceding mish-mash of B-sides and other rarities compiled on the collection. But I guess that’s the whole point – and the point of this thread of posts: since it is not one of the bands “proper” albums, its songs become part of the mish-mash, destined to be regarded as offshoots or asides, if regarded at all.
Which is sad, because they’re an excellent bunch of songs. In particular, the first song: ‘Wolves, Lower’. It goes a little something like this:
This is pure “early R.E.M.” – back when Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker still jangled the jangle with those arpeggios and no one could understand what Michael Stipe was singing about (or, often enough, what words he was actually singing). It has it all. The guitar leads the way, soon augmented by Mike Mills’s propulsive-yet-melodic bass and Bill Berry’s tight drums to create a tense, nervy atmosphere. And that’s before Stipe comes in with his crazy “Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, don’t get caught” stuff.
How does one “suspicion” oneself exactly? Suspicion isn’t a verb, Michael! I remember, when the 2004 single ‘Leaving New York’ came out and people were harping on about the “Leaving was never my proud” line and how ungrammatical it was. People didn’t harp on about ‘Wolves, Lower’, though. Perhaps because the line works better. Perhaps because ‘Wolves…’ is a better song overall. Most likely, though, it’s because ‘Wolves, Lower’ was heard by an audience only a tiny fraction of the later song’s. Anyway, the “suspicion yourself” phrase DOES work brilliantly, so grammar can just feck off on this one.
suspicion yourself from Wolves is just bad grammer [sic], but it works. Well it’s in a song called Lower Wolves that is titled on the record as Wolves, Lower. What did you expect? [Michael Stipe]
Around the 0:49 mark, the song takes an upward turn as we come out of the murky verses and build up to the chorus part. Stipe starts singing out, the backing vocals come in and Buck adds a dinky little guitar lick in there. And then it’s the chorus. For this, Mike Mills and Bill Berry sing the lyrics (“House in order”) while Stipe does some wordless ah-ing. It’s a strategy that served “early R.E.M.” pretty well. On the Live at the Olympia release, the band plays ‘Letter Never Sent’ from Reckoning, after which an audience member compliments Stipe on his repeated “ohs” in the song. He explains: “that was [a] just go “ooh” and “aah” and let Mike and Bill do everything kind of song.” Ditto ‘Wolves…’, which, incidentally, is also included on Live at the Olympia (which, incidentally, is a fantastically good live album, well worth your time).
Other than the briefest of breaks after the second chorus, that’s it. R.E.M. were never big on guitar solos, partially because Buck wasn’t a particularly skilled (in the traditional sense) guitarist and probably also because the guitar wasn’t really the band’s lead instrument. I can’t remember if it was said about R.E.M. or if it was Joy Division instead, but either way… R.E.M. – certainly in their earlier recordings – were a band where each instrument, Stipe’s voice included, acted as kind of lead instruments. Each member did his own thing, never encroaching on what the other members were playing, resulting in four distinct parts coming together, retaining their individuality while also combining forces to become something greater.
I shall leave you with some fan footage of ‘Wolves, Lower’ played at the Olympia. Enjoy!
*Apparently, Come On Pilgrim, is not really an EP either, it’s a “mini-LP” – longer than an EP, but shorter than an LP…