Tuesday, July 13, 2010

R.E.M. • Fables of the Reconstruction (25th Anniversary Ed.)

'Twas a difficult album for R.E.M. to make, that's for sure. After the nonstop touring and promotion of their first two LPs and an EP, 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction was high time for the band to take stock of their assets and see if there was anything new they could do with them. What they came up with, along with producer/folk music icon Joe Boyd, was a moody album that made both the band and their fans feel gravity's pull. Another album of Murmur/Reckoning-ish tunes, produced by the team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, might have been a safe move, but on the other hand, laying down some quick 'n' dirty demos and then flying halfway around the world to record them properly might be a better way to do it.

In hindsight, Fables feels more like the introduction to their next album, Lifes Rich Pageant, than it does an addition to the foundation they had already laid down. You still couldn't understand half of what Michael Stipe was singing, but the music Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills came up with made Stipe sound like an instrument, and that's what made this record so great. The multi-guitars, bass and drums, plus a horn section here and a string section there, were a harkening back to the '70s, when vocals weren't mixed so far in the front, yet the album was like nothing from that decade. Kudos to Joe Boyd (read his book White Bicycles for more about him and the era he came from) for doing it the way he did, in England instead of the States, and to R.E.M. for having the balls to jump off the bandwagon they'd soon find they created.

This 25th Anniversary edition has been remastered, and I'm still not sure if I like it better than the original vinyl or the first and second CD editions that came out, but I do like the presentation. Two discs come in a nice box that will stand out on your CD shelf (if it even fits), and there are four "postcards" and a huge poster (I think I had the same poster when the album first came out in '85), too. The second disc features 14 demos of the songs intended for the album, and that includes three that didn't make it. What's great about these demos is you can really hear the basic ideas for the songs, so you can make the leap to Boyd's eventual production and really appreciate the final LP. And what's more, you can understand most of what Michael sang! (There are a few tunes where he doesn't quite have the lyrics finished, though.) Unadorned they may be, but they're a valuable touchstone in trying for yourself to reconstruct the fables of the reconstruction.
4/5 (IRS/Capitol)

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