For those of you that have not headed over to REMHQ yet, R.E.M. is offering up their first song off their upcoming album ‘Collapse Into Now’ free for download.
I am inkling for the thoughts of providing a correspondence this time around among peers in the blogosphere about the new album. One such person is Matt Marrone, who for the past, I do not know how many years has been cheering on the Cheating Yankees which has allowed for his mind to get warped.
What he is, is a fan of R.E.M., I can say that much. I am hoping that we can create a verbal correspondence and maybe others will join in as well. I would encourage you to follow Matt on Twitter as well as myself or if you are a Facebook fan I will be posting updates to both blogs on my REMring Facebook Page.
First I want to send my public condolences for the fact that you lost out in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. I see that the Yankees of course are thinking forward with the thoughts of signing Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, on top of the fact they got Larry Rothschild in there too as a pitching coach. But enough about the Skankees.
Word on the street indicates that you like the new song. Well we need to talk to you and have an intervention with some good hand claps if possible.
At what point do we ask ourselves, well, at least they are still playing instruments and singing music? Should I somehow appreciate the current tunes they are playing now. Do you remember when Monster was released? Do you remember the first tune that was heard on the radio? ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’ Just go back in your notes and compare the lyrics for the first couple lines of both songs.
"What's the frequency, Kenneth?" is your Benzedrine, uh-huh
I was brain-dead, locked out, numb, not up to speed
I thought I'd pegged you an idiot's dream
Tunnel vision from the outsider's screen
I never understood the frequency, uh-huh
You wore our expectations like an armored suit, uh-huh
Now this is interesting. A song about some nut that attacks Dan Rather and starts screaming “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”. Brilliant in the fact that the song is a hard rocking song and from the listener’s point of view, 15+ years later, I am still wondering what the fuck Mr. Stipe is talking about.
This is what made him so brilliant. And this song among others as I am well aware of is what made you a huge R.E.M. fan to begin with. Do you have your huge Monster punching bag somewhere? You would know that I would sit and defend that album as one of the great albums of the decade for the mere fact that nothing else sounds quite like it.
But then we get this…
Hey baby, this is not a challenge
It just means that I love you as much as I always said I did
I was wrong. I have been laughable wrong, sandpaper, paper mache, chalk and hung out wet.
I am not really sure what the sandpaper has anything to do with it other than the fact that ‘Sandpaper Catheter’ would be a great band name (although I cannot take credit for this as it was discoverered during a night of heavy drinking amongst friends).
But really we almost have a letter written by a forelorned lover over a simple incident of not putting down the toilet seat and getting mad for getting blamed for it. How does this make some great rock song?
Now I admit that we should give them credit for a couple things, one being the ability to download and listen to a song for free. Of course, this was a bit of a surprise and kudos for the band thinking forward and using this type of marketing to get people into the band because the obvious point is to create some interest and a mailing list perhaps so that they can keep fans informed of the latest offerings for ‘Collapse Into Now’.
However, when you do that, you need a great song to go along with it. Discoverer is not that great song but a song written for the lowest common denominator, which I guess works due to the fact that I did not have to pay to get a copy of it, i.e. Why should I complain, the song is for free? defense.
There were some good points. I loved Bill Rieflin’s drums on the song, although, I just wish that they were mixed a little better so they were more prominent. I thought the guitar work was interesting but the subject matter of the song just left me wanting more.
Should we even discuss the chorus? “Naa Naa Naa Naa”
The verses just seem to pile up on each other and Michael doesn’t sound smooth in his delivery but we have another “Shouting” song.
This is not the rock and roll tune that makes me want to get excited about this album. This is the rock and roll tune that says to me that they are looking forward to playing huge festivals.
Just the slightest bit of finesse
Might of made a little less mess
Are they writing this for customer service manuals?
Lastly, I do not want to hear from you that this reminds you of some classic R.E.M. album. Classic R.E.M. albums sound unique from the others which is what makes them classic and has allowed them to “Redefine” their sound. However, if they planned on trying to reproduce albums like Green and Hi Fi for this album, I can only say that they should have called it “R.E.M. By Numbers”.
I would hope that you have spoken to your shrink about the debacle with Cliff Lee that you would be able to give an honest opinion about this song.
"Clap Clap Clap"
Your Biggest Fan
I read the term ‘Alt-Rock Godfathers’ when discussing R.E.M. in a recent article about their new album “Collapse into Now” (available Spring 2011) that made me want to reach for my journal and start keeping tabs on all the different descriptions this band of 30 plus years has encountered. Maybe I have fun with how R.E.M. is deemed in the 21st century with their legacy and how it is viewed in the music community. I also think you learn a little bit by what people are saying and how it is described.
It is funny that 12 years ago, their first album without Bill Berry (Up) was released to little fanfare, although it turns out this album still sits among my favorites of theirs without the man behind the drum kit. The album was muddy and disjointed, and at the same time very endearing, like Fables of the Reconstruction. It saw a band in turmoil stop the ‘Bandwagon’ on a dime and come out with an album that was not typical ‘R.E.M.’ Drumkits? They worked. Airportman? Great opening track. Falls to Climb? Yes, Peter was right that the mandolin version of this song was not as good. It's an album about feeling lost and easily succeeds in proving it's point.
The last 12 years have focused from the fans perspective of coming out with that “Great R.E.M. Album”, the kind they made in the 80s or 90s that cemented them on top of the yearly lists for best albums as if the name R.E.M. had just been permanently etched up there. I seem to read or begin conversation like “I love R.E.M but the last 10 years have been pretty dull.”
Somewhere along the way they lost themselves. Maybe when they write their stories about their lives they will not look directly inward but blame a bad turn, or maybe it was just the environment in general.
And so we are focused on another album coming up this spring and fans like myself have to start worrying about whether it is something that I will be wearing out my iPod with or something that will collect electron dust in the back of iTunes.
As I sit here and write this I collectively say to myself that I care. I have cared enough to say when something sucks, when something is not quite right, when something becomes pedestrian and I ache to listen to Murmur or Lifes Rich Pageant because well, they just simply rocked.
Of course, I am just like any other selfish fan out there, sorta playing the Tea Party role. It is all about “Me”. Of course I am being a bit facetious but the fact of the matter remains that I want them to come out with the Great American Rock and Roll album once again for my own pleasures. The rest, as they say, will sort itself out.
I admit it is a difficult task as my own bias is my worst enemy. Comparing any new album to the likes of Murmur is a huge monkey on your back.
If you have not heard already from the articles in both Spin and Rolling Stone is that the new R.E.M. album will feature guest vocals from Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith and Peaches. At the outset of hearing this news I feel much more confident that there is not a rapper on this album, something that just did not mesh right with the sound that R.E.M. was making.
The interesting feature of some of their choices is that they chose the Punk Godmother in Smith and protégé in Eddie Vedder, a symbolic shout out that yes, the artists that paved the way for today’s buzz clips are trying to once again be the buzz.
They have chosen to change the way that they write music. I think in the process of making music, they got lost. It became too predictable and too mundane. Songs like ‘How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us’ was a spur of the moment creation in the studio and a great track at that. This process of Peter and Mike writing songs and having Michael listen to the instrumentals and write tracks seemed to run its course. Something had to break with the process and the failures of ‘Around the Sun’ and what we see is a band that is not trying to “Mail It In” as they would say but work against their own stubbornness and figure out the solution in a different manner, one where they might not actually see the end in sight. And I admit that might be a scary scenario at times but it is also this tension, which I believe creates that element of surprise.
But lets face it, for a band like R.E.M. to make another classic R.E.M. album to match something like Automatic or Murmur creates a relevance for them that is not matched much in the music business today.
In tweeting with Jordan (www.athensmusicjunkie.com), she still has that desire to see the band live a couple more times before they hang it up. Obviously there is a true ethereal effect of seeing a band live that will attract any ‘Music Junkie’ , especially one that lives in Athens.
Conversely, I have argued to the latter that a classic album will be more enduring for their legacy than another tour.
I have had this discussion as well in with others regarding bands of the 80’s and 90’s can still rake in the ticket sales with tours. There will always be a base of fans that will want to see R.E.M. live and hear the hits. There are very few bands/artists, however, that can claim classic albums in three decades. Consider for a moment that ‘Collapse into Now’ hitting 9.2 on the Pitchfork scale or having a score of 87 on Metacritic.
Before we all start hyperventilating and calling this the album of 2011, I just point out the odds that great albums don’t grow on trees. But as a fan this is what I hope for. A show is a 2-hour live experience. An album is an experience that can become part of your life.
The 21st Century has provided R.E.M. with 3 (un)forgettable albums to add to their canon. When one retraces R.E.M.’s career, these albums will not be supplanted at the top of their best albums. This is not to say that there have not been some genuine nuggets of greatness.
Some of this might surprise. Honestly, I have never had a huge fondness for Reveal and while Around the Sun might have some of the worst tracks in the R.E.M. canon it also has a couple gems worth repeating as does Accelerate.
Since we have about another six months between the completion of their work on their follow-up to Accelerate and it being officially released, lists like this will have to do.
10. Mr. Richards – (Accelerate) - Before we were accusing our American President of being exotic, un-American and harboring thoughts of turning America into a Muslim paradise, there was a time when our former Administration was too busy getting into trouble. ‘Mr. Richards’, who I don’t think is meant to be an actual person plays the role of anyone that uses their position in an unethical manner and the song succeeds in bringing this point home.
9. Hollow Man – (Accelerate) - I have always felt a connection to this song and it was an indication of me for R.E.M. to get back to basics and write a good clever pop song, something that I thought had been missing in their canon for quite awhile. While I do not mind the rambling experimental stuff, the stuff that sounded like pop came off as flat (Aftermath, Boy in the Well, Imitation of Life).
8. Final Straw – (Around the Sun) - R.E.M. posted a version of this song on their site before the release of Around the Sun in response to the actions of our former President Bush in respect to the Iraq war. I thought what really worked about this song was the emotion in it’s simplicity. It harkened back to the days of Out of Time/Automatic with it’s starkness and harsh lyrics by Stipe.
7. I’ve Been High – (Reveal) - ‘I’ve Been High’ has that sincerity of a love song but I also argue in some of the comments that Michael Stipe has made suggesting that this song would be a hit were misguided. My personal opinion is that the song borders on being “Too Sweet”. Stipe sounds great on this but the overproduction of the song just doesn’t feel right. I would love to see Stipe do even more electronica, I just don’t think that this is the one. He should focus more on his voice being an instrument.
6. Horse to Water – (Accelerate) - After a couple albums of ‘Lite Rock’ R.E.M. focused on the guitar on this album and to me this is the standout track regarding that aspect. Short, quick and sweet and a nice treat.
5. The Worst Joke Ever – (Around the Sun) - I would agree with Stipe’s thoughts on this track in that it was one of the best one’s on Around the Sun. Complicated and sad I feel it’s often forgotten on the forgettable Around the Sun. Part of the problem is that the delivery on Around the Sun is lacking. The live version on the Olympia disc is much stronger.
4. Man-Sized Wreath – (Accelerate) - What I always appreciated about this track was that it was the closest to matching the power of the earlier Life’s Rich Pageant/Document (ala These Days, Exhuming McCarthy, Begin the Begin). And although the song cannot hold any of the jockstraps of these songs that I just listed, the songs strength is providing
3. Sing For the Submarine – (Accelerate) - Stipe stands behind the pulpit and retraces his steps through various songs in the back catalog trying to eliminate some of the fears he sang in the past and offers “Hope and Change”. The song is a diversion from the garage rocking Accelerate and offers a moment of reflection by Stipe into the future.
2. High Speed Train - (Around the Sun) - This song has always held an shroud of mystery behind it and for that I appreciate it. Noting from this list, I believe that the tracks listed so far from Around the Sun
1. Around the Sun – (Around the Sun) - This song has always offered hope in our political/social arena with so much fear, and bat shit craziness that I would admit it’s been played more than a couple times in a row by yours truly.
Honorable Mention: Living Well’s the Best Revenge, I’m Gonna DJ, The Lifting and Beat a Drum in no particular order.
Honorable Mention Part 2 (Songs written in the 20th Century, covers and other rarities): Bad Day, Permanent Vacation, All The Right Friends, Favorite Writer, Fascinating, #9 Dream, Airliner, Redhead Walking and Magnetic North.
Your response to my question as to why I did not like the Austin City Limits video and your sullied response: “Because you're not a true R.E.M. fan. If you were, you'd have the hand claps video playing on a loop like I do” needs more than the 180 character limit to respond.
Admittedly, I am a true R.E.M. fan, a fan that realizes that holding a device that can capture the sound of “Fingernails on a Chalkboard” combined with a band that is learning to clap shows great prominence as a “Band that is consistently growing and trying new things”.
These are the few moments that I will sit in the corner of the room and weep openly my love for this band, by creating such a sound that will hit the charts and be a major pop record, if they would only fucking tour, because well I have been saving up all my money since the Accelerate tour, bypassing that heart medication, the root canal that I need so that I can tour with them across the globe.
But why the fuck are they trying to ruin my life with no tour?
Is this all I have? This this as well as the pleasure of taking baths in tapioca listening to ‘I’ll Take the Rain’?
I went to Athens this summer. Did you?
I think I saw Stipe 2 blocks away and tried to run after him but I lost my breath. He was bald and I have not read any articles that would suggest there is anyone else in Athens that is bald so it was probably him.
Finally, I did get myself that “Chalkboard” and got some people together and we will be covering what you call “Hand Claps”. It’s an amazing amazing song with so much emotion.
Admittedly, I find myself reflecting too much on my younger days with R.E.M. which is why I write this.
Over the past 100 years, R.E.M. has only been a band for about 30 of those years and in those 30 years they spent the last 10 years on a treadmill. Yes, I can understand there are a few of you out there that like Reveal and Accelerate is a good record for a mid-level band but not R.E.M. So when a DVD is going to be released which is going to focus on music in their last album, it’s not something that I immediately jump up and purchase.
For those that are not aware, a DVD of R.E.M.'s performance on Austin City Limits, will be released on October 26, 2010. This performance was taken during a point when R.E.M. was “at a pivotal point in their career” says ACL producer Terry Licona.
You can say that again.
The problem with albums like Accelerate is that they are easily forgettable amongst the vast 30 year history of the band. So getting another “Concert Video” from them during this period almost feels like burnout. Out of the 17 songs, 9 of them are off Accelerate and the rest are constant reminders of their concert setlists for the past 10 years or so. I watched it initially but found the entire endeavor slightly boring.
Moreover, video, at least for R.E.M. works so much better when it is archival footage. We have so much video of Post-Berry R.E.M., which occurred right around the dawn of the internet age that one would almost forget that he was a bandmember. Right now, that early footage feels so much different than the “R.E.M. by Numbers” videos that we have seen, although the Olympia Video was quite nice for it’s artistic merit and the entire collection was a much more worthy venture considering that they included every unique song title that was played on their 5 day “This Is Not A Show” Show.
Now of course, I should not be so hard on the band as I would imagine that this DVD is being pushed more by, Austin City Limits, a reputable public television enterprise here in the states. However, being that I am a subscriber to PBS currently, shouldn’t I get my free DVD and tote bag?
In an era where we are inundated with information and can go to YouTube to pleasure ourselves, bands have to consistently be reminded that you cannot just put out crap and expect the people to buy it. I am curious if they are going to try to pawn this show off during one of their PBS fundraising pushes considering that this is going to be broadcast on November 27th, which I suspect to be when they do a fundraising drive. There is part of me that would find the sales pitch made by the PBS announcers amusing.
This will not stop me from making a yearly subscription to PBS, because it’s viewers like me that appreciate quality programming such as the program that I am currently watching.
Demos, are the rough draft of any essay, the first run through before the final product is turned in. Often they are filled with fractured sentences and half thoughts as the words in question are still being juggled around in our brains.
For fans of music, demos can often get an early clue into the songwriting process. Typical folks that enjoy these types of things also question liner notes, weird quotes and other statements and well we get off on a particular chorus that is not all the way developed or a verse that is completely different than the version on the album.
My introduction to demos was not actually listening to them but hearing about them via Peter Buck who discussed briefly the validity of “Bootlegs” way back in 1988 on the nationally syndicated show Rockline. There he discussed some of his favorite bootlegs, including “Chronic Murmurings” when he noted that this was special in that it had a version of Bertis Downs and Jefferson Holt doing the vocals for “Windout”.
Chronic Murmurings is just one of the plethora of Demo Bootleg collections available as for R.E.M., demo sessions had been leaked for every album up through Out of Time, with the exception of course of Fables of the Reconstruction.
For R.E.M. this would be the first time the band has released a full-fledged “Demo Sessions” for any album. While there have been songs that have appeared as B-Sides from time to time, this is a true departure.
The demo sessions that are included on the Fables of the Reconstruction 25th Anniversary Re-release include sessions that they did in Athens, Georgia before they left for England to record with Joe Boyd, who recorded such acts as Nick Drake, Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention.
Demos have always had a long and storied history for any popular band. As the band would pass around an early tape of their music, that tape would multiply and eventually end up on some underground bootleg release.
As a longtime fan that has a plethora of their early live shows, my initial feeling was that this would not work. What would be the point of having a set of demo recordings when no short of seven of these would be right off the Reckoning tour. There could not be all that many secrets for half of these songs. Right?
Second, sometimes Demos do not work all that well on an album setting such as this when the songs do not deviate significantly from the album versions. For example, Gardening at Night was recorded during the Reckoning sessions much slower than the version that was on Chronic Town. In doing so it offered something unique that could be placed on an album and believe that it would succeed. Same with the “As Yet Unreleased” version of Catapult that was recorded by Stephen Hague. And while the band of course hated this version and the song, it would be nice to see this song officially released.
The Fables Demos that were recorded in Athens contain all the Fables tracks as well as ‘Bandwagon’, ‘Hyena’ and ‘Throw These Trolls Away’ aka ‘When I Was Young’ which contains similar lyrics to that of ‘I Believe’.
There have been a plethora of posts in terms of the quality of these bootlegs. On the surface, the bootlegs sound pretty outstanding, minus the hiccups in the final engineering of the product. As mentioned earlier, most of the songs on this demos cd produce “Clipping” which is the “Shearing” off the tops of the audio files, which, for the listener creates a high end static sound. This is much more of a problem for listening with headphones vs. speakers, which might crowd out that static. However, it still persists.
Some questions linger whether this was on the master recording itself or just an effect that happened in the mastering/engineering process, however, that question is mute. If this static did exist on the master tapes there is plenty of wizardry that could have been accomplished to take it off, which makes it essentially shoddy work, which is a shame.
Secondly, I would make the argument that these demos are pretty much for diehards only. The appeal of the live concert vs. the demos is, in my opinion treating the subject matter, the album, in different contexts.
For an album such as Murmur, the Larry’s Hideaway show gave listeners both some insight into their early shows as well as showcased the differences between their live sound and the studio work. And while Reckoning was much more stripped down a record, the Aragon Ballroom show included in that deluxe edition showcased the urgency of their sound. Make no mistake, R.E.M. barnstormed this country and sold fans not just on their critically-acclaimed albums but a solid if not outstanding live show from a band that put all they had into every show. Fans would travel up and down the east coast, following them from venue to venue, gathering a small but eager fan base.
The Fables package with the demos, decides to reconstruct this album from the top down. It’s moody atmosphere and production value has been a topic of hot conversation among fans wondering if the “Muddiness” was a preference or an effect of recording across the pond.
Many of songs for Fables had already been performed during the Reckoning tour, which allowed the band to flesh out their live sound and refine it along the way. For example, Driver 8’s original lyrics were “The walls constructed” vs. “The wall were built up”. Other songs included a crazy version of Wendell Gee performed on MTV’s Cutting Edge, which was first performed on acoustic guitar and later on the tour on electric guitar. Other songs making their way to the live shows included Old Man Kensey, Auctioneer (Another Engine) and Hyena (although obviously this was not included on the final Fables album).
For fans that are willing to jaunt into this realm, I recommend picking these up. Some of the highlights in my opinion are as follows:
Feeling Gravitys Pull – The most inventive song on Fables stands out for the insane drumming by Bill Berry. Comparing this to the original highlights an aspect that is often forgotten in the Peter Buck-Guitar Centric minds of R.E.M. fans in what a great drummer Bill was. He is the key to the album Murmur, in my opinion and I would imagine that if the producer on this album was someone other than Joe Boyd, the song might have turned out differently.
Can’t Get There From Here – Not as funky as the finished product as the chorus is still in development and does not contain the flashy horns on the album version.
Kohoutek – The lyrics on this song are still not finished as several inconsistencies occur.
Maps and Legends – This is also a work in progress as we find Michael Stipe’s lyrics on this offer different lyrics for the both the second and third verse. The second verse is almost completely unique minus a line he uses in the finished product and the third verse is similar to the first.
Don’t Throw These Trolls Away – The song that has been titled “When I Was Young” on several bootlegs, is given a proper treatment here. While some of the lyrics will eventually end up on the song “I Believe” here we see a song that is a work in progress. There is no doubt that they made the right decision to abandon this song. I would be curious however, if a version of this came out of the Fables sessions in England. That might be interesting to hear.
Wendell Gee – Instead of focusing on Banjo and Keyboards/Pianos, this version features Peter on electric guitar such as how the band performed during the later part of the tour for Reckoning.
On another level it works as an alternate Fables album and I guess you can rearrange the songs and put them in that order as I had the opportunity to do the first time that I listened to it.
And while I support this release and the fact that the band gave us something that has not been heard yet, I also feel that something is left out. The Fables Tour marks the first time that I believe that Stipe is coming into his own on stage. The Fables Tour acts as part live show and storytelling opportunity that allowed him to begin weaving the tales of the album’s content to the live audience such as the stories about Kensey or even the made up story of “Theme to Two Steps Onward”. Thanks to tapers such as David O. Thomas who recorded amazing bootlegs of these shows, most of them can be found from time to time online.
But for the common fan out there, I can only look back at myself and remember that it was these elements that got me so enamored with R.E.M. in the first place.
There has been quite a bit of talk on this site about clipping, showing graphs, and giving you some idea of what it sounds like.
Most of my listening over the past couple days has been over a Wav file (not MP3, M4A) on my iPod to get some idea of what exactly is going on with my own ears.
I have come up with an example which I believe supports the "Clipping" argument.
The sample that I have provided is a 5 second clip from Auctioneer about 1:50 minutes into the song. If you listen to Michael sing "Leave" you will hear distinct "Static" or as Drew had described it shear. Now if you compare this to your earlier version of Fables of the Reconstruction, there is no "Static/Shear" occurring.
This one was the more apparent moments that I found on the album, although I did hear some others during the entire album where similar incidents like this occur.
Now this issue is also very prevalent on the Demos as well, definitely moreso. However, since there is nothing to compare them to, this to me is the bigger disappointment.
Now, I do find some type of humor, mind you when REM sent out an email yesterday listing this site as a place to find information on the latest Deluxe Edition but how can I with a straight face tell you to buy an album that was not mastered properly?
This is really unacceptable.
Initially, I was going to take the easy road and say that maybe this campaign can make a difference on future recordings but maybe there is a time to say that people who bought this album can go to a site and at least download a better copy.
I guess what it comes down to is just a sloppy job altogether.
As you might already know if you read this site, the deluxe edition of R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction arrives in stores today.
Reviews are slowly coming in:
This remaster opens it up a little more, and certainly does full justice to some of the best crfted harmonies and guitar lines in REM’s catalogue. At the same time this is, at heart, a very obtuse folk-rock album and nothing’s going to change that.
"Fables" is a very different type of reissue: Whereas R.E.M.'s first two albums are generally considered classics of Southern post-punk, their third has never enjoyed such a lofty reputation. So this set is less of a reminder and more of an argument — and a highly persuasive one at that. Sounding both more revealing and more mysterious, it is every bit the equal of its predecessors and sets just as strong a standard for subsequent albums.
Some more discussion about the quality of the remastering on this album.
The album itself is also compressed+clipped (see my essay). Here's a visual. Audio-wise, on a record that Bill is already mixed too quietly, that he's even more buried (due to the heavy compression) is bordering on criminal.
My own opinion of the album so far, remastering wise, is that there are deficiencies in the product. I really do not think that this album is "Opening Up" but rather feeling denser and that is not a good thing. Missing is Bill Berry's drum's which are such an important aspect of their music to raise the levels of inconsequentual buried vocals. I still need several more listens before I can give some type of appropriate review but I figured I would offer some initial thoughts on the album.
I have been getting several text messages from Drew over the past day or so in response to this issue and because he is an expert in this area, I wanted him to write his thoughts on the issue. I would also encourage you to read the essay that he wrote on Accelerate when it was released.
By Drew Crumbaugh
I have been asked by your humble webmeister Eric to flesh out my disgust at this latest mastering travesty that is becoming pervasive with R.E.M.......
First though, I refer you to this: Loudness and Accelerate, An Essay.
Seems like we've been here before. 2008's Accelerate is one of the worst-mastered CD's in my collection, and yet, I think this Fables reissue tops it.
To summarize that writeup linked above, which I wrote (again at Eric's behest) in 2008, when you have a fixed-size container of music, you can't squeeze in more music without the container bursting, or warping
(distorting) the music to fit.
We live in a 16-bit world. The quick-and-dirty layman's Guidebook to Digital Audio, which someone really should sit down and write for Internet audiences, says so.
What does this mean? 16 bits of what, exactly?
Your typical CD is, essentially, an audio container. So is that iTunes music file. So is that MP3 file sat over there on the computer. Just like any container in the world made out of rigid material, the container is what it is and cannot be modified. So you have a fixed size in which to put things. (Nitpicker's corner: Joe Listener doesn't have a high-def setup with SACD/DVD-Audio inline, so we shall ignore them. Not relevant at all to our discussion.)
In digital terms, the CD audio container holds 16 bits of audio. Those bits are, ridiculously simplified, equivalent to the unit lines on the side of a measuring cup. If you have a measuring cup that holds one liter of liquid, let's say the lip of the measuring cup, 1 liter, is also 16 bits. You can't put more in there because there is only room for 16 bits worth of audio.
(Technical discussion: 16 bits translates to usable levels of "volume" i.e. sound amplitude, starting from 0 being the ceiling (loudest) and going to -16 at the quietest. Even more technical, 16 bits indicates the granularity of change levels from one volume unit to the next. Without delving into physics and digital audio theory, 16 bits is the minimum acceptable "size" of container for your average digital music. There are purists who say you can't digitally represent an analog signal accurately, which in the analog
form has no arguable constraints to granularity or volume, with only a 16-bit-wide container, but for our discussion we shall ignore them.)
What happens to the music if we try to put more than 16 bits worth of it into a 16-bit container? It doesn't fit without modification to the music, and modification, always, changes the signal. The signal is the music.
There is an acceptable level of modification because we've lived with it since the early 1980s and the onset of consumer digital audio. But as the years progressed, CDs got louder. "Why" is a discussion for another time, but they just have. And once you reach a certain point, i.e. used up all 16 bits without doing more than simply "turning up the volume knob", you have to modify the music.
Let's say we have a 16-bit-tall pail. In that pail we want to put some grasses, grasses that range from 12 to 26 bits tall. The only way these grasses will fit is by standing them up, like they grow in a garden. So we
gather up our grasses, and put them in the bucket. In order to use our pail, we *absolutely cannot* have any grass peeking over the top. It's just not possible in this world. So once we put the grass in the pail, we have to somehow make it fit - while standing up - with nothing taller than the pail's rim.
There are several ways of doing this. We can get our special gardening tool and shrink the grass, which makes every blade of grass smaller. Because our shrinking tool shrinks everything proportionally, our 26-bit-tall grass loses 10 bits of height and ends up topping out at 16 bits tall. Our 12-bit-tall grass also loses 10 bits of height, and ends up being only 2 bits tall. Everything still proportionally looks the same though, we just need a magnifying glass to see it all.
This is the least intrusive way to make digital audio fit into the 16-bit CD container. If it's too loud to fit - and remember, for our discussion, levels of "loud" equal bits - you, essentially, turn down the volume so the
loudest signal doesn't exceed 16 bits tall. Everything gets quieter, but all proportionally, and it all sounds like the original when all's said and done. The relationship between the smallest blade of grass to the largest
doesn't change. See A Visual Guide below, photo 1, for an original IRS Fables CD waveform from a section of "Driver 8".
What if we don't want to make everything, including the tiny blades of grass, smaller though? What if we just want to make the "overs", the blades of grass that are taller than our 16-bit-tall pail, fit in, while either not touching our smaller blades that already do fit, or (shudder) making the smaller blades taller so they sound louder? Remember, we can't go over the top of our 16-bit-tall pail when we're done.
The next most acceptable way to do this is a method called "limiting". Limiting is essentially what it sounds like: you "limit" the height of the grass to a fixed height. Limiting touches only the blades taller than a
level you specify, and automagically shrinks those blades down under that limit. The longest blades, or our loudest sounds, get shorter (quieter). The blades that were already below our limit are untouched, so they remain their original height (volume). What also changes, though, is the relationship between our shorter blades and our now-limited blades. They aren't as different as they were before, the taller blades are physically forced closer to the shorter blades' levels. While this can compromise the integrity of the blades of grass, or the integrity of and spatial relationship within the music, if done intelligently it can seem transparent to all but the most discerning listener. See photo 2 in A Visual Guide, below, for an example of limiting that same portion of Driver 8 to -6dB amplitude.
The least most acceptable way, or in other words the absolute worst way to make everything fit into our 16-bit container, is a method called "clipping". Like limiting, clipping affects only those blades of grass above
some pre-set limit, but rather than automagically shrinking the blades, instead our clipper takes a set of clippers and just shears off the tops. We actually lose some of our grass, and since it's been clipped off and
composted, it can never be regained. When done to audio, you visibly see (when looking at a waveform representation of the audio) a flat top effect where the upper parts of the signal were clipped off. This is what you see in the image I initially posted.
Clipping often occurs in tandem with another technique called "compression". What compression does is twofold: It stretches out - or magnifies - our smaller blades of grass, making them taller. At the same time, it reduces our taller blades, since again they can't end up taller than 16 bits. So we have the quieter getting louder, and the louder getting quieter. Our proportional relationship between the shorter blades and the taller blades disappears - they end up looking pretty damn similar. Our quiet pieces are now almost as loud as our loudest pieces, and you begin to fail to discern the difference between the two.
Most modern mastering uses the compression+limiting method, making the quiet bits louder and shrinking down the loudest bits, so you have an overall samey-samey volume across the board. See image 3 in A Visual Guide, below, for a portion of Driver 8 compressed and limited by 9dB.
With this Fables reissue, the mastering engineer used the compression+clipping method. That person raised the overall volume - within our 16-bit CD - by turning up the volume knob and taking scissors to the
overs. What does this mean to you? Simply put, you actually *hear* this clipping. The crackling you hear on some of the drum hits, the shearing you occasionally hear (and you know shearing when you hear it, I cannot think of another way to describe it) when Stipe really belts it out on some of these tracks, is the brain perceiving that there's stuff missing. What's missing is the audio that was lopped off by the clipper. Your brain turns that flat line into static, into crackling. It doesn't know what to do with stuff that should be there but isn't. See image 4 in A Visual Guide, below, for that same portion of Driver 8 compressed by 9dB and the overs clipped as they attempted to exceed the 0dB limit.
Clipping, by the way, isn't always intentional. Without getting overly technical, audio engineers aren't limited to 16-bit containers like you and I are. When working on a digital audio workstation, with all the fancy tools
at their disposal to wring the most out of those 25-year-old tapes, they simply use bigger containers. With a bigger container, usually 24 or 32 bits wide, you have more room to work in, and when you're done with your work, you can - ridiculously oversimplified - magically change the size of your container down to 16 bits. If you're not careful though, the actual shrinking-of-the-container will clip your audio contained within, because simultaneous with the container shrinking, the razor-sharp lid scythes past like a knife as it seals the 16-bit-tall container, physically cutting off everything that breaches that 16-bit ceiling. If you've not prepared your audio for the razor-sharp lid, your audio will get destroyed as the container shrinks from 32 bits to 16 bits. See image 5 in A Visual Guide, below, for that same portion of Driver 8 amplified by 9db in a larger container, and then forcibly clipped with the container-shrinking-and-knifeblade-lid result.
So maybe we shouldn't be so quick to say the engineer intentionally clipped the audio along with compressing it. They could simply have been stupid and forgot to prepare for the bit depth change from 32 to 16 bits.
Regardless of how it happened, it's absolutely NOT ACCEPTABLE to have clipping unless it's an artistic intent (and yes, there are some that do this intentionally for the distorted effect. I have no idea why.). There is
NO REASON whatsoever a properly-mastered CD (or MP3, or iTunes file, or whatever) should clip. Clipping is completely avoidable, every time. I can tolerate, begrudgingly, the modern loud mastering movement as long as it's not oppressive (see the recent Beatles remasters, or Pavement, or the Feelies). I have no tolerance for stupidity or destructive methods however. Do not waste your money on this CD. Let's campaign for a properly-mastered version - or at the very least, a non-clipping product.
A Visual Guide: (Click on the links to view larger versions of these images).
3) that same portion compressed and limited by 9dB (amplification of 9dB and
limiting the overs)
4) that same portion compressed and clipped by 9dB (amplification of 9dB
without regard for the 16-bit container)
3/4/5 are close-ups of the affected signals.
From Pop Matters:
Addressing Boyd’s concerns about the lack of a dominant element in the mix, Buck’s guitar and Mike Mills’ bass have had their volumes increased. Unfortunately, poor Bill Berry’s drums remain relegated to the background, ensuring that the whole affair remains R.E.M.’s most dated production from the 1980s.
I would also like to post for post sakes, Murmur.com's Ethan Kaplan on the new rerelease:
Some will complain that the mix is too up front, but you're missing the point. Fables is a rusty railroad spike meant to be tripped over. It was not meant to sit in the background.
And a third opinion from Drew Crumbaugh posted to the REMRing Facebook Wall:
According to the lossless rip I now have of this.... it's super brickwalled. :( Even the demos are squashed. I wouldn't call it a remix as comment#1 implies (increasing volume of Buck/Mills in the mix), rather, the squashed dynamics compress the drum sounds down deep into the overall mix. Yuck. I hear no discernable, "buy this version now" audible ... difference between the remastered album, and the original IRS CD, besides an obvious volume boost with brickwalled limiting. It's really yucky and the demos too have been subject to the same indignity.
Drew has also posted a photo of Driver 8 from Disc 2 of the Demos which shows obvious clipping.
If you note the straight line in the middle of the page, this would indicate that the top of the wavelength in this example has been "Clipped" off.
And while I have not had a chance to personally listen to these myself and judge at this point, the concern that I feel early on is that remastering does not equal better. Stay Tuned!