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R.E.M.'s Performance on Austin City Limits to Be Released

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 for Diehards - Reviewing the Second Disc of the Fables of the Reconstruction Deluxe Edition

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. 

 

Example of Clipping

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. 
 
Auctioneer Sample
 
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.
 
 
 

Fables Arrives in Stores Today

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:

 

Drowned in Sound

 

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.

 

Express Night Out

 

"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.

 

REMring Facebook Page

 

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.

 

Image

 

 

 

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.

 

Essay on Fables of the Reconstruction Deluxe Edition and Clipping

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).

1) a portion of Driver 8 from an original IRS CD

2) that same portion limited at -6dB

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)

5) that same portion amplified, in a 32-bit container, by 9dB and then
changed the container to 16-bit without accommodating for the overs
.
 

3/4/5 are close-ups of the affected signals.

Fables of the Reconstruction Reviews Start Coming In

The reviews of the new deluxe Fables of the Reconstruction are beginning to emerge as both Pop Matters and SoundSpike provide some early comments on the new record.

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 ... See More 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!

Fables of the Reconstruction - Desert Island Disc

As I sit here and mull over the streaming version of the Fables 2nd Disc, I wanted to offer some thoughts and views on Fables of the Reconstruction before it is re-released.  An album that changed my life, Fables is oft forgotten in the R.E.M. canon of being an amazing rock and roll record and still holds up today as a classic. 

I also thought in conjunction with my other site devoted more to general music, that this should be the inaugural entry into my “Desert Island Disc” series where I explore some of my thoughts and feelings about albums that warrant continual listens over the years.
 
Michael Stipe is an Asshole. 

 
There. I said it.
 
I said what needed to be said. So as you sit there all uncomfortable, confused, possibly angry and wanting to throw something at me in your seat, relax and sit back while I offer some thoughts while describing in accurate detail the last 23+ years of my life.
 
Whenever, you have a blog devoted to one band it is a difficult sell, to try to tell the reader my love for a particular album. Why? Because how does that album differ from the other collection of songs and albums spanning 30 years? Ultimately, I am biased, but find me someone who isn’t? I am just another fanboy with another fanboy moment telling you how great something is. Truth be told, I cannot say that about every album or every song nor defend the band at great lengths for the sake of the band. Fables of the Reconstruction is an easy album to defend, however.
 
‘Fables of the Reconstruction’ was a slow and sometimes painful process of musical listening. It happened to be the first album that I purchased from this fabled foursome and one that continues upon the unique presence that they exhibited on their early music. If I ever create the ubiquitous “Boxed Set” of songs that mean something to me, this album or songs from it would begin the “Serious Listening Phase” of my life, when music meant something more than just Top 40 radio. And often, there are very few albums that I can actually pick up and remember the first time that I listened to it especially those that are 20+ years old.
 
Fables on the other hand, carries a very vivid memory. A cloudy day in mid-August on the way to Wisconsin for vacation seemed to be the perfect visionary magnet that has remained with me all these years.  So, 23 years later, website and all, I sit to you writing about this album and why if you do not have it why you should.
 
For a 14 year old at the time listening to this album, it did not necessarily just pop out at me being pop candy. Fables is an acquired taste and particularly through a first listen, does not catch on but instead requires repeated listens and allowed to breathe like a fine wine. It’s an album that would fail today, not because it sounds dated; not at all, but for the fact that with so much music to digest, we live on gluttony and forget to taste all the flavors. This album is not going to hit you like a ton of bricks but instead focuses on the sounds of the tree limbs bending.
 
As the title of the album would suggest, ‘Fables of the Reconstruction” or “Reconstruction of the Fables” depending on how you read the spine, Stipe creates his own stories, his own passages from the sleepy south. Visions of Old Man Kensey catching dogs or jumping out of a casket, Brivs Mekis, the storyline behind the song “Life and How to Live It”, separating his home into two separate abodes and living in one until he tires of that one and then moving into the other. Or maybe it’s ‘Wendell Gee’ who built a trunk with Chicken Wire or Reverend Howard Finster, the subject of ‘Maps and Legends’. These are not your classic fairytale creatures but given an author’s due with sometimes discrete but dutiful expression in detail. He paints all the colors of the palette as their stories are told. This album secures them as a southern rock band but even writing this might give you the wrong idea. They are not the Allman Brothers or Skynrd but part folk song, part country, part rock and roll and a little punk thrown in there for size.
 
Michael Stipe is not an easy customer. This would not mean that he is difficult to deal with but rather I imagine that the requests, comments and suggestions he would offer up are without a doubt a painstaking process for everyone involved. I remember Mike Mills making a comment for example about the song “Swan Swan Hummingbird” written as “Swan Swan H” on the album cover for Lifes Rich Pageant and having a fit with that.  His interviews around this time were like pulling teeth as the band mates would look over confusingly at him during comments to the point where he pretty much stops giving interviews altogether.  And thus, the song meanings have always been up to the interpretation of the listener. As he paints the picture, we can often take a wrong turn or even bring something of ourselves into the storyline, focusing on the wrong line. For Stipe, this process is part that feeds him as the puzzle is laid in front of you with multiple answers.
 
Even as we listen to the album, there are still elements of his “mumbles” from previous efforts. However, this third effort moves him beyond the simple to the complex. Fables provides some of the most established lyric writing and compared to the rest of R.E.M.’s work, a true bold step, that questioned his wordplay or storytelling during a show. If earlier albums like the EP Chronic Town and Murmur would suggest, Michael Stipe was more a musical prop. On this album, he writes his first novel.
 
Welcome to the wonderful world of Michael Stipe the storyteller, playing the part of Uncle Remus relaying his own images of the south, albeit from a different perspective. Instead of focusing on racial issues, Stipe creates his own lore, people and images that provide a rich and deep history that is often absent in present day culture.
 
I am reminded of how difficult it was to characterize R.E.M.’s early music. Were, they progressive or folk rock or psychedelic or rock or Americana? What I think it came down to was that Michael Stipe is very visual and it was not about writing genre-based music but visual music. What he has always been able to convey is taking Bill, Mike and Peter’s music and putting a place or location to their work. While this is not totally unique in music, Stipe created places and people, especially in Fables, we often do not talk about.
 
Back to the “Asshole” comment. What I meant about my statement above about Michael being an asshole is that after 23 years of listening to this album, far more and longer than any album that is currently in my possession, I still am trying to figure it out. Not every mystery has been unleashed. I have not found certain “Secret Levels” where a clue might indicate a new fact about a particular song. My comment about him (Asshole) is out of sheer frustration . . .well frustration and gratitude. Our musicians can be our current philosophers; the good ones at least transcend our own meaning of life to ask questions to ourselves. It is not as simple as writing a love song about a broken heart but going beyond that. Writing about politics, religion, society, we focus on the simple in our media.
 
However, looking back at this album 25 years after it’s release looks at it from an entirely new viewpoint. For one, the argument that if ‘Fables’, if released today, but be chic and cool, is lost on me.  By the time that Fables was released in 1985, R.E.M.  were no longer the “Diaper Dandies” of the Progressive/College Rock community but had a loyal cult following. I would reluctantly point out it’s too trying in our data-driven environment to slow down enough to be willing to give it time.
 
That era did not have the gluttony of music that we have today and I have never looked at this album as necessarily having the components that would encourage repeated listens in today’s environment.  While the album does not sound dated by any means it played a role during a certain era that needed an alternative to pop music.
 
Over the past 25 years is that we have a much different relationship with these songs than we did at first listen.  This is both the blessing and curse of being in a rock band for so long is songs like “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, “Driver 8” and “Wendell Gee” become part of who we are and we cannot escape that.
 
What is so genius about this album is how the stories and fables question our own motives and prophecies.  This constant struggle between belief and common sense/technology is one whereby Stipe confronts head on using outcasts as his subjects.
 
Consider a song like Wendell Gee who becomes ungrounded in his pursuits via prophecy and it becomes his downfall. On the other hand, Maps and Legends says an equally engaging story about a man living in his prophecy and is laughed at by society for his own beliefs.
 
‘Life and How to Live It’ asks the question of whether conflict becomes such a polarizing affair through a man that splits his house in two and will live on one side of the house for awhile and then after tiring of that side will move onto the other side. When performed before the 2004 Presidential Elections I thought that the song was fitting for the political environment we live in.
 
Outside of the lore of the south is the fear of technology and capitalism. Green Grow the Rushes says it so perfectly in the line “Amber Waves of Gain”, whereby hard work is sacrificed for cheaper labor. Auctioneer (Another Engine), could almost be described as Rockville pt. 2 when it questions the motives of moving away for success and sacrificing love.
 
Where the album comes together is in the soul of the album. This is an album longing for a band that is feeling the pains of recording across the pond, conflicted over their success and stardom, getting fed into the lore of the south but also questioning it.  As the band have suggested, it was a major point when the band asked themselves if they wanted to continue on this path.
 
Its strength is in its conviction that they are not just words written on a piece of paper for a song but the truth about an American band from the south. 
 
 
 

More Fables Demos - Friday Night Recap

This week we have seen a slow but steady release of some of the Athens Demos that will be appearing on the second disc of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Fables of the Reconstruction. Today here are three more.
(I would like to thank Christophe for finding these and posting them to Murmurs).
 
Feeling Gravitys Pull - Pretty Much Amazing
 
This was one of the newer songs in the aspect that it was never played during the shows supporting Reckoning. In that respect, we still hear a shell of a song with some insane drumming. However, it is songs like this which remind me just how important Bill Berry was to the band. Sure, Bill is an amazing drummer but there is something psychological going on currently which has pushed the drums to the back of the track and made them mostly meaningless. One of my favorites so far.
 
Bandwagon - Large Hearted Boy
 
This B-Side/Dead Letter Office classic is interesting in my opinion Michael's delivery is sorta sluggish, and lacks the pomp that he offers on the official version. Feels like the "Sleepy Athens Version". I think one of the reasons I like the official version is that he feels as if he was on a soapbox talking in that southern drawl of his with energy.
 
Good Advices - Fuel Friends
 
Still one of my favorite tracks off of Fables, (which I could probably say for the other 10). I think one of the things that is apparent on this track is about 2/3rd's in Mike's backing vocals are much more pronounced, obviously due to the recording, but at the same time something different and fun.
 
Lastly, by next Monday, all of these songs will be available via KCRW as both the official album and demos will be streaming there. So you will not have to read my 40 second reviews of the songs.
 
 
 
 

Exclusive Tracks Hit the Web Continued

Although I think I posted this to the REMRing Facebook page already I have not posted it here. Here is an exclusive listen to "Throw Those Trolls Away", the previously unreleased R.E.M. song that will appear on the 25th Anniversary version of Fables of the Reconstruction.
 
Throw Those Trolls Away - Metromix
 
For those of you that have been collecting bootlegs for awhile you will know that this would appear to be a separate song that eventually morphed itself into "I Believe" which ended up on Lifes Rich Pageant.
 
My feeling is that this would be the track that the diehards will love to have, getting a nice clean copy of a song that was played very briefly on the tour and then scrapped. But it also shows the band again taking a piece of work and not being completely satisfied with the work and moving onto something bigger and brighter with "I Believe".
 
One of my fears with the 2nd Disc that is contained in the Fables Demos is that the songs will already have progressed to a point where they are not significant enough to notice any distinct changes. That being said, as a whole, I have typically enjoyed some of the latter demos that have surfaced in trading circles such as the ones of Document, Green, Out of Time and Up because we have been able to hear the songs at a much earlier point in the songs lifespan.
 
I think my review for the Fables 2 CD package will be based primarily off the differences between the demos and Joe Boyd's production work on the album.
 
At any rate, "Don't Be a Loser" and check it out!
 

Exclusive Fables Tracks hit the Web

As many are well aware the 25th Anniversary of Fables of the Reconstruction is going to be released in July and already a couple tracks have hit the internet. The all-important tracks of course is the second disc which consists of demos of Fables tracks the band recorded in Athens before departing for England to record the album with Joe Boyd.
 
As you would expect the early tracks are in some cases a bit more rough around the edges but not so rough as to be completely unique to the finished Fables album. Many of the Fables tracks had been performed live and had become staples of their set up to this point. So where the differences I would expect would lie would be on those tracks which are still in their developmental stages.
 
So far a couple tracks have made their way online.
 
Auctioneer (Another Engine) - Consequence of Sound
 
At this point my favorite of the Fables demos although I cannot put my finger on why I appreciate the track so much. It has a much different feel than the version on the album which is almost R.E.M. turning the song into a punk hit.
 
Can't Get There From Here - Entertainment Weekly
 
I have appreciated the southern drawl of Michael's voice, however, the song is still in its early stages. I think this is one song that has always felt a bit "Dated" to me on Fables, so this version might be something that I could appreciate.
 
Driver 8 - Rolling Stone
 
Unfortunately, for the Fables tracks this happens to be the one track that entered the live sets pretty early on the live shows supporting Reckoning. Thus, the song feels pretty finished by the time this "Demo" is released.
 
Old Man Kensey - Fashion.ie
 
(At this point, the track that is listed is the studio version of Old Man Kensey however, if someone catches their mistake they might correct it. The flub however, is nice to see because it reminds me back to the bootleg days when shows and songs on 'Official' Bootlegs would be mislabled, sometimes on purpose. I wonder if this is the case here!)
 
 

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