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R.E.M.'s Record Murmur is an Adventurous Experiment

Classic Scene
Publication Date: 
April 1, 1983

R.E.M., Athens most popular band is well on its way to national success with the release of their first I.R.S. Records album, "Murmur." This is an excellent product that is surprisingly bold as is does not attempt to recapture the R.E.M. live sound.

R.E.M. have made their reputation as a major national rock act through their constant touring-presenting a hard charging, rock 'n' roll show second to none. That they would not attempt the probably impossible job of recreating this show is a credit to their artistic integrity and perhaps unplanned but nonetheless shrewd marketing strategy.

R.E.M., along with the B-52's and Pylon have been burdened by the national media as having "the Athens Sound." This meaningless term apparently tries to unite these three disparate groups simply because of their intense dance-ability.

R.E.M. definitely shares a common bond with the Bees and Pylon in this respect and they could rightfully be called the Kings of Athens dance bands.

It was pretty much assumed that when R.E.M. caught up with the Bees and Pylon they would similarly attempt to recreate their dance-party onto vinyl.

Forget it kids. This ain't no party.

"Murmur," presents twelve tunes which slip the dance rhythm into the background, slow up the tempo and push up the melody and vocals.

This bears no resemblance to the sound which attracts 1200 Athenians to each R.E.M. Show. For one thing, the vocals are treated very well here. Michael Stipe does an outstanding job of projecting his somewhat obtuse lyrics with varying of tones and inflections. A live rock format just can't bring this out.

The absolute standout attraction on this disc though is Pete Buck's beautifully melodic guitar. A self described, "three chord wonder," old Petes' Rickey shimmer and rings producing a sound very similar to the late sixties group, The Byrds.

What sets Pete's sound apart from that of past melody meisters is the use of studio effects which serve to widen the tonal range without seeming murky. A credit to the pure and easy production of Mr. Mitch Easter.
Side one leads off with "Radio Free Europe," which was the A Side of their first release in 1981. This version has been remixed due to a bad mastering job on the first single (which nonetheless was dubbed independent single of the year by the Village Voice's Robert Christgau.) The most FM rock-oriented of all R.E.M. songs this one leaves me a bit dry but is intensely catchy. Please replace Loverboy, etc. with this I won't mind.

"Pilgrimmage," is the first indication of what this record is about.  Though as compelling as the live version it is slower and utilizes subtle vocal phrasings. Sometimes you can tell what is being said and sometimes you can't. The effect is neat and little spooky. The words go from a dramatic crescendo to a whisper to conversational tone. All the while the music weaves itself around the plot. I like it.

"Laughing," "Talk About The Passion," and "Moral Kiosk," are all aural vignets reflecting some aspect of Michael Stipes world view. Each poem-song is an emotional statement. That half the lyrics are indescipherable is unimportant. The feeling is there and that is enough. I think that if we did have all the lyrics at our disposal it would take away from all the fun and mystique from these tunes.

"Perfect Circle," is the perfect song for this album. It is dreamy, classical piece built around a repeating piano riff. It is totally unlike anything R.E.M. have ever attempted live and thus a most fitting tune for this album. This is my favorite song on "Murmur."
Even though this is a guitar/vocal oriented album, Bill Berry's drumming and Mike Mills bass are excellent throughout. Through subdued each as an precision and strength upon which the fragility of the song structures relies.
Side two starts strong with "Catapult" I have yet to come across anyone who knew what Michael was saying in this tune. I thought it was, "Had a cold," and some think its "Got to go." A song about adolescence which is typically oblique but once again the sounds the thing. I think Michael once said that it was a sound of the words rather than their meaning that is important. This is not a sing along group.

"Sitting Still," the B-side of "Radio Free Europe," is much cleaner sounding than the original. I would rather have seen two unreleased songs such as "Pretty Persuasion," than these two but it was probably a good marketing decision.

"9-9," I don’t know what this is about but the guitar is very innovative in the over-dubbing department. "Shaking Through" is the greatest departure from its' live counterpart than any other tune on "Murmur." The thing to remember here, is that R.E.M. live relies heavily on visuals. A record that tried to capture the live sound without Stipes "puppet with one foot nailed to the floor." writhing and Bucks' Keith Richardian strut would probably be a disappointment

"We Walk," is the second best tune on the album for the same reason as "Perfect Circle." This sounds like and ode to Michael's sister Lynda. In fact, the lilting flow and the subject matter of this time seems like something Lynda herself might have written for her group, Oh-OK.
As with Michael's lyrics I think personal interpretations of the subject matter are more fun than actually knowing what they're about. I hope Michael does not bow under pressure to include lyric sheets in future discs. Maybe a book of poems would be nice.

"Murmur," is wrapped up by the anthemic "West of the Fields." This song does for "Murmur," what "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)," did for their "Chronic Town," EP, provide a rousing, charged up capstone to the whole affair. While not as intense as "Carnival," nothing on this record approaches that energy level, "Fields," is still similarly uplifting and is the closest to the R.E.M. live sound of the twelve tunes.

"Murmur," is a bold and immensely likeable experiment from four guys that got their start playing at Kathleen O'Briens' birthday party at the Church on Oconee Street. Next time around thought I would like to see some of their oldies like "Can't Control Myself," and "Permanent Vacation," committed to vinyl.

You've done your art guys, now let's have some fun.