ACTUALLY, YOU CAN GET THERE FROM HERE: R.E.M., Joe Boyd & Fables

The “difficult” third
album is still difficult, but bonus tracks and a stellar remastering job help.
Producer Boyd weighs in, below.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

In a recent interview with this writer, Steve Wynn confided that
his early band The Dream Syndicate’s recently reissued 1984 album Medicine Show was an effort very, very close to his heart for a
number of reasons – not the least of which was the LP’s decidedly odd,
reverb-heavy, producer-steered sonics – despite it having endured a combined
critical and fan drubbing in its day.

 

There may have been something in the Amerindie underground
water at the time.

 

Consider R.E.M. Peter Buck guitarist’s similar assessment of
his own band’s third full-length, written during ’84 and subsequently recorded under
less-than-optimum conditions in London
in early 1985: “It’s a doomy, psycho record, dense and atmospheric… It’s a
personal favorite, and I’m really proud of how strange it is.”

 

“Strange” is an understatement. Fables of the Reconstruction – or Reconstruction of the Fables, depending on how you held the
original LP sleeve and regarded the words; even the band members would
sometimes disagree over what the “proper” way to read the title, so most fans
just refer to it as Fables – boasted
a cavernous, murky sound that borders on the claustrophobic, most likely a
result of the circumstances surrounding its creation, although some observers
have tried to claim that the band was intentionally trying to lob a curveball (more
on all that below). A brand new “25th Anniversary Edition,” released
this week by I.R.S./Capitol, features a sparkling remastering job and a bonus
disc, as did the 2008 and 2009 “Deluxe Editions” for the band’s 1982
long-playing debut Murmur (read the
review here) and 1984 sophomore effort Reckoning (reviewed here), goes a long way towards rescuing the album from back-catalog
oddity status.

 

Yet even a good digital scrubbing can’t disguise the bipolar
vibe that suffuses Fables. One moment
the record is soaring aloft on a brace of jangles and driving percussion, with
singer Michael Stipe clearly and carefully enunciating his part-poetic,
part-autobiographical, part-stream of consciousness lyrics (check the
propulsive, thrumming “Driver 8,” or the kinetic, kitschy-but-cool “Can’t Get
There From Here”). A song later, the listener is plunged into a tomblike echo
chamber, the jangles now a blur, Mike Mills’ thick bass suffocating Bill
Berry’s drums, and Stipe reverting to his trademark early mumble; as gorgeous
as the melody, vocal and bassline for “Kohoutek” are, the song sounds like a
vague stab at Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound, while the otherwise yearning,
optimistic qualities of “Good Advices” are rendered soggy and sluggish, with
Berry’s kit in particular sounding like it’s constructed out of cereal cartons.

 

It’s as if producer Joe Boyd, the American ex-pat who’d
famously helmed classic recordings by Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and the
Incredible String Band, found himself engaged in a tug-of-war with R.E.M., with
the resulting back-and-forth never fully satisfying either party by the time
the budget clock ran out. (Boyd admits to as much – see his comments, below.)

 

Just the same, Fables has long been a fan favorite, at least among those fans who instinctively
grasped that this was a band evolving before their eyes (ears) and that it was
all about the whole journey, not the stops along the way. For one thing, when
certain Fables songs click, they do
so with an electric jolt straight to the mainline. I defy anyone, for example,
to listen to the pulse-quickening, arpeggiated intro of “Life and How To Live”
plus Stipe’s closing-seconds whoops and wails and not share in the sense of exultation; or bathe in the lush,
cinematic “Maps and Legends,” with its Byrds-go-Gregorian backing vocals, and
not get the pop-classicist’s chill of recognition.

 

Also, by the time of its release by I.R.S. in early June of
1985, every one of Fables‘ cuts had
been thoroughly aired in concert, so if you were an R.E.M. follower (particularly
if you habitually traded live tapes of the band), you were already on firm handshake
terms with Fables. (Point of fact, a
good chunk of the album, at least six songs’ worth, had been turning up in
setlists
as early as the fall ’84 tours of North America, Japan and the U.K.) And – speaking of tape
traders – a 45-minute bootleg cassette containing demo versions of most of the Fables songs, along with a few tracks
that would eventually surface as B-sides or on future albums, began circulating
in the spring of ’85, the ultimate teaser for hardcore R.E.M. aficionados
during the pre-Internet era.

 

For many, then, this level of preemptive familiarity helped
offset the off-putting aspects of the
album, from the sonic quirks outlined above to the actual track selection and
sequencing (which, it must be said, was never particularly satisfying, as even
apologists have to admit that of all R.E.M.’s albums, Fables is perhaps the least cohesive, a collection of songs that at
times seem to sit uneasily next to one another). Arrangement-wise, the studio
versions of the material didn’t deviate all that much from what people had
already been hearing in concert, a factor that folks not privy to R.E.M.’s 1984-85 live oeuvre can now experience via the new reissue’s second disc. It’s
billed as “The Athens Demos” and its 14 songs were recorded by Jim Hawkins in
February of ’85 at Broad Street Garage Studio in Athens,
following several weeks’ worth of rehearsals; on hand was producer Boyd, who’d
flown in from England
to get to know the band and acquaint himself with the new material. Online
resources
suggest that at the Feb. 17 session a handful of additional tracks
were also cut, and at least one non-album song now making its first official
appearance has been rechristened “Throw Those Trolls Away” from what collectors
had previously referred to as “When I Was Young.”

 

The demos further illustrate the already finished nature of
the new songs R.E.M. had been stockpiling in anticipation of their London sojourn. For
example, “Can’t Get There From Here” doesn’t vary much from its Fables sibling other than the absence of
a fleshed-out chorus and horn section on final version, and the only
appreciable difference for “Life and How to Live It” is the way the band starts
to rush the tempo halfway through the song. Even the unusually idiosyncratic (for
R.E.M.) “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” with its off-kilter rhythms, eerie swipes of
dissonant guitar and edgy singing, comes off as a fully arranged tune here.
Once the band got to England,
of course, Boyd would apply his producer’s touch (such as adding an eerie
orchestral component to “Gravity,” or lathering “Kohoutek” in echo to give it
an otherworldly, ethereal quality). But after doing A-B comparisons of the Athens and London
material, one can’t help but come away with the impression that the band had
already done most of the heavy lifting well before boarding the airplane.

 

Worth noting is that in addition to the aforementioned
“Throw Those Trolls Away” (which, despite being touted as a selling point for
the reissue, is, ahem, a throwaway, sub-garage rock affair – it even has Stipe
halting midsong to ask Buck to turn his guitar up – that won’t command too many
repeat listens), “The Athens Demos” include “Hyena,” a then-staple of the
band’s setlist that would later be re-cut in London but ultimately shelved
until the band could revisit it for the next album, 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant; and “Bandwagon,” a somewhat nominal but merry
little non-LP ditty whose Boyd-produced version wound up as the B-side to the
“Can’t Get There From Here” single. Also, this “25th Anniversary
Edition” comes in an attractive little 5″ x 5″ box containing individual
sleeves for each disc, a 12-page booklet featuring two pages of Buck’s notes,
four postcards and an oversized fold-out poster (good luck ever getting the
creases out of that, but it’s a nice
touch just the same).

 

***

 

Now, as suggested above, from time to time pundits have
floated the notion that Fables’ sonic
flaws, quirks and inconsistencies were deliberate. No less a dubious authority
than AllMusic.com flatly states that Fables was “intentionally murky” then notes how followup Lifes Rich Pageant “was constructed as its polar opposite,” e.g. that there was some grand plan on
the part of the band to mount a yin/yang schema at the hands of producers Boyd
and Don Gehman (Pageant).

 

That’s absurd, of course. Fables‘ vaunted weirdness was the product of a band feeling under
the gun to deliver (something Buck directly addresses in his liner notes when
he says he recalls feeling “dangerously unprepared when we flew to London”) and
more than a little alienated from being stuck in a strange studio in a foreign
country during a particularly unpleasant, icy winter; and of their inability to
fully synch with a producer who was attempting, but ultimately failing, to coax
a Murmur– or Reckoning-worthy performance out of his charges. If Pageant, in its crisp, clear sound, was
the polar opposite of Fables it was
more a case of, “let’s not make that mistake twice, lads.”

 

In fact, I interviewed Boyd in February of 2007 (at the time
he was promoting his memoir, White
Bicycles
), and when R.E.M. came up in the conversation he was remarkably
candid in his assessment of the sessions and the record, which he characterized
as a great disappointment at the time for both himself and the band:

 

 

FM: You know, R.E.M.’s Murmur will forever be cited on Top
Ten lists. But I think
Fables of the Reconstruction, which you produced, also arrived at a key point in what we like to
call the Amerindie underground’s evolution.

 

BOYD: Oh yeah, and it
sold a lot more than the first two records. It was a success, although
immediately after it was swamped by the success of the next record. It sold
twice as much as the previous, but only one-tenth as much as the following.

       I
used to like the second record a lot,
Reckoning. I think that’s a great record. You know, I wasn’t all that familiar
with R.E.M. when they rang me up at first, and I remember going over to
somebody’s house that had a record, because I couldn’t find any in the stores, and
sat and listened to
Reckoning for an
afternoon, over and over, and thinking, yeah, these guys are great.

 

FM: How would you rate Fables then? Because it is a
benchmark record for a lot of us who were avid fans of music in the mid ‘80s.
When I learned they were traveling to record with you it was quite a big deal.

 

BOYD: Then you also
know…

 

FM: That it was a
nightmare recording the record…

 

BOYD: Yeah, because I
didn’t know them that well, and it was a frustrating and difficult experience.
Not with them – I got along with them fine. But I was kind of unsure about it
at the time; I felt like I wanted to remix it, that I hadn’t really captured it
right. They’d just redesigned the studio where I was mixing it and I didn’t
feel comfortable with those monitors.

       And
I was having trouble getting to grips with how they saw their music. Michael
Stipe was constantly pressuring me to bring his vocals down in the mix. That
was frustrating, because when you’re doing a mix you’re trying to have
something that you put everything in relation to, something that holds people’s
attention and you build the mix around it. You don’t necessarily put it way out
front, but you put it in a strong enough position that it’s clear what people
are listening to, and you mix the rest of the instruments around that sound.

       I’d
never been with that group, so it was kind of bewildering. Because, you know,
when you’re mixing, the guitar player comes up to you and says, “Can you make
my guitar a little louder?” Then the drummer comes up: “Can you make my snare a
little louder?” But with R.E.M., everyone was telling me to turn ‘em down! I
found it bewildering and hard to deal with. And when they’d gone back to Georgia and I
was listening to the record, I thought, “Oh, fuck. I don’t think I’ve done that
great a job here.”

 

FM: Do you still feel
that way?

 

BOYD: Well, like them,
I’ve sort of come around to it. It’s been very nice, because it was
distressing, the fact that they were clearly not that happy with the record.
Because as nice as everybody was, and we all got along, there was never a
suggestion that they were going to hire me for the next record. And when the
next record came out, they had Michael’s voice way up and clear as a bell!
[laughs] But there are tracks on there that I really love. I like “Wendell
Gee,” I like “Can’t Get There From Here,” “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” But those
are the tracks that, in a way, are the atypical tracks, the tracks where there
was something else besides them on the record like a string section or a horn section.
So in a way I thought I could “get control” of those mixes more easily, because
it wasn’t just [the band] and the mix wasn’t something that one of them had a
very strong view about. So I really like those tracks. But I still find it
difficult to really relax and enjoy the rest of the record just because of how
disappointed I know they were, and I was, at the time. People come up to me now
and say, “That’s one of my favorite records!” And that’s very gratifying. But
it’s not so much that I can say, “Oh boy, now I can kick back and enjoy it.”
It’s more, “Whew! I got away with it!” [laughs]

 

 

As difficult a listening experience as Fables can be sometimes, it remains a crucial artifact for one of
our greatest bands. It would be a stretch to call it “timeless” like its two
predecessors, but populated as it is with a number of the band’s most enduring
songs – “Maps and Legends,” “Driver 8,” “Life and How to Live It,” “Auctioneer”
and, yeah, even neodisco anthem “Can’t Get There From Here” – I think we can still
deem it “classic.”

 

Considering R.E.M.’s umblemished track record to date at
that time, and some of their subsequent successes, I’d reckon that’s not faint
praise at all. It just took us awhile to get here from there.

 

[Photo Credit: Ed Colver/I.R.S.]

 

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