R.E.M. – Murmur Deluxe Edition [reissue]

January 01, 1970

(IRS/Ume)

 

www.universalchronicles.com

 

So – those were the days, weren’t they, my friends? That
elusively brief, don’t-blink-we-don’t-wanna-miss-it point in the early eighties
right after the punk/post-punk dust had settled, just before the underground
commenced going overground, and when innocence was measured by your willingness
to plant an impetuous smooch on the cheek of a beautiful girl purely because
she had the “right” band logo on her tee or notebook.

 

Where were you in
’82? The “right” band was R.E.M., and I was in North Carolina, just a few kudzu
vines’ north of Athens, GA. By that point R.E.M. was a long-established part of
the dialogue. The group’s first road trip outside their home state had taken
them to Carrboro (near Chapel Hill) and
Raleigh, and in the aftermath of those and other R.E.M. shows my and my
friends’ devotion to the band was utter. I’d even bought a box full of Hib-Tone
45s for whenever I might encounter a nonbeliever, and when the Chronic Town EP came out I played it so
often at the record store I was working at that a couple of my more classic
rock-inclined coworkers had taken to misfiling the record on purpose. Bootleg
concert tapes of the band, often recorded with the blessings of Michael, Peter,
Mike and Bill and therefore usually of a pretty fine quality, were passed
around like religious tracts.

 

Needless to say, when the Murmur album rolled around the next year, in ’83, I was primed.

 

And again, now, 25 years later, with Universal’s two-disc,
remastered/expanded “Deluxe Edition” of Murmur. After a quarter-century’s worth of commentary on a record that regularly
figures on “Greatest Records Of All Time” lists, recapping the backstory
certainly isn’t needed here. And besides, essays and interviews (producers
Mitch Easter and Don Dixon in particular) dotting the reissue’s hefty booklet
take care of that quite nicely, if for some reason you need to refresh
yourself.

 

Nor is there much point in breaking down anew these
oft-dissected tunes and the utter uniqueness of the album as a sonic artifact –
you can find plenty of that in books
and on the web – other than to say that even now, in 2008, Murmur sounds fresh. There’s a hunger and a spontaneity that
shudders between the songs’ notes, a twinned ambition/naiveté that perhaps only
comes once in any artist’s career – particular when it’s a band that almost
immediately catapulted (no pun intended) into the public’s consciousness
following the album’s release. Once you’re at the top of the college radio charts,
regularly featured on MTV and appearing on the covers of the British music
weeklies, you can no more return to that earlier state of innocence than you
can take back that kiss you planted on the beautiful girl’s cheek.

 

Everyone owns a copy of Murmur;
do they need a fresh one? That’s always a relevant question when considering
reissues. (How many times can you repurchase the David Bowie or Elvis Costello
back catalogs, hmmm?) In this instance, the answer’s an unequivocal “yes.”

 

The album was always a landmark recording in terms of the
sound and, for lack of a better word, “vibe” that Dixon and Easter were able to get. Murmur‘s been exquisitely remastered
from the original analog tapes by Greg Calbi (the same man who mastered the LP
at Sterling Sound in 1983, in fact) and it’s now even more staggering in its
clarity and detail. Both Stipe’s lead vocals and the Mills-Berry backing vocals
leap from the speakers (try ‘em out on headphones – you can figure out some of
the lyrics this time!), and the low end is richer, more sonorous while the
vaunted R.E.M. jangles are, well, janglier in that crisp, pick-across-strings way that some wags like to call
“Rickenbackerian.” (Listen to Buck’s contrasting jangly/angular riffing in
“Moral Kiosk” – it’s long been known the guitarist was a diligent student of
pop ‘n’ rock, but here, with those riffs attaining fresh bite, he emerges as
someone who took those lessons to heart and then applied them with precision.) Likewise
the drums; Berry
was always the band’s secret weapon, and now you can hear why. Factor in other
subtleties – backwards instruments swimming around in the mix; keyboards, once
merely textural, newly prominent; sound effects (such as the echoey, colliding
billiard balls in “We Walk”) also being refocused – and you’ve got a record
that will surprise and delight even those who’ve lived with it and returned to
it over and over during the past 25 years.

 

***

 

For all that and more, the reissue merits a “10” and in
truth Murmur probably has always been
a “10” so it would be hard to credibly chip away at the rating. That said, some
quibbles about this “Deluxe Edition” must be voiced, even if they don’t
necessarily diminish the record’s brilliance.

 

One train of thought tends to hold that reissues should be
presented unvarnished with no additional material in order that listeners get
exactly what the band intended them to get in the first place. Fair enough;
here, Disc 1 is the original album with no extras. But then there’s the
pro-bonus tracks camp.  In 1992 a brace
of European I.R.S. reissues of R.E.M. albums came out, each boasting a handful
of intriguing appendices, and Murmur included a cover of the Velvets’ “There She Goes Again” (originally the B-side
of the re-recorded “Radio Free Europe”) and live versions of “Catapult”
(Seattle, 6-27-84), “9-9” (France, 4-20-84) and “Gardening At Night” (France,
4-20-84). All of them fit comfortably on the CD as appealing sonic and
stylistic addendums, and I’m not ready to surrender my copy just yet. It’s not
as if Disc 1 is exactly crammed; there was plenty of room, time-wise, to add
these four songs, so if you’re of the latter mindset, then in a sense this Murmur could have been done better.

 

Of course, Disc 2 is all bonus material, the oft-bootlegged July 9, 1983 R.E.M. concert at Larry’s
Hideaway in Toronto.
It captures the group in full flight and in close Murmur proximity (along with a couple of previews of the
then-unrecorded second LP, Reckoning),
racing unselfconsciously and gleefully through a set list typical for R.E.M. at
the time. But even Disc 2 is slightly problematic. Yes, it’s very cool to have
the live show, but you’re only getting 16 songs of what was actually a 20-song
set, and with Disc 2 only clocking in at 57 minutes, there’s no good reason not to include the additional four songs
(for the record, they were “Wolves, Lower”; “Moral Kiosk”; “Pretty Persuasion”
and a cover of “Moon River”). So for Murmur:
Deluxe Edition
UMe isn’t exactly doing
diehard fans and collectors any favors.

 

(Incidentally, the Larry’s Hideaway show has had an
interesting trajectory over the years. About 45 minutes of it was originally
broadcast over the radio, subsequently generating an oft-traded tape among
collectors. Later, an actual soundboard recording of the entire show surfaced,
and that became an even more-coveted trade artifact, eventually making its way
to bootleg CD (one, among several, titles was R.E.M. Rising, issued by the Red Robin label) and, later, to the
file-sharing communities. Google it and you’ll immediately turn up plenty of
hits if you’re interested in nabbing a torrent.)

 

***

 

Murmur was the
soundtrack to a very, very special time in my life, as it no doubt was for many
of you. I pogo’d to “Radio Free Europe” and slow-waltzed to “We Walk”; I sang
along at the top of my lungs to “Talk About the Passion” even though I had no
idea what the actual lyrics were and I bobbed my head earnestly in time to
“Sitting Still” because it seemed like a very earnest song worth, um, bobbing
along to. Listening to the album now, I can revisit my physical responses to
the album almost as if they are sense memories – like when a guitarist will
tell you that even though he hasn’t played a certain song in ages his muscles somehow
still remember how to guide his hands and arms to the correct locations on the
fretboard.

 

Most of all, I celebrate my lost innocence when I listen to Murmur. I don’t necessarily want it
back, of course. But I do feel it’s important that every now and then we find
ways to pay tribute to our earlier selves. There’s nothing worse than growing
old and in the process forgetting what it felt like to be young once.

 

Standout Tracks: “Pilgrimage,” “Sitting Still,” “Gardening At Night” (live) FRED MILLS

 

 

UPDATE: Since
writing this review I’ve gotten a finished copy of Murmur – I’d been working from an advance set of CDRs and no
booklet/artwork, which, as it turns out, technically isn’t a booklet at all,
but a fold-out poster with the original LP sleeve on one side and sleeve
credits and essays on the other. A cryptic note in the new credits reads,
“Rewind CD2 Track 1 For A Little Surprise”: sure enough, there’s a hidden
track, a little more than a minute in length, of a vintage Murmur radio ad. Nice touch there Ume;
I’ll let you partly off the hook regarding my bonus material comments, above.

 

Also, in the interest of accuracy (or obsession): Since the
review was published, a reader emailed me to let me know that the France ’84
tracks referenced above are in fact not from France at all, but taken from a
radio broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, July 7, 1984. The European
Murmur CD apparently is mislabeled,
most likely due to confusion stemming from the fact that the France songs did
in fact turn up back in the day as B-sides to the British 12-inch for “(Don’t
Go Back To) Rockville.” Thanks to Bo for providing me with this info.  – FM

 

 

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