R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction (25th Anniversary Edition)

January 01, 1970

(I.R.S./Capitol)

 

www.capitolrecords.com

 

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.

 

 

DOWNLOAD: “Maps
and Legends,” “Auctioneer,” “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” (demo), “Hyena” (demo)
FRED MILLS

 

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