R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant (25th Anniversary Edition)

January 01, 1970

(I.R.S./Capitol)

 

www.capitolrecords.com

 

And thus we come to the fourth installment of EMI’s back
catalog overhaul of R.E.M.’s I.R.S. Records era, which, like last year’s Fables of the Reconstruction expanded
reissue (reviewed here), is a “25th Anniversary Edition”
featuring a sparkling remastering job and a bonus disc. (Likewise with 2008 and
2009 “Deluxe Editions” for the band’s 1982 long-playing debut Murmur (review here)
and 1984 sophomore effort Reckoning (reviewed here).
In many ways, 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant represented
the closing of that era, for while the subsequent Document was an I.R.S. release, the ’87 album was also the
culmination of everything the Georgia group had been building towards, with Document not only yielding R.E.M.’s
first Top 10 hit (“The One I Love”) en route to going platinum (another first
for them), but also serving as the transition vehicle to their Warner Bros.
era, with producer Scott Litt working with them on that as well as their first
five Warners releases.

 

Raw stats aside, though, Lifes
Rich Pageant
proves its mettle both through the rose-tinted lenses of
memory and via the stellar songs and sonics that lend it staying power a
quarter-century on. If Fables was
dark and murky, the product of interband flux and uncertainty, LFR is prismic and crisp, boasting
subtly inventive arrangements, smartly-recorded vocals from Michael Stipe (a
trait whose significance R.E.M. old-timers will instinctively grasp) and a
spectrum-spanning mix that, thanks to the fresh remaster at hand, provides for
the proverbial pin-drop’s tones to be clearly apprehended (a not-insignificant
detail, either). As liner notesman Parke Puterbaugh rightfully observes, the
album was also crafted at some psychological and geographical remove from its
predecessor: where Fables was
recorded during a dreary London winter, for this
they traveled to the considerably more hospitable climes of Indiana to cut tracks with producer Don
Gehman (of John Mellencamp fame). The album, writes Puterbaugh, “got made by a
rested, rejuvenated band during a warm, sunny season in the Midwest.
Both metereology and mental health were in brighter, better places during the
1986 sessions.”

 

Adds bassist Mike Mills in Puterbaugh’s notes, of their
choice of producer, “We were ready to challenge ourselves… [Gehman] was trying
to take this band that had made a murky, emotionally down kind of record and
shine some light on it, brighten it up… We thought maybe now was the time to
make a rock record and Gehman was the guy to take us there.”

 

The journey was by all accounts a success, with both the
critics and the public singing the praises of LRP – sales-wise, it went gold – even though it wouldn’t be until Document that R.E.M.’s hitmaking phase
would fully kick into high gear. Track after track here positively sizzles,
from the angular, hard rock riffage of opening track “Begin the Begin” and the
full-tilt powerpop romp of “These Days” through the anthemic, arpeggiated
chugarama that is “Hyena” and the closing pop coda of “Superman,” the latter an
out-of-the-blue cover of obscure ‘60s band The Clique that didn’t even get
listed on the sleeve (but, as one of the two singles released from the album,
managed to do semi-respectably at radio).

 

In addition to being a fun rock ‘n’ roll record, LRP is one
of the group’s most cohesive, elegant and emotionally satisfying releases. Part
of that may be due to the fact that Gehman sold Stipe on the value of
enunciating more clearly in order to help the listeners discern his lyrics, and
in turn connect more fully. (Not that fans didn’t connect with Stipe and his songs previously; a touching quality of early
R.E.M. was how one could project your own notions of what Stipe was singing
about.) There are songs here that delve into matters of the heart, of the mind,
of the environmental and ecological landscape, of the Reagan-era political
landscape, and what it means to be a forward-thinking young person morphing
into adulthood. And thanks to Stipe’s willingness to open up his
still-occasionally-oblique lyrics to closer scrutiny, he emerges as a
flagbearer for the journey at hand rather than a mere poetic chronicler.

 

Too, sonically, LRP displays
a corresponding, and engaging, yearning quality, a kind of antebellum
wistfulness that speaks of optimism and resilience. There’s the jangly sigh of
“Fall on Me” and the heartbreak-on-the-mend of “Cuyahoga” (look it up); the
strummy protest folkrock of “The Flowers of Guatemala” and the kinetic, soaring
dronepop of “What If We Give It Away”; and, perhaps most majestically, the
modal hum and deftly-picked waltz of “Swan Swan H,” a striking,
part-wordy/part-humorous Civil War-themed narrative that still stands out as
one of R.E.M.’s most elegiac compositions ever.

 

Great/timeless albums don’t always reveal themselves
initially, of course, and that’s particularly true of the R.E.M. catalog, which
is populated equally by slow-burners, clear classics, noble experiments and
outright dogs. Pageant seems to fall
in between the first two categories, for while it was warmly received upon its
release, if anything this fresh remaster reveals, it’s how well it has held up and
how it doesn’t sound relegated to the somewhat derogatorily-named category known as
“Mid ‘80s Albums.” The contemporary technology also unveils a wealth of delightful
new nuances and textures for the album. For example, there’s a high guitar
(possibly mandolin) part in “What If We Give It Away” and a recurring cymbal
flourish in “Cuyahoga” I’d never heard before; “Swan Swan H,” where once
intimate and contemplative, now turns cinematic in feel; “Begin the Begin,”
always an ominous, meaty, huffing slice of rawk and boasting some of Pete Buck’s most aggressive, viciously cutting guitars
ever plus nigh-apocalyptic drumming from Bill Berry, fairly pins you to the
wall and leaves you clutching your gut.

 

The bottom line: if this record was already one of your
favorite R.E.M. titles, be prepared to be greeted heartily – and to be
surprised in the process – by an old friend. And if you were only marginally
appreciative, here’s your chance for a long-overdue reappraisal.

 

***

 

The 19-song bonus disc is titled “The Athens Demos” and
comprises songs tracked in March of 1986 at John Keane’s Studio in Athens. Most of them were
circulated on cassette in clandestine fashion by collectors (“Here, listen to
this, but keep it to yourself and don’t make a copy of it for anyone…” Ha ha.) during the period leading up to
the July release of LRP, subsequently
going on to bootleg infamy across various vinyl titles and, eventually, the CD
boot Life’s Rich Pageant and More. Prior
to that, fans had already grown familiar with several songs that would wind up
on LRP; on R.E.M.’s November/December
’85 “Reconstruction III” tour
the band worked nascent arrangements of “Fall On
Me,” “Hyena” “Swan Swan H” and “Just A Touch” into setlists, and it’s known
that additional fragments and/or riffs were being fleshed out on the tour as
well.

 

Interestingly, the LRP material demoed in Athens
is, by and large, the least interesting among “The Athens Demos” presented
here. Some, such as “Hyena,” “These Days” and “Just A Touch” differ vary little
from their Gehman-produced counterparts, save more sonic depth and fleshed-out
arrangements. (Worth noting: “Just A Touch” was already a vintage composition,
having turned up on demo tapes and in setlists several years prior.) “Swan Swan
H” also appears near-wholly formed, although it’s such a drop-dead gorgeous
song that listening to it in any format or incarnation is a pleasure.
Meanwhile, a couple of tracks here are still in sketchbook form, like the
vocal-free take of “Flowers of Guatemala” and a version of “Cuyahoga” that
finds Stipe still working out some of the lyrics during the first half and then
the band taking over instrumentally during the second.

 

As had increasingly become R.E.M.’s custom, however, songs
would get tracked then filed away for future reference and, often, resurrection
on a later album or B-side. That’s the case, for example, with “Bad Day”: initially
surfacing on the ’85 tour, it was initially known as “P.S.A.”; the band wisely
discarded it in ’86 – it’s one of their lesser compositions – then later
returned to it and wound up placing it on the 2006 compilation And I Feel Fine… The Best of the I.R.S.
Years 1982-1987
. Others include “Rotary Ten,” “Two Steps Onward,” “All The
Right Friends” and “March Songs” (aka “King of Birds). Diehard fans will cheer
the first-ever appearance of a track called “Wait” which apparently never found
its way into the clutches of bootleggers, although it’s a somewhat slight,
surf/pop number in the vein of, but inferior to, album track “Just A Touch.”

 

Just the same, taken as a whole, the two-CD incarnation of Life’s Rich Pageant makes a case for the
album taking its rightful place alongside such obvious classics as Murmur and Out of Time. As with the 25th anniversary reissue of Fables of the Reconstruction it’s packaged
in a hard-stock cardboard box with individual sleeves for each disc, a booklet,
photo cards of the bandmembers and a foldout poster. Such detailing, along with
the impressive remastering, is consistent with EMI’s entire handling of
R.E.M.’s early albums, and a hearty congratulations is due all around to
everyone who’s been involved. Bring on the Document

 

DOWNLOAD: “Swan
Swan H,” “Cuyahoga,” “Begin The Begin (demo),” “All the Right Friends” (demo)
FRED MILLS

 

 

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