Friday, July 23, 2010

Fables ... Revisited

I recently picked up the new remastered release of R.E.M.’s 1985 LP Fables of the Reconstruction. Fables was the first R.E.M. record that I bought as a fan when it first came out, having fallen under the Southern-gothic-meets-Byrdsian-folk-rock spell of the collegiate circuit darlings in the wake of their stellar 1984 album, Reckoning.

In fact, now that I think about it, like many people my age, R.E.M. was a significant part of the soundtrack of my college years. I listened to Fables quite a lot back in the day, but it has been a very long time since I last spun the disc (vinyl platter long since replaced by CD). My memories of it are of a transitional, inconsistent album that, nevertheless, had its share of worthwhile moments. Upon now listening to the new remastered release, I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the album has aged (the same certainly can’t be said for all of R.E.M.’s catalog).

Fables was the first R.E.M. album to show that they could be more than a jangly Rickenbacker -totting pop band with alluringly mumbled vocals. While Fables may only have shown sporadic hints that the group had more edge and a wider palette of sounds and song structures than previous efforts suggested, it did establish a foothold for new directions that would be further explored and developed on the next few albums as the band matured and gained renown.

Not long after its release, Fables began being maligned – not least of all by the band itself (despite guitarist Peter Buck’s revisionist claims to the contrary on the CDs new liner notes; sorry, Peter, I have interviews from the mid ’80s depicting the disgruntlement). The album was disparaged as an under-rehearsed, under-produced and unfocused record. Perhaps in the shadow of the much more polished sound and songs of the next few R.E.M. releases, that criticism may have held up more at the time than it seems to now.

While the band’s 1987 release, Document, remains one of my all-time R.E.M. favorites, representing several steps of departure from the sound of the band’s early years, hearing these records now I think Fables more than holds its own against the band’s immediate follow up, 1986’s more commercially successful Life’s Rich Pageant.

Even at the time, it was clear that Fables represented some kind of evolutionary step for the band. Now, in hindsight, its place as a transitional touchpoint in the band’s history is even more pronounced. Fables has one foot planted in R.E.M.’s early foundation (represented by the Chronic Town EP, Murmur and Reckoning) and the harder-edged sound that would play out on the band’s next few releases.

The songs on Fables plainly fall into one of two categories, with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” “Old Man Kensey,” “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” representing new, darker, more aggressive and instrumentally diverse forays, while “Maps and Legends,” “Driver 8,” “Life and How to Live It,” “Green Grow the Rushes” (based on a traditional English folk tune), “Kohoutek,” “Good Advices” and “Wendell Gee” (with the addition of banjo) harken back to whence the band came.

Beyond serving as a reminder of this, the Fables reissue also tweaks the sound of the original album in a few interesting ways. The remastered sound is evident right from the start in the much more prominent cello on the hauntingly dark and dissonant opening track, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” At first, the improved clarity on the backing instruments is a bit off-putting in its recasting of the song (compared to that which was emblazoned on our memories so long ago). But, while the supportive instruments like the cello, piano, harmonica and harmony vocals are now more distinct, the guitar, bass and drums remain undiminished. The backstage lights are a bit brighter, but the spotlight still shines on Stipe’s vocals and Buck’s alternately chiming and distorted arpeggios.

On the other hand, the trumpet on the album’s hit single, “Can’t Get There from Here” – which was plenty prominent on the original release, and one of the more notable steps of departure for the band – does not seem to have been jacked up in this new edition. It sounds about the same as it did on the original.

In a less definable way, “Life and How to Live It” seems to shine brighter in this revisit. That may be the result of remastering or simply proper aging and new context. Similarly, this release reminds me what a great pop song “Driver 8” is – marrying that old-timey Southern folk imagery (not to mention Stipe’s ongoing railroad infatuation) with the band’s characteristic upbeat jangle.

Overall, the Fables remaster also proves a powerful testament to Mike Mills’ importance to the band. His instrumental prowess on bass, piano and whatever else he might have picked up speaks for itself, even if others sometimes got the credit. But without his subtle, yet essential, harmony vocals, R.E.M. would not be the same band. Drummer Bill Berry also adds a spark that doesn’t seem to have been matched, even by more technically adept drummers in the wake of his retirement a decade or so ago.

Meanwhile, Stipe’s vocals, while not entirely discernable, have more clarity than on the band’s previous releases. There’s also a pleasant restraint to his singing on Fables compared to his more frequent over-the-top performances of later years. “Good Advices,” “Green Grow Rushes” and the elegiac album closer “Wendell Gee” are among some of Stipe’s strongest studio performances of the era.

Given the smorgasboard of new and old sounds comprising the record, the sequencing on Fables works really well, seamlessly taking the listener into new terrain while never straying too far from familiar paths. The way in which the folky harmonies of “Life and How to Live It,” one of the songs most reminiscent of the band’s previous releases, lead into the engagingly sinister, yet melodic, opening guitar and bass riffs of “Old Man Kensey” is a powerful juxtaposition that amplifies the menacing tones of the latter. (Even now, listening to “Kensey” I’m reminded of how, back in the day, a good friend always referred to this song as “Old Man Lindsay” in my presence. It was, and remains, one of my favorite songs on the album.)


In addition to the updated master, the new edition of Fables also includes a disc of demo versions of the songs on the original release, as well as three additional tunes from the period (at least two of which should be familiar to R.E.M. fans). These “Athens Demos” are basically live-in-the-studio rehearsals from January 1985, recorded between the end of the 1984 tour and the band’s departure for the Fables sessions in London,

While interesting, there’s not much extraordinary in the demos. Standouts include a rawer, stripped down, but still quite polished, version of “Can’t Get There from Here,” featuring an extended coda and Stipe’s “Thank You, Ray” (a la Elvis) studio banter; and “Maps of Legends” in which Stipe’s overdubbed background singing sometimes competes with his lead vocal – creating a slightly distracting discord in the song and undermining what is, otherwise, one of stronger tunes of the period.

The non-album songs are “Hyena,” which was featured in live shows at the time and later appeared on the follow-up album to Fables; “Bandwagon,” a strong but traditional R.E.M. sounding outtake; and “Throw Those Trolls Away” – the only song in the set that I hadn’t heard before – featuring the classic refrain: “Don’t be a loser.” Ironically, the latter is a throw away outtake that seems to be an embryonic version of “I Believe,” later to appear in more developed (and significantly improved form) on Life’s Rich Pageant.

Priced at $22 or more, I would only recommend this new deluxe edition of Fables to hard-core fans. However, it does serve as a good impetus to dust off your old copy of the record (be it vinyl or CD), or pick up a new CD if you don’t have it, and rediscover the pleasures of some of the better music of the mid ’80s era.


A bootleg, quasi pro-shot, video of R.E.M. performing “Can’t Get There From Here” at Merideth College in Raleigh,N.C., 5/27/85 … about six months before I saw them at The Mosque Theatre in Richmond, Va. I can’t get over how Buck, who had switched from primarily playing hollow-body Rickenbackers to playing mostly Fender Telecasters, moves like a cross between a young Keith Richards and Pete Townshend. Gotta love Stipe’s boxcar hobo look, too.

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