Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Oho, so here I am, writing about R.E.M. again. I have been listening to so SO much new music recently, and yet all I have to show for it is a review of an album - and a band - that I have loved since the beginning of time. Way to work outside of your comfort zone, Rose.
But I have an excuse! Today's record, 1985's Fables Of The Reconstruction, was just recently re-released - and, thankfully, it is getting a whole slew of long-deserved positive press. This is good news, considering that Fables tends to be the one early R.E.M. record that is continually ignored, even by diehard fans; not only was it sandwiched uncomfortably between Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant, but the band was not at all happy with the record by most accounts, and fans decided to follow their lead by not even bothering to hear it. Which is pretty dumb, when you think about it. Didn't XTC hate Skylarking for a while? Like, their most celebrated and beloved album? Yeah.
Bands are stupid.
Guess R.E.M. got over it, though, considering that they perform Fables tracks in concert all the time now. So we can all stop being so dumb. Fables holds a unique position in R.E.M.'s discography for a few reasons: one, it's the band's first concept album, with a set of songs exploring legends of the rural South; two, it's the last album of R.E.M.'s elliptical early years, before Lifes Rich Pageant turned them into an arena-rock band; and third, it's possibly their darkest album, the inverse of Reckoning's summertime-fun college rock. The latter point is probably the main reason so many people have trouble with Fables - it takes the least accessible traits of R.E.M.'s first two albums and magnifies them, pushing Michael Stipe's vocals even further back into the mix and drenching every track in moody guitar murk. Just a comparison of opening tracks makes these differences clear: where Murmur and Reckoning kicked off with radio-friendly college rock anthems, Fables opens with the clangy guitars of "Feeling Gravitys Pull," a song so unfriendly it sounds almost like it was designed to push the listener away.
This was my Fables dilemma, for a while. Lifes Rich Pageant has long been my favorite 80s R.E.M. record, and Fables is almost its exact opposite in every conceivable way; I just didn't know how to approach it. But Fables is a record that rewards (or, in some cases, requires) multiple listens, revealing itself to be possibly R.E.M.'s finest exercise in establishing mood and drawing the listener in. Individual tracks might not be as catchy or ingratiating as Murmur's and Reckoning's, but neither of those records could boast a sound as all-engulfing as "Maps And Legends"'s foreboding jangle, or "Auctioneer (Another Engine)"'s disarming chorus. If Reckoning felt like a lovely drive through the neighborhood, Fables feels like a dirt-road slog in the dead of night, where everything is obscured and nothing is certain.
But despite all that murkiness, this is still an early-period R.E.M. record through and through, full of gorgeous melodies, Peter Buck guitar jangling and Mike Mills/Bill Berry harmonies. Most fans probably already know "Driver 8," even if they haven't heard Fables - it's one of their best and most popular early singles - but there are so many worthy album tracks here it's ridiculous. My personal favorite, "Green Grow The Rushes," is one of Peter Buck's finest moments, a winding tapestry of folk-rock guitar beauty. It's got an environmental message, but one so thoroughly packaged in melodious songcraft that it never comes across as preachy or obnoxious - it's a should-be R.E.M. classic, is what I'm trying to say. The dramatic echo of tracks like "Life And How To Live It" and "Good Advices" give the record a palpable sense of energy (the latter featuring the immortal Stipe lyric "When you meet a stranger / look at his shoes / keep your money in your shoes"), while "Kohoutek" and "Old Man Kensey" revel in that creepy Old South vibe. And, of course, there are the two great tracks that are completely at odds with the mood of the record: the goofy horn-driven "Can't Get There From Here," the earliest inkling that R.E.M. actually had a sense of humor, and the understated country ballad of "Wendell Gee" that closes the album on an unusually friendly note.
Oh, also worth noting: if you love Mike Mills counterpoint harmony vocals, Fables is going to make you a very happy man. They are all over this fucking thing. "Can't Get There From Here" is maybe the best example, but "Maps And Legends" and "Wendell Gee" benefit greatly from his presence. God, I love that guy.
Man, there is no better time to get into Fables. It is an excellent portrait of a band at the peak of their powers, delivering one more moody masterpiece before diving headlong into the mainstream. I wouldn't recommend it for newbie R.E.M. fans - it's a little too uninviting - but dedicated listeners have no excuses. Give in.
To close things out, here's a fun live performance that answers the eternal question: "What if R.E.M.'s classic, outspoken anthem 'Fall On Me' sounded like a track from Chronic Town?" Here is your answer: