Continuing R.E.M.’s recent string of reissuing classic albums from its earliest years, this week marked the reissue and 25th anniversary of the Athens, Georgia group’s sometimes overlooked third outing, Fables of the Reconstruction. It is now out as a two-CD collection with all original tracks remastered on one disc and demos of all tracks, plus three non-album demos on a second disc.
Where the first two albums Murmur (1983) and Reckoning (1984) are considered among their best works, this album was considered a bit of a step down for R.E.M. upon first release. It was also the album that nearly broke up the band.
These workaholics were in the middle of an impressive run where they would put out one studio album for six straight years (from 1983-1988). But between long commutes to the London studio every day, poor food and weather, and nervous breakdowns by these mid-20-somethings, it’s a wonder Fables sounds cohesive at all.
For this record, the quartet parted ways with its previous producers, including Mitch Easter, and left its native land for London to work with producer Joe Boyd, who’d previously worked on pre-Dark Side Of The Moon-era Pink Floyd and folk acts like Nick Drake, among others.
The results made for a (mostly) darker R.E.M. record (ex. “Old Man Kensey”) than fans may have expected, but one where singer Michael Stipe came into his own as a lyricist, getting into storytelling of the American South for the first time. The oddest one, which fans would learn more about many years later, is that steady rocker “Life And How To Live It” is based on an author from their hometown (Brivs Mekis) who wrote and published a book called Life: How To Live, then suddenly pulled all existing copies off the market and kept them home.
As far as the sound of the remastered 11 tracks are concerned, they are crisper all around and louder than the original versions. Only drummer Bill Berry suffers in the mix all these years later. But that IMHO is not due to production issues but because he was never a pound-the-kit type of drummer. Berry brought only the energy needed to complete the songs and nothing more, sort of like a modern day Charlie Watts (of The Rolling Stones).
Guitarist Peter Buck brings an army’s worth of jangly riffs and chords to each album, and for Fables, this is no different. Buck’s work on the underrated track “Green Go The Rushes” is as memorable as any other guitar lines in the R.E.M. catalog.
And of course, there’s the hit singles from the record, including “Can’t Get There From Here,” featuring Stipe’s twangy, Southern-style vocals, and “Driver 8,” the lyricist’s hit tale about train conductors (of all people).
The bouncy and romantic “Kohoutek” is also a highlight for the band and Stipe, who goes the whole song without rhyming any lines.
Not to be outshined, bassist Mike Mills is lively on his four-string instrument as always, and still doubles as one of the best backup singers in rock ‘n’ roll, as exemplified on the two aforementioned classics.
The demos disc features lighter, rawer takes on all of the album’s 11 tracks, some of which are not only not perfectly executed but which feature the band talking either mid-song or immediately afterward. And that includes the gem of the bunch, the upbeat “Throw Those Trolls Away,” where Stipe can be heard telling someone to turn up Buck’s guitar.
It’s classic R.E.M., with its midtempo, pure guitar-based rhythms and could have easily fit in with any of R.E.M.’s first three albums. What separates “Trolls” from other tracks is Mills’ damn near funky-sounding bass improvisations half way through. Thus, it’s a fun song.
Also included is a take on b-side “Bandwagon,” as well as “Hyena,” which would appear on the band’s next album, Life’s Rich Pageant. (R.E.M. is likely planning on remastering and reissuing this one within the next year as well.)
In all, the reissue of Fables is a slight but much-needed improvement on an already solid yet somewhat strange – hear the dissonant sounds of “Feeling Gravitys Pull” – record in the R.E.M. catalog, which contains 14 studio albums to date.
It’s not the perfect album, as it has some repetitive song structures to speak of. But R.E.M. proved back in 1985 that even when it wasn’t at the top of its game songwriting-wise, it still put out material better than most of its contemporaries.