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–R.E.M. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)

This review marks a return to my classic albums series, focusing on some of my all-time favorite records from the 1970s through the 2000s. The albums may be obscure or famous, mellow rock or extreme metal; the common thread being that they deserve more recognition, and that they are of outstanding quality. Now, on to the 1980s and R.E.M.’s darkest, most enigmatic hour. 

R.E.M.’s music has always hovered somewhere in the ether of my life’s soundtrack. Much like an early-morning fog, or tufts of cottonwood fluff floating in the breeze, it covered and colored my musical subconscious. Between my dad’s frequent spins of Document on the old red Econoline’s tape deck, or osmosis from the ubiquitous MTV videos, I just couldn’t escape R.E.M.’s influence. They were not close to my favorite band, and they sounded absolutely nothing like my beloved hard rock and metal. But there was always something there. 

Gradually, my vague respect for the jingle-jangly Athens, Georgia boys evolved into bonafide fandom. My first deliberate foray into R.E.M.’s back catalog occurred in the form of the Green CD that I would frequently check out of the high school library; specifically, the haunting and moody “I Remember California” rarely left my head. Concurrently, Automatic for the People hits such as “Everybody Hurts” and “Nightswimming” satisfied that angsty adolescent emo itch. 

But exploring the early albums revealed R.E.M. at their most vibrant, energetic, and uplifting. The Murmur debut is one bopping, jingle-jangly party of a pop-rock record; likewise, the sophomore effort Reckoning continues where Murmur left off, albeit with an even more confounding lyrical and vocal performance from Michael Stipe. Anchored by Stipe’s soothing, if nasally, voice and guitarist Buck’s driving, cleanly-arpeggiated riffs, R.E.M. seemed like an unstoppable –and incorrigably optimistic — rock band. Then, in 1985 Fables of the Reconstruction hit the streets, and fans immediately immersed themselves in a much darker version of the R.E.M. sound. 

From the opening strains of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” contemporary listeners must have felt as if Charlie Daniels’ patented Devil had indeed been up to some fresh mischief down in Georgia. This tune begins with Buck playing deliberate arpeggios and chiming harmonics that reverberate like a mournful church bell. “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” is a downright slow, almost doomy dirge that features one of Stipe’s most haunting and provocative performances. When he wistfully sings in the chorus, “Step up, the sky is open-armed/when the light is mine/I felt gravity’s pull,” one can sense a profound spiritual revelation, even if the meaning is still pretty confounding. Bassist Mike Mills’ trademark gorgeous vocal harmonies, coupled with new touches such as lush orchestration, clearly reflect a newfound sense of maturity and experimentation for the band. 

So, does the rest of the album continue in this emotionally-charged manner? Yes and no. “Maps and Legends” increases the pace and APMs (arpeggios-per-minute) a tad while maintaining the contemplative vibe to the vocal melodies. The crawling, funky groove of Mills’ bass riff propels “Old Man Kensey,” a particularly moody tune awash in Buck’s ethereal chimes and Stipe’s dreamlike, plaintive singing. “Wendell Gee,” another more experimental track, finds R.E.M. embracing uplifting folk-rock, replete with banjo and campfire harmonies. 

But make no mistake, Fables… still provides plenty of upbeat, bounce-around rock tunes. On “Driver 8,” Buck’s staccato intro riff serves as the perfect foil for the song’s acoustic major chords and intricate interplay of vocal harmonies. The bombastic and downright funkified “Can’t Get There from Here” showcases the rhythm section of Mills and drummer Bill Berry at their best; “Green Grow the Rushes,” by contrast, is a wistful folk ditty that’s features one of Buck’s most infectious riffs. “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” might seem like a standard up-tempo rocker until that tense and slightly dissonant chorus appears. 

Perhaps this sophisticated and fantastic masterpiece of an album is best epitomized by “Good Advices,” a straight-forward jingle-jangler that lacks one single non-catchy moment. “At the end of the day/I’ll forget your name/I’d like it here if I could leave/and see you from a long way away. ” Who can not occasionally relate to such singular, indelible moments in one’s life? Indeed, contrary to another line from this tune, home is not “a long way away” as long as this glorious book of Fables… is upon the fingertips. 

–Tracklisting: 1.) Feeling Gravity’s Pull 2.) Maps And Legends 3.) Driver 8 4.) Life And How to Live It 5.) Old Man Kensey 6.) Can’t Get There From Here 7.) Green Grow The Rushes 8.) Kohoutek 9.) Auctioneer (Another Engine) 10.) Good Advices 11.) Wendell Gee

–Jonathan Kollnot 

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~ by jonnyboyrocker on October 2, 2017.

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