10 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #10


R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction (IRS, 1985)

Before I first listened to this record some years ago, I'd always heard this described as the "slow" early R.E.M. album, which never made much sense to me because every early R.E.M. album had really, really slow moments. So was this an album with 11 versions of "Camera"? (Jesus. I mean it's a great song but talk about an insomnia cure.) No: half of it is basically a lower-energy version of the first two albums' cryptic jangle-jangle, and the other half of it is... kind of R.E.M.'s version of postpunk, strangely enough. Were they listening to Gang of Four or Echo and the Bunnymen or something during this time? Probably just Pylon, but even so, there are some strangely depressive stylistic departures on here that really don't sound much like anything else in the band's discography. "Old Man Kensey" has a really moody and evocative bass line and a strangely syncopated rhythm underneath an oddly droning vocal from Michael Stipe. The musical mood is unmistakably bleak, and sounds really unexpected coming from a band that used to be so reliably relaxed, tuneful and cheerful. "Feeling Gravitys Pull" is unlike any other song the band ever did: it sounds kind of like Gang of Four struggling to play a song after they were all mistakenly dosed with codeine. Featuring a weird, chorused, chromatic guitar line, and topped off with an extremely sour string arrangement, the song is genuinely odd and doesn't really sound much like anything else ever recorded. It's probably one of the five best songs the band ever did. "Kohoutek" has one of Stipe's strangest vocals ever on it, as well as what's always sounded to me like a fairly unorthodox song structure. And where did the convincingly tense and creepy "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" come from? Every time that off-key bass line comes in during the chorus, the song actually sounds foreboding! How did R.E.M. ever manage that? There's also one of the band's goofiest songs, "Cant Get There From Here," which is a huge stylistic departure that doesn't fit into either the jangle camp or the postpunk camp that I've basically arbitrarily made up: it features hilarious Stipe oversinging that degenerates into froggy croaking (there was a time when Stipe definitely had a Southern accent, and you can hear him really exaggerating it here), intentionally stupid horn parts and the whitest-ever funk drumming you could possibly hope to hear, and it all works because the band is clearly having a ton of fun playing such a ridiculous (and catchy) song.

Of the lower-energy cryptic jangle-jangle half, there are definitely a couple songs which feel like bloodless, mediocre rehashes of earlier stylistic territory: is "Good Advices" supposed to be this draggy, hookless and boring? And is "Wendell Gee" really supposed to sound as sugary, limp and twee as it does, banjo and all? As far as country-inflected songs on R.E.M. albums go, ten seconds alone of "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" destroy every second of "Wendell Gee." For those of you keeping score, those are the two last songs on the album, which means that Fables ends pretty poorly in my estimation. But "Maps and Legends" is both super-jangly and very moody - minor chords galore, McGuinn-on-downers guitar tone, almost no energy at all - and sounds both exhausted and strangely tuneful. This isn't nearly as usual a combination in early R.E.M. songs as you might think. "Green Grow The Rushes" may sound like Early R.E.M. Song In D No. 36904, but that guitar line during the chorus is really catchy, and the song itself is standard early R.E.M. in that it's very, very beautiful. And "Driver 8" really works the moody jangle feel to spectacular effect over one of Peter Buck's most memorable guitar parts. This all means that "Life and How To Live It" is really the only song on here that sounds like it was left over from the first two albums - and like many songs off the first two albums, it basically exists for the chorus, and the chorus of the song basically does everything a good R.E.M. chorus ought to do. Overall, Fables of the Reconstruction is probably the most overlooked and divisive album during R.E.M.'s initial IRS phase, but don't let that stop you: there are some really great songs on here, and if anything, the band's fans (and the band themselves) have always underrated the album. Just pretend it ends after "Auctioneer (Another Engine" and you'll be fine.

1 comment:

  1. A note I didn't get around to including in the review: really, if "Fables of the Reconstruction" had been released as that most '80's of things, a mini-LP, with "Good Advices," "Wendell Gee" and some other song taken off - I've honestly never liked "Life and How To Live It" all that much, so let's throw away that one - I think everyone would see this as the very enjoyable release it is.

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