Reissue: R.E.M., "Fables of the Reconstruction: 25th Anniversary Edition" (Capitol/I.R.S.)
Two immediate observations on this expanded edition of R.E.M.'s gem from 1985: The band made great demos to start, and producer Joe Boyd focused the recording by pumping up the energy level and creating a clear depth of field for each of the instruments.
Beyond the original disc -- probably the R.E.M. album I listened to most often upon release and therefore a personal favorite -- Capitol has added the recordings done in the group's home base of Athens, GA, before heading to London to cut the disc. The bonus disc includes versions of every track on "Fables," plus the demo of the B-side "Bandwagon," an early version of "Hyena" and the never-released "Throw Those Trolls Away." Were R.E.M. a young indie band today, it's quite possible the demos would have been viewed as a finished product.
No overdubs here, just a band playing its tunes as they might live. Boyd's role was to finesse the recordings, bring out a bit more sting here, add a bounce in the rhythm there or see if other instruments could work, like the horns on "Can't Get There From Here." The amazing thing about Boyd, who had worked with Nick Drake, John Martin and Fairport Convention, is that he made no attempt to instill into R.E.M.'s sound the level of delicacy he brought to those other artists.
Beyond being recorded in London, "Fables" was unlike the two albums R.E.M. had already recorded -- "Murmur" and "Reckoning" -- in that the songs had not been road-tested or extensively rehearsed. Guitarist Peter Buck writes in the liner notes that the band felt "dangerously unprepared" heading to London. It could be argued that Michael Stipe did not have the time to wrap the lyrics in mumbles and ambiguity; his enunciation is comparatively clear on both editions of the album.
It's tempting to say they don't make records like this anymore, but records like this were not being made in 1984-85 either. There's no apparent compression, no flangers, drum machines or vocal effects, the hallmarks of mid-'80s records. All the instruments sound natural, which enhances the timelessness of "Fables of the Reconstruction."