Category Archives: R.E.M.

R.E.M.-Reckoning (1984)

5 stars out of 5. Immortal album.


Reckoning is essentially like living in the South on a good day. Bright yet reticent, forceful yet moody, R.E.M.’s second LP diversifies the sound of their debut without ever straying too far from what made us love them in the first place.

The producing team of Don Dixon and Mitch Easter returned and it was decided all around to try and match more of what the band’s live sound was and not polish all the material in the studio. In essence, the band wanted to maintain the spontaneity of the way they tore through songs with reckless abandon onstage. This makes Reckoning far more accessible than Murmur on first listen, but it isn’t any bit more decipherable.

The murk of the band’s sound was changed around a bit when the producers decided to record the album binaurally. (Meaning that two simultaneous recordings are made of every single part. this usually is done through a device made to house dual microphones in the general idea of recording sound the way it would be heard by a human head.) This gives the album an almost out of body feel that splendidly contrasts with the parts that rock harder.


This whole record has a darker feel than Murmur, and for one that was trying to sound more like live sound that seems a bit odd at first. However, you begin to realize that this is a band still learning the studio and recording process and just beginning to grasp at their own meaning. Reckoning becomes a fitting title because you read all sorts of things into the songs but overall you get the sense it’s about coming to some kind of realization. The alternate “File under Water” title (which was only along the spine of the original LP) is a more cryptic message, as if someone was trying to say: this record is figuratively drowning under water.

There are many bare emotional moments on the album that further the reckoning theme. Instead of simply cranking out Murmur II or delving into whatever the record company wanted (the label did want more commercially oriented material.) R.E.M. buried their heads in the sand and did just what they thought they should do. In “Camera’, the vocal is so full of utter anguish that the song becomes a sort of eulogy to emotion.

This is a more confident and more emotional album than its predecessor, and truly an unforgettable timeless classic. Michael Stipe is just as indecipherable as ever. The jangly punchiness of their earlier work is still here but coated in this “watery” murk.  (listen to “Letter Never Sent”) Of course the murk has an air about it due to the recording process used. The detail and soundscape are wider but the focus more narrowed.

The cover art by Howard Finster features the song titles flowing at various stages of this twirly line thing…which I always took to be some sort of snake. Now I realize it’s more like a flowing river or body of water with the songs listed randomly so that the idea of ebb and flow sinks in. It’s a map. Clever.

My favorite track on the album is both the closing song and the most expressive of the album’s theme: : “Little America” is short, quirky, punchy, meandering, and nonsensical.

Jefferson I think we’re lost.”

EDITIONS: As with all of the IRS era R.E.M. material, the original US vinyl is the best sounding version available. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs made editions of Reckoning and Murmur that used the original master tapes. These have a great deal of low end and bass that isn’t present on any other release. Many claim to prefer these editions. I personally didn’t like the way that the sound was changed on Murmur, but Reckoning doesn’t sound as different on the MFSL release.  In any case, these were released on 24 carat Gold CDs and vinyl and like all older MFSL titles went quickly out of print. They fetch quite substantial prices used.

The original IRS LP issue was pressed on Quiex vinyl. When holding this type of vinyl up to a light it will be a transluscent color. This album has been known to show up as brown, purple and green.

Also, the Columbia Record Club pressing is quite good, but sadly lacks the little musical interludes between some of the songs.

The original stock IRS CD is good, but sounds more like it came from an EQ’d tape copy meant for cassettes (A common practice in the earlier days of CD’s). The 1992 EU only IRS Vintage Years Edition sounds nearly identical, but features some pretty hard to find B-sides and covers. This series added some rarities to each IRS era album, but nearly all of these bonus tracks were later collected on the single release In the Attic. The Reckoning CD has a few that aren’t there, so it’s still worth a purchase if you should come across one. Plus it has in my opinion the best version of “White Tornado”. (Originally a B-side from the UK Superman single) It absolutely “crushes like a grape”* the version on Dead Letter Office.

The Deluxe Edition 2CD unfortunately suffers from the Loudness Wars and is a bit compressed. It isn’t a bad job, but still lamentable that it happened on an album where sound is absolutely key. the bonus disc has a live show from the era, and while the show is quite good, the sound quality is about equal to what bootlegs of the same show sounded like.

There was also a simultaneous 180gram vinyl release of the remastered album, but I’ve never tried it and there are no reviews of this particular pressing.

*-quote from Eponymous liner notes.

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R.E.M.-Murmur (1983)

Immortal album-5 out of 5 stars…but you didn’t need me to tell you that did you?

The biggest surprises going straight from Chronic Town to Murmur are the sheer amount of self-assurance present on this debut LP and a sense of disconnected melancholia. Not to mention the murk. Starting this record is diving headfirst into the trestle on the front cover. You get buried in its murkiness.

(Side 1): This album version of “Radio Free Europe” lacks the immediate punch of the original Hib-tone version, but is essential to establishing Murmur‘s odd blend of passion and mysticism. “Pilgrimage” is a two headed cow. “Laughing” is precisely that. “Talk About the Passion” grows on the listener, especially the line “Not every one can carry the weight of the world”. “Moral Kiosk” picks up the pace with…well what exactly is so much more attractive in a Moral Kiosk? Who knows? Freaking great bits of nonsense for 3:32. “Perfect Circle” is absolutely gorgeous. Whatever it does actually mean (if there is one) it generates such a sense of elegiac loss that it breaks you up for the end of Side 1.

(Side 2): “Catapult” is another great song that has no possible defined meaning. “Sitting Still” is one of the best things ever penned. “9-9” is gloriously conversation fear complete with one of the most beautiful guitar sounds ever: Peter Buck’s angry plucking in the verses. “Shaking Through” is the musical equivalent of its title. Literally, that’s what always sprung to my mind. MUSICAL INTERLUDE (remember these? I miss R.E.M.’s) “We Walk” is a marvelous semi-march about something. Then you have those combustion sounds occurring marvelously throughout. They’re actually slowed balls on a pool table. “West of the Fields” is a great song that the band had recently re-discovered on their Accelerate tour. This closer has a real sense of menace that foreshadows the dirges of “Oddfellows Local 151” and “I Remember California” but with a great back beat and a truly knockout bridge section that I’m still trying to decipher.  “The animals. How strange. (or housetrained?) and I got nothing else…..but neither does Michael…. 😉

The production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon recorded and mixed the band just as they wanted to sound. It’s this particular brew of folk, punk, geekiness, silliness, melancholy, pretension that comes across with an eager desire to be played repeatedly. This is why we fell in love with their sound.

These early albums are such polished versions of their best live-polished tunes. With R.E.M. it has always been about the whole sound-not just the poem or story set up by the lyrics. You yourself have to make up your own interpretation. It’s your responsibility not the band’s.

EDITIONS: Let me say this, if there was any album to ever get on its original vinyl LP…this would be it. Murmur was one of my first ever vinyl purchases (To be exact-Wax n’ Facts in Atlanta many many years ago.) and when I bought the standard CD later on I was stunned to hear differences. Even to my young untrained ears something was missing. What was missing was depth, dynamics, punchiness, bass, high end-all the life and murk I had so adored was just stripped away.

First CD I ever got rid of. Gladly.

In 1992, all the IRS era albums were released in Europe with bonus tracks as “the Vintage Years” collection. These bonus tracks are compiled from B-sides and live recordings that are mostly available elsewhere-especially on the R.E.M. In the Attic compilation which is essentially all of the bonuses on one disc. (Save for a few still randomly on some of these reissues.)

In 1995, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs released their editions of both Murmur and Reckoning on 24 carat Gold CD and LP. Their mastering used the original master tapes with no messing about. The resulting releases had a tremendous increase in the bass and low end. They said that they were stunned as much as we were. They just put in the source and simply were bowled over by how much had not been in the original release.

To give an example of how much additional low end and bass are present in the MFSL editions, simply play Murmur with the bass knob turned up all the way. It’s really that substantial. Personally I’m not really a fan of it, but am glad it’s out there. (If this much additional information is turned up in MFSL’s upcoming vinyl reissue of Lifes Rich Pageant then I will be beyond happy. That is an album which needs a bit more detail.)

The original IRS LP went through two different editions. The first was no# 70614 in 1983. Later in early 1984 the second edition no#70014 was pressed due to a higher demand for the album. The albums are identical except for the catalog number. Both are Sterling cuts pressed on translucent brown virgin vinyl. (Again, it might be Quiex vinyl but I’m not sure.)

In 2008, Murmur was released as a Deluxe Edition with brand new remastering and a bonus live show from the era. It was also quietly released as a remastered 180 gram LP. The remastering was essentially a balance between the original mix and MFSL sound. Unfortunately both the remaster and live show suffered from compression for the current market. (Search: Loudness War) I already had the live show on a bootleg copy and to my ears it actually sounds better than the official version. This was the first in a series of reissues for all the IRS albums, and unfortunately all have suffered from brickwalling compression-most notably on Fables of the Reconstruction.

To end on, I still play air guitar/drums to this record. I can’t help it.

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R.E.M.-Chronic Town (1982)

Immortal EP-5 out of 5 stars we go. This is an EP which took everything that was established in music…and simply threw it out the window. This is just a recording of four guys who decided, “hey what the heck let’s do what we want” with all the reckless abandon of a record store clerk. (Oh wait, Peter Buck was one. Go figure. 😉

What Chronic Town does so well is convey this sense of dreamlike mesmerism. Although the band name was just picked at random out of a dictionary, it fits like nothing else could. Sure, at this point R.E.M. was playing anywhere they could and earning all of the wondrous perks of constant low-end touring, but their early recordings have this odd dichotomy between jangling, punchy rhythms and almost a hibernation trance. It’s as if we’re all falling into REM sleep while listening to these records. Or maybe I’ve just put way too much thought into these things and should shut up and review the record.

For the record: I don’t claim to understand or know what Michael Stipe is meaning or saying. It’s just better that way. Don’t try it otherwise, you’ll end up missing the song and making your head hurt.

(Side 1) CHRONIC TOWN:If the opening of “Wolves, Lower” doesn’t grab you in any way…then I have no hope for you at all. “Gardening at Night” has an almost detached feeling, as the vocals have a slight echo which further displaces them from the punchy instrumental. (I think I might like the different vocal mix a bit more.) “Carnival of Sorts” is a semi-ode to hoboes jumping boxcars. And for some reason you kinda want to dance about.

(Side 2) POSTER TORN: “1,000,000” features more unintelligbleisms with the repeated refrain “I could live a million years” jumping out at the ears as the only really clear line you can make out. “Stumble” is about stumbling through the yard….and teeth…sorta.

In essence what you hold in your hands is the band discovering recording, the studio and its uses, effects, and in a sense what their recorded output should or would be. Here they were free to experiment and discover exactly what they wanted to do on a record. So they stumbled through the yard some more. The hiss at the opening of “Wolves” is mirrored by the hiss at the end of “Stumble” so that your journey is circular and you end where you began with maybe some further glimpse into what the hell it all means. Or not.

Doesn't Peter look nice and creepy?

Note: never try to clarify early period R.E.M. lyrics with internet searches. You spend your time either laughing or being pissed at what people come up with.

EDITIONS: you get a choice between CD, Cassette and LP. I first heard the cassette after picking it up in a cheapy bin. And let’s move on because if there’s anything I hate it’s bad EQ’d tapes….the CD edition is contained on the CD release of Dead Letter Office. And while it may be the easiest way to obtain these tracks, you get no CT artwork and lose all of the punchiness and depth that makes this recording so special. Skip it.

So…moving on to LP. My favored copy is the original IRS label pressing. There were three versions, one is the very original with custom gargoyle labels and then the second more mass produced issue with just the standard silver IRS label. The third has no barcode on the back, IRS labels and is on regular black vinyl. The second one is what I have and they seem to be the same pressing, just different labels. The first two are pressed on translucent brown vinyl (Just hold it up to the light to see what I mean!). It may be Quiex vinyl, but no one’s ever confirmed it. However, it plays dead quiet and is one of the best sounding LPs I own. (Along with all the other IRS R.E.M. albums)

There was a new pressing for Record Store Day a few years back on clear blue vinyl. It’s a faithful reproduction, but both the artwork and sound lose detail from the original. It’s a nice collectible, but just save your $ and go for the original. (Check your local record shop or ebay, they usually turn up in the $10-15 range)

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R.E.M. When The Music’s Over: Part Lies, Part Truth, Part Heart, Part Garbage

Last Wednesday, R.E.M. officially stopped rem-ing.

I’ve been inconsolable. Still am. This band has been my formulative soundtrack and a lifelong passion. I became a fan in my toddler years. I was in the front row for the Aneurysm 95 tour (AKA the Monster tour) and was plucked out by security to sit on the speakers. (At 4. Tell me I wasn’t hooked.) I had to fight to get into a venue at age 14 when I won a contest to see the band in Denver. I was just in Athens back in May for a surprise graduation present from my mom and actually got to go inside the hallowed grounds of Wuxtry Records and was even invited into the H.Q.!

For 31 years they pushed boundaries and always did exactly what they wanted to do. (No matter the consequences or sheer amount of goofiness.) And we all loved them for it. Can you really think of anyone else that carried on for so long doing what they wanted and still remaining humble?

Now what do we do? It’s still impossible to believe that it’s actually over. Obviously things have run their natural course, but I always had a little thought of the guys sticking together over the years and out doing the Stones in the “longest lasting band” category. There was never any place in time where I even remotely considered the possibility of there being no R.E.M.

I just feel that there was more out there to explore and that the now final album, Collapse Into Now, wasn’t truly the end. I just hope that it was truly the band’s decision to end and that there were no pressures from WB to end their contract. (Anybody like the idea of R.E.M. going back to an indie label and doing their own thing In Rainbows style? That’s what I thought might be next. ;(  )

The breakup has spawned many internet comments about the three legged dog years after Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. My question to these people is: “Did you ever actually listen to anything from Up onwards?” They never stopped trying to do more. They never had a “bad” record. Around the Sun got mauled by everyone, but it was just too overdone.

Not only has this spurred me to finally complete my vinyl 1st pressing collection of their records, but to finally write my big definitive critical/personal reviews of the back catalog. So be expecting a huge dump of posts that get very wordy…or murmured.

I started the journey again with Chronic Town. I didn’t even make it through “Wolves, Lower” before breaking down. I played Murmur 30 times. Ugh!

There’s a retrospective compilation due out later this year that spans the band’s entire career (Both IRS and Warner eras).

The tracklisting leaves much to be desired, as such an influential and definitive American band could never be summed onto two CDs. Of course, most like myself will simply buy the set for the 3 Collapse Into Now demos.

Ok…I have to say it…..I’m done with music from now on. Period. Game. Set. Match. My spiritual brothers in music, people who I have spent my life listening to-thinking of-reflecting on-supporting, the music that formed my consciousness and is forever fully embedded in my psyche is now formally over.

I still can’t believe it.

To Peter, Mike, Michael, Bill and all the musicians and staff  for changing the face of music and culture as we knew it. For 31 years. That’s some kind of legacy.

To me, the most magical words in music will always be the credit: Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe….oh and maybe Cans of Piss. 😉

“God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.” -Kurt Cobain on R.E.M. (Rolling Stone interview, 1994)

EDIT: There’s a new interview with Mike Mills on about the whys of the band breaking up. It’s nice to see a amicable consensus and no label worries but it still doesn’t make it hurt any less.

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