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.