11 July 2006

R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction

I hadn’t planned to feature another R.E.M. album so soon in my soundtrack series. Y’all know how deeply I love the boys, and how passionate I am about nearly every chord struck or note sung. I can’t describe the pure joy I get from listening to an R.E.M. album (Dan may be able to describe it to you, but I think he’s trying to erase all that effusion from his memory banks). But I love many bands and different genres, so I was planning to go all over the musical landscape this summer, and come back to R.E.M. in the fall.

However, while talking to this month’s crush Friday night, he mentioned — no, apologized — that Fables of the Reconstruction is his favorite R.E.M. album. Apologizing for one of their best (and, sadly, often overlooked) albums? I put on the album immediately, and haven’t listened to anything else since Friday. Thus, once again, we must go down that R.E.M. road.



The Facts
R.E.M.’s third full-length album, Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables; you can't quite tell from the album cover which is correct) was released in 1985. The album was their departure from producer Mitch Easter and the South. They instead chose Joe Boyd — who produced some of the greatest work by British folk artists Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, and Richard Thompson, among others — and recorded the album in London. Ironically, Fables is R.E.M.'s most Southern album. I’ve read that Bill Berry loathes it and Peter Buck hated “Wendell Gee,” but I think it’s brilliant.

Fables is, in a word, evocative. It conjures the feel of the South — kudzu and eccentrics and humid summer nights and the mood that permeates the region. It’s a mood that can’t be described, only felt — and it comes through when you listen to Fables from beginning to end. Hence, the obsessive, nonstop listenings of the last few days as I sat on the porch and stared into the trees.

There isn’t a bad song on the album. For personal reasons, my favorite is “Good Advices,” but I absolutely adore “Green Grow the Rushes” and “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” Love the “Wendell Gee” lyric If the wind were colors / And if the air could speak; beautiful, visual words, Michael.

Why doesn’t Fables get its due? I guess because it was followed by Life’s Rich Pageant and Document, which took R.E.M. to a new level.

But enough with the music-nerd pontifications. What makes an album great is what it means to you, right?

Whenever I hear Fables, I’m transported back to a mid-September night in 1985. My paramour and I had attended a University of Georgia football game with my parents. We rode back to Atlanta with Renae, who was in school at UGA. We drove down dark two-lane roads, windows open, breezes blowing, listening to Fables, laughing and talking and singing along. In the dark, the three of us felt like the only people on the earth, the only ones soaking up the beautiful night and beautiful songs. It was one of those perfect moments that never fades. And that’s why I love Fables of the Reconstruction.

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31 Comments:

At 7/11/2006 05:58:00 AM, Blogger barista brat said...

i'm curious, do you think you'd be able to appreciate r.e.m. on the same level if you didn't hail from georgia?

i know that musical tastes can be shaped by what one experiences and i wonder if you'd be any less a fan (gasp!) if you didn't share some cultural values/experiences with r.e.m.

p.s. - you're quite the insomniac, aren't you? :)

 
At 7/11/2006 05:59:00 AM, Blogger haahnster said...

SWEEEEET!!!

Nice one, Beth. Let me just chime in with one quick thought. As early REM singles go, the 2 from Fables ("Can't Get There From Here" and "Driver 8") are pretty darn good, too!

And the train conductor says
Take a break, Driver 8
Driver 8, take a break
We've been on this shift too long

 
At 7/11/2006 06:50:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

BRAT: That's a great question. I e-mailed someone a few hours ago about how I identify with their songs because we're the same age, from the same part of the world, so I'm experiencing the same phases they are. And I have so many memories tied to R.E.M. albums. But, g*domman, do I love Michael Stipe's voice ... Peter's guitar ... Mike's, well, everything he plays. I shudder to think of me as a Yankee, identifying with Bon Jovi.

HAAHNSTER: I love those videos, too.

BRAT: And, yes, I am an insomniac. But I love being awake between 2 and 5 a.m.

 
At 7/11/2006 07:07:00 AM, Blogger haahnster said...

OK, I waited for your response, since the question was posed to you. I just have to chime in on the geography issue.

I think a certain amount of shared experience can be a factor in musical taste. But, at least for me, it's *far* from an overriding factor. By strictest definition, I am a "yankee", and Bon Jovi sucks!

I love REM and I've barely even visited the South, let alone ever lived there.

Plus, most of the music I love is stuff I've discovered years (often decades) after it was originally released.

Isn't it more about your association of music to certain memories, regardless of shared geography with the artist? I associate Led Zeppelin (British '60s/'70s) with my life as a 12 to 15 year old ('82-'85 in Illinois).

 
At 7/11/2006 07:18:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

I think you're right, Haahnster. I don't have to be British to love Nick Drake or the Stones, do I? But, we have to admit, my love of R.E.M. borders on the obsessive, so I can see why Barista Brat asked the question. However, I'm not a huge Widespread Panic or Alan Jackson fan.

R.E.M. defines my generation, I think. And they were such a major influence on college radio and the music to come. Being a huge fan of New Wave and alternative music, it makes sense that I would love their music. But I get pissed off when U2 gets acknowledged and R.E.M. does not.

I read recently - I think it was on someone's blog - that R.E.M. is our Beatles and The Replacements our Rolling Stones. I love that analogy; wish I could remember where I read it.

I think your comment about the association is dead on. I was exposed to more R.E.M. as it was happening because I was down the road, so many of my great memories of my twenties are tied to R.E.M. songs.

And, well, their music is just damn f*cking amazing.

 
At 7/11/2006 08:57:00 AM, Blogger haahnster said...

Well, that was me with the REM=Beatles, 'Mats= Stones analogy. Glad you liked it.

The analogy is designed to explain U.S. "college" rock of the '80s. U2 was being listened to by many of the same crowd. Does that make them the Elvis Presley? (It would explain the latter day bloatedness, although with them it's musical bloatedness as opposed to Elvis's physical bloatedness.) I don't really include U2 for whatever reason. I know they were far from mainstream when I bought my first record of theirs (Live--Under A Blood Red Sky).

Whatever. I like U2, mainly up through Joshua Tree. They're hit and miss since then, in my opinion. I'd agree with you though. I'd stack REM's catalog up against U2's any day! Plus, I find Stipe's political activism somehow less self-serving and *certainly* less preachy than Bono's.

Maybe it's just me.

 
At 7/11/2006 09:05:00 AM, Blogger Bill said...

I'll have to check this album out some more, I'm such a younging that although I listen to a good deal of REM I've missed whole swaths of their work (I was only a few years old when this album was release, shhhh.) I do love southern influenced rock, despite being as about Yankee as they come though!

 
At 7/11/2006 09:51:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

HAAHNSTER: It was you who wrote the R.E.M./Replacements analogy, wasn't it? There's a good reason I love your blog. I've never understood why R.E.M. and U2 are compared more often; maybe because they were the first to hit the next level (that, sadly, the 'Mats never did)? I don't think their music is all that similar. That being said, I like a lot of U2. They're just not in the R.E.M./'Mat level of my heart.

 
At 7/11/2006 09:52:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

BILL: It's well worth the listen. It will make you want to travel down south when it's hot and humid, stare at kudzu, and dance a little. And, um, I was an adult when this album came out - and I'm glad I'm that old and got to experience my boys from the beginning.

 
At 7/11/2006 12:10:00 PM, Blogger Peter Matthes said...

Music and memories go hand in hand.

 
At 7/11/2006 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

The geography informs their work but doesn't limit or define it.

I've frozen my ass off here in the Great White North and managed to reconstruct my own fables.

Great review Beth and everyone's comments really add other nice dimensions to the piece.

 
At 7/11/2006 03:14:00 PM, Blogger Grant Miller said...

You've convinced me to give it another listen. I'd long considered it their weakest of the IRS years. But I will will give it another go on your recommendation.

 
At 7/11/2006 04:41:00 PM, Blogger Keith Kennedy said...

REM and U2 both defined "college rock" in the early 80's. It was the stuff that the "cool" people listened to.

The first video I ever saw on MTV was "New Year's Day" by U2.

And like anything cool, it soon became mainstream which took the shine off the apple.

But REM can't be identified as "southern" even though they are from Georgia. At least not like the Allman Brothers who are from Macon. REM is more of a national brand of "acceptable" new wave.

Long live the originals - of which REM will always have a place.

 
At 7/11/2006 06:05:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

PETER: Absolutely.

DALE: Glad you enjoyed my review. And keep that ass covered!

GRANT: It's definitely worth a listen. I can see how it wouldn't be some folks' cup of tea, but I think it's a beautiful album.

KEITH: I don't really see R.E.M. as a Southern band, either. Fables definitely has a Southern sound, but I don't think their other albums do. R.E.M. has a distintive -- but not regional -- sound. And glad to see you comment over here!

 
At 7/11/2006 08:32:00 PM, Anonymous Glassmeow said...

Well...seeing as 3/5 of R.E.M. now live in my neck of the woods (Brute Peck and Ill Fibre Nil in Seattle and Mr. Come Gutsy Catch in Portland), they seem less and less "Southern" and more universal all the time.

That and their penchant for complete reinvention every couple of albums. That's a GOOD thing!

HAAHNSTER - it's not just you :) Though I did go hear Bono talk about his organization (DATA) when he was here promoting it. Then missed the U2 live show due to a total ticket f*ck up (friend said he had another friend with a guaranteed executive box and we were included - found out after the show was totally sold out that the box deal had fallen through. Grrrr...) You don't hear about Stipe's politics all the time and every where and you do tend to hear about Bono's every move.

 
At 7/12/2006 12:49:00 AM, Anonymous dayle said...

You are making me sooo remember my love for REM! And I think you should be an author! I LOVE reading your blog. It is so interesting, but mostly I just really enjoy your writing style.

 
At 7/12/2006 02:30:00 AM, Blogger Jack Hartley said...

That so true that what makes an album great is what it means to you.

I have several CDs in my collection that mean everything to me that pmost people couldn't care less about.

 
At 7/12/2006 09:27:00 PM, Blogger Scrivener said...

I know I spent some time during that phase feeling that it was weird that U2 and REM, who seemed so different to me, went together in my head so perfectly, and that it seemed to be true of other people I knew as well.

I don't think U2 and REM sound similar at all; however, so many people I know who like one like the other as well. Most of them have a preference one way or the other, but they usually like them both. They're both such smart bands. They were the two most important bands (along with Jane's Addiction) for me in high school and early college because they showed me that music could be so much more than just background noise or something to dance by.

I also think U2 gets to be more hit or miss, but I mark that shift not with after Joshua Tree but after Achtung, Baby which is probably my favorite of theirs. I mean, I love Joshua Tree but the follow-up was an album that I was totally obsessed with for a long time--it was also my introduction to postmodern philosophy.

And Bono's politics might be more on the nose and more, as Haahnster said, "preachy" but he's also much more of an activist than Stipe is, and that's not all bad. The reason you're hearing about Bono's politics is because he's decided to spend some of his cultural capital in order to bring about change, and as much as people might not like it when rock stars speak out in that manner, the fact is he's f*ing smart, and understands finance and postcolonial politics pretty well, and he's gotten some results. Sometimes he's pushed a little too hard perhaps, but I find it very hard to fault him for it--it's such a gutsy thing for him to put his stardom on the line like that.

I do love Fables too--the problem for me is that way back when I first listened to it I had the bright idea to use a friends stereo to make a mix tape putting together songs from Fables and Pageant and I listened to that tape so many times that now I have a hard time separating the two out. In my mind those two are one, big, fantastic album.

 
At 7/12/2006 09:59:00 PM, Anonymous Glassmeow said...

SCRIVENER - Guess I should have differentiated between what Bono has to say and what gets said about him.

That didn't come out quite right.

I guess what I meant was that so much media presence seems to cheapen the message by redundancy.
But if the world is not listening, perhaps redundancy is required until they hear the message. He IS tireless.

His cause, intelligence, integrity and passion for his cause are absolutely NOT in question. He is a gutsy guy to stand up for poverty, disease and unfair trade practices in Africa.

He certainly could be doing any manner of more self absorbed things with his time, resources and energy, but chooses to work to help others.

 
At 7/12/2006 10:38:00 PM, Blogger Scrivener said...

Wow, my comment was really incoherent. I don't know what happened with that first sentence, which was supposed to be at the end of the first paragraph, but somehow I moved it to the top? It's been a long day, and I apologize for my comment being so garbled.

I'm sorry, too, for sounding kind of, well, preachy, myself about Bono. I do understand how his politicing can rub people the wrong way. But I figure, like with glassmeow's last line in the comment above, I'd rather see a rock star being a little too preachy while putting his or her fame, money, and energy to work for a real cause than just to have them all stay self-absorbed all the time.

 
At 7/13/2006 01:58:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

I don't think you got too preachy about Bono, Scrivener. How many rock stars out there can get an audience with a nation's leader -- even our idiot president -- and get his point across, get taken seriously? Thanks in part to Bono, Bush pledged more money to Africa (not enough, but more than any other sitting president). Bono has brought a lot of important issues to the attention of the average person, too, many of whom may not have been aware without his involvement. A lot of people whine about rock stars and actors getting involved in politics and world issues -- but I think it's brilliant that they use their fame for something beyond promoting a movie or album -- as long as they know what they're talking about. And Bono knows what he’s talking about. Bono makes a real difference in the world. The only person who has done what Bono has done is Bob Geldof (God, I love Bob Geldof … but that’s for another day.). Thank God for those two men.

As an R.E.M. fan to the very core of her being, I sometimes get a bit jealous that U2’s music is still considered relevant and R.E.M.’s not so much. I wish my guys still got that attention. But their music still makes me happy. And, yes, I know I need a life.

And I love the thought of a Fables/Pageant mix.

 
At 7/13/2006 04:06:00 AM, Blogger barista brat said...

so, i have to know -
what are your thoughts on tonight's episode of project runway?

 
At 7/13/2006 04:46:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

I didn't get to watch it! I've been up all night finalizing a class I'll be teaching in six hours, so I'll have to watch it this weekend. How was it???

 
At 7/13/2006 06:19:00 AM, Blogger haahnster said...

Scrivener and glassmeow both make excellent points. I'm almost inclined to apologize for making the "preachy" remark in the first place, for 2 reasons:
1. I certainly wouldn't want it misinterpreted as some sort of "shut up and just sing" to musicians (luckily, I don't think anyone here took it that way).
2. I was just bitching on my blog yesterday about the desperate need for more attention to the problems in Africa. (Pot.kettle.black...oops!)

So, "preach" on, Bono! Heaven knows Africa needs the help. You have a much larger audience than I do.

Beth: When you get this "life" of which you speak, don't forget about us (the lowly bloggers)!!! And, good luck teaching the class.

 
At 7/13/2006 01:00:00 PM, Anonymous Renae said...

"Fables" is definitely the best, the most listenable, the most truly southern melancholic of all R.E.M albums, and that is why it informed some of the best, most memorable moments for me, the displaced Southern gal. I even have my own personal mental videos to go with each song. "Wendell Gee" takes place in a hollow tree in my Vinings backyard at the bottom of the hill behind the house, looking up towards the deck above the basement doors. Overcast day in late fall. Camera tracks slowly to the right, around the tree. Eventually the owl inside is revealed in the darkness of the hollow as the camera moves past.

 
At 7/14/2006 10:29:00 PM, Anonymous DJ Cayenne said...

Just working my way through your site, and I had to weigh in:

I'm a Life's Rich Pageant guy myself. I use the phrase whenever I can and there is no better intro to any album than the beginning of "Begin the Begin".

However, I may be alone in having "World Leader Pretend" as my favorite r.e.m. song. Well, there is a band by that name, but other than them...

I saw that Elvis Costello is on your list of favs, what's your favorite of his albums?

 
At 7/14/2006 10:36:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

I'm partial to Armed Forces because "Green Shirt" introduced me to New Wave (can you believe that 96 Rock played it back then?). I also love When I Was Cruel. But then I start thinking about other albums of his, and ....

Which is your favorite?

 
At 7/15/2006 08:26:00 AM, Anonymous DJ Cayenne said...

I have to go with Imperial Bedroom. Fanstastic from top to bottom. Did you know that Elvis is going to be at Chastain on Monday? I had no clue until I went to the show that dare not speak its name.

 
At 7/15/2006 09:17:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

Yes, I know about Monday's show (and I didn't even have to go to that to learn of it. I decided not to go since I saw him with the ASO at the Fox a few months ago. Or maybe it's because I'm jealous that Ms. Krall is carrying the child I should be carrying.

Ah, Imperial Bedroom ... what a great album. He has so many to choose from.

 
At 7/23/2006 10:52:00 AM, Blogger Coaster Punchman said...

Hi Beth, this was an interesting discussion. I also lump Pageant & Joshua Tree into the same time zone since they were both popular the same crowd at that time. I loved both those albums. I don't currently own a copy of Fables because most of my 80s music was on cassette. Now I'm going to download both that and Reckoning. Do you like their post-Fables work as much as the earlier stuff? Honestly, I wasn't into Document as much, and then they totally lost me for a while after Green. Part of the reason is that I had gotten used to them being a "cool" underground band, and when they started hitting the Top 40 I wasn't interested anymore. Plus, I really didn't like "Stand in the Place Where You Live" or whatever that song was.

But I did see their Green tour, which was fantastic because they spent practically the entire concert playing their really old stuff - I was in heaven. There was this group of teenagers in front of me who looked totally bored until they played "Stand" - at which point the whippersnappers jumped up and started dancing. I was pissed.

 
At 7/23/2006 02:45:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

COASTER PUNCHMAN:

I love R.E.M., as you'll find while surfing these pages. I was a bit disappointed with parts of Up and Around the Sun, but overall they made me happy.

I saw the last show of the Green tour, where they played Murmur from "Radio Free Europe" to "West of the Fields" ... took a break ... came out and performed Green from beginning to end. Amazing show. And, yes, the beer line was very short, thanks to those young whippersnappers there to hear "Stand."

 

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