Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Fabled Reconstruction

Album Reissue Review

Fables of the Reconstruction
25th Anniversary Digital Remaster

I don't relish buying the same thing twice, especially at a time when money isn't exactly rolling in. Although I now own a Blu-Ray player and have appreciated the far superior quality Blu-Ray discs offer over standard DVDs, the improvement will likely never be enough to compel me to replace the hundreds of DVDs I already own, especially as another even-more-advanced technology is likely always just around the corner. And having bought numerous new release DVDs over the years, it always has rankled me when an "enhanced version" with additional features (such as director commentary, deleted scenes, etc.) comes out just a matter of months after I have been pushed to buy the original version.

But in moderation, I have found it worthwhile and justifiable to invest in "newly remastered," often deluxe (i.e. extra songs, spiffy packaging) reissued versions of some of my favorite albums, usually released in commemoration of a milestone anniversary of the original release. I have done so for Springsteen's "Born To Run," "Who's Next," U2's "The Joshua Tree," the Stones' "Exile on Main Street," R.E.M.'s "Reckoning" and a handful of Beatles' albums.

In all cases, I had owned the original CD for more than 20 years, dating back to the just about the introduction of CDs, when, despite promotional claims, they did not really sound significantly better than LPs and could very much become scratched (although at the time, my music collection had already transitioned from records to cassettes, which were inferior to CDs). And whether because of the original recording, mixing and/or mastering of the music or the methodology for transferring records to CDs, the sonic quality of many early CDs was especially poor (I have a nice, but not high-end stereo system, do not consider myself an "audiophile" and now do most of my listening via mp3s).

For all the albums cited above, hearing the newly remastered versions--even if only in mp3 form--has been a treat, as the music I have long loved now sounds even better. But still, more than 90% of the joy in listening to the upgraded versions is in the brilliance of the original music. Modern engineers can make all kinds of sonic improvements, but they can't write Baba O'Riley, Backstreets or A Day in the Life.

Having recently downloaded the newly remastered, 25th anniversary edition of R.E.M.'s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, I can hyperbolically say that I have never heard an album reissue that has so greatly enhanced the pleasure of hearing its source material.

Not that 'Fables' wasn't good to begin with; I have always found there to be much magnificence in the moody collection of tracks that the then still-nascent Athens, GA band struggled to record in London (from Wikipedia: The band members found the sessions unexpectedly difficult, and were miserable due to the cold winter weather and poor food; the situation brought the band to the verge of break-up.) But when the the gloominess of the music sounded even more so given the muddled production, among R.E.M.'s amazing first five albums (Murmur, Reckoning, Fables, Life's Rich Pageant and Document), their third album has long ranked a clear fifth, in terms of the frequency of my listening, my opinion and that of reviewers (such as 

While the songs themselves are still quite dark, the remastering that eliminated hiss, added clarity & volume and brought Michael Stipe's murky vocals a bit more to the fore, has made listening to them a whole lot brighter. To the point that I now find Fables to be very much the equal of any of their first five albums, all of which rank among my favorite albums by anyone (several of their subsequent albums are also quite worthwhile).

Unlike the reissues of Murmur and Reckoning (I only own the latter), the second disc of the Fables anniversary package does not include an R.E.M. concert from the period, but rather demo versions of the songs that made the album, plus two that were on subsequent releases and one--Throw Those Trolls Away--heretofore unreleased. These don't excite me much and thus I only chose to download the remastered 11-song album and not splurge ($26.98) on the full physical package.

As such, I imagine the CD version might sound even better than the downloads, but as I was apt to just import it to iTunes and then put it on my iPhone, even in digital form I'm extremely enamored with how well Fables has been reconstructed. Its abundant merits should now be a whole lot clearer to just about anyone.

In addition to hearing snippets of all the songs through the Amazon product page, there is also a customer video that includes several full songs. 

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