Years and years ago Rolling Stone magazine described REM as the "only American band that mutters". It's a good line and pretty accurate too. Deliberately muddy, muddled productions coupled with Mike Stipe's largely incoherent singing could have made the first couple of albums unlistenable but they don't; both Murmur and Reckoning welcome you in with their beguiling half-grabbed tales spun with gorgeous melodies, great playing and spine-tingling and unexpected harmonies. The first time I saw them was in the SFX in Dublin in 1984 and I was awed by the size of the sound they made - didn't catch a word of Stipe's mumblings, didn't need to; his voice was just another instrument in that fabulous sound.
So, now, 25 years on, Greg Calbi has remastered Murmur and we can breathe easy. It's still as complex and wonderful, it just sounds better. There is more separation of sound and the stereo mix is more distinct but those are the minor points; the sound is as vital as ever and if nothing else it allows us a chance to revisit the album and consider whether it is worth revisiting. As with a lot of older generation CDs the earlier pressings of Murmur were horrible transfers with little care being given to even approximating the sound of the vinyl. I rarely listened to the Murmur CD I've owned for years, preferring to listen to the now well weathered LP, not because of any particular preference for vinyl but because the original CD just sounded awful. This new mix is a joy: the songs leap and bound from the speakers and they sound as great as ever. While acres of reviews have focused on Stipe's lyrics and singing and Buck's guitar playing they frequently overlook the fact that REM were a band and that the sound and the songs were the product of the four of them interacting and melding with one another. Much like The Band, REM's sound was a seamless mix of sligthly off kilter, yet perfectly poised, voices and sounds. Stipe, Buck, Mills, Berry stand up and take a bow. Murmur still sounds vital, passionate (talk about it...), alive and bursting with ideas and joy. Worth revisiting? Absolutely. Worth buying? Unquestionably.
The bonus disc (recorded at a Toronto show in 1983) mixes songs from the first couple of albums and EPs and is a fine showcase of just how good a live band REM were back then. Callow young dudes they may have been but they sound so assured and so brashly confident, and why wouldn't they? All those great songs seemed to be tumbling out of them at the time.
Well done REM; now dig out those Reckoning tapes and give Mr Calbi a call.