on 17 February 2009
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.
One of the problems with "Eponymous," the 1988 album that is a collection of singles from the first five R.E.M. released on I.R.S., is that it stops a lot of people who jumped on the bandwagon when the Athens group switched to Warner and made it to the top of the music world with their hit "Losing My Religion" from going back and listening to those earlier albums. That would be a mistake, because that would mean missing out on "Murmur," the 1983 album that created R.E.M.'s distinctive sound and which, in retrospect, can be seen as an important album in the history of music as representing the move from post-punk to alternative music. "Murmur" only made it to #178 on the Billboard 200 chart (#36 for the Pop Album version), but this is clearly a case where the tree in the forest most definitely makes a sound, regardless of the number of people there to hear it. Remember that "Rolling Stone" named "Murmur" the best album of 1983, which was the year of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and the Police's "Synchronicity."
R.E.M. was formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980, originally playing under the name Twisted Kite and performing garage rock covers and original folk-rock songs. "Radio Free Europe," their first single, was recorded in 1981, released on the tiny Hib Tone label, and showed that all of the pieces that would becoming familiar, the jangle pop sound and cryptic lyrics, were already in place: you cannot help singing along with the chorus even if you have no clue what the rest of Michael Stipe's lyrics are saying. The single topped the "Village Voice" poll for Best Independent Single, and landed the group the I.R.S. contract. After an EP, "Chronic Town," the full-length "Murmur" constituted the group's debut album. While there is not another track as solid as "Radio Free Europe" on the album, the rest of the songs are clearly in that vein.
The songs on "Murmur" have an atmospheric quality that is quite distinctive, although you can certainly see strong folk-rock, post-punk, and garage-rock elements throughout, although what R.E.M. does with those elements is unique as well. "Talk About the Passion" is the other signature song from the album, and a prime example of how Stipe's lyrics attain great depth by refusing to be pinned down (although having some lyrics in French is adding insult to injury for those of us who always have trouble understanding what exactly he is singing). "Catapult" is a good example of what a pop song sounds like in R.E.M.'s hands (and the effective way in which bassist Mike Mills often responds to Stipe's vocals in the chorus), with "Pilgrimage" and "Perfect Circle" showing their expanding musical range. This is not to say all of these songs hold up; "Moral Kiosk" sounds rather dated as the exception to the rule. But overall this is a landmark album should end up being one of your favorite R.E.M. albums.
on 4 September 2005
Before REM lost their muse and their cult status, there was the pre-Warner days, there was Murmur. This is in every sense of the word, a 'timeless' piece of music. An album awash with mystery, beauty, depth and soul which inspired the more ambiguous nature of what a band can create, thus creating alternative rock (not bad for a debut).
The songs are constructed in recognition of the bands traditional folk inspirations, with winding melodies (Perfect Circle) and ringing guitar tones reminiscent of The Byrds, with a seemingly effortless and sublime sense of melody.
But to say the sound is derivative would be unwise, this is as an orginal and fresh - sounding an album that has been made in the history of rock music, thanks to the clean and smooth production and Stipes's impassioned, yet hardly comprehensionable vocals. However a look at the lyrics gives subtle imagery of geisha gowns, two headed cows and cists, and cites historical occurences ('We Walk' is about Corday murdering Marat in his bath)and greek mythology without the slightest bit of pretension, which is a remarkable achievement in itself.
Also, what's so suprising is the distinctive and assured sound the band managed to create for themselves in such a short space in time, it's almost as if these four men were born into the music and it is merely an extension of themselves.
And what's even more remarkable is how well the album has aged and how 'timeless' it is. I have no hesitation in stating that if this album was released this year it would sound as modern and important as anything else going (although with this tedious 'retro rock' craze going on at the moment this is not much of an achievement I suppose).
Goundbreaking, 'timeless', inspired, inspirational, traditional and modern all at once, that was REM.
on 1 February 2007
These days the statement 'Best Debut Album Ever!' gets bandied about a great deal by such hyperbole-ridden wagon jumpers as the NME and their ilk. However, it is this album that is probably the best debut album ever, and it's almost 25 years old.
A lot has been made of Stipe's 'mumbling' vocals. Personally, I don't see it - they are as comprehensible as any other indie-American band, and some of the lyrics are truly charming. However, yes, it is the music that makes this album what it is. From the child-like glee of 'Catapult' to the sorrowful yearnings of 'Perfect Circle' (far better than the band of the same name), this album is a triumph of simple melody and open chords.
The album contains all of the hallmarks of a 'typical' R.E.M. album. It has the silly stomper ('We Walk'), which laid the groundwork for 'Stand' and 'Shiny Happy People'. It has the epic ballad ('Talk About the Passion', a la the later 'Everybody Hurts' and the rock staple ('Radio Free Europe) which is the predecessor to 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?'. It is a precursor of things to come, and in retrospect we see a band that was laying down its blueprints at a very early juncture. For this singularity of purpose, R.E.M should be congratulated, as it has certainly paid off.
They Shook Through just fine.
on 11 July 2009
I've been listening to Murmur on a fairly regular basis for the last 25 years, so I guess I'm not going to get sick of it now. It's simply one of the great albums, the band's flawless, almost engineered playing a perfect foil for Stipe's gnomic mutterings and matchless tunes. There's a strong case for saying that this is the greatest debut in rock and roll, and though REM would offer many peaks and delights over the next few years, they would never again match the energy, consistency and coherence of this album (though 'Reckoning', the next album would push it pretty close).
Chances are though, that if you're reading this you already know what a great album Murmur is. What does shelling out for the Deluxe edition get you? First, a remixed/ remastered version of the original. Enough to justify the entry price alone, the sound is crisper, cleaner, without losing the organic warmth of the original, and Bill Berry's drums are pushed up in the mix to great effect - this album seems even more driven than the original. The bonus album is what really makes it worthwhile though - a set from 1983 that captures REM at the top of their early game, still playing the clubs, but bursting with material that would soon prove to be world class. The act is honed to perfection and delivered with absolute confidence by a perfectly balanced four piece. Berry's drums propel the set along with taut precision, Mills - arguably the star here - somehow providing a melodic conterpoint to both Buck's chiming Rickenbacker and to Berry's rhythm, the whole supporting Stipe's flights of fancy like a sprung floor.
Murmur 'Deluxe' is like an old master lovingly cleaned and restored. Just fantastic. Play it loud, play it often.
on 29 March 2009
Other reviewers have already written very eloquently on why R.E.M matter and why this album in particular matters, but even if you already own 'Murmur' (as I did), it's worth investing in this Deluxe Edition. The remastering of the album has given it a much crisper, cleaner sound, which really, really makes a difference to the old mix (and I'm usually loathe to fork out for remastered editions of albums). Secondly, you have the bonus CD with an entire live album on it. This is from a previously unreleased gig in Toronto in 1983, comprising of most of the 'Murmur' material as well as tunes from 'Chronic Town' and 'Reckoning'. The sound quality and the quality in general of the performance are superb -this could really be a separate album in its own right, except it wouldn't sell because many people only know R.E.M's overrated 1990's catalogue.
For me, 'Murmur' is right up there as one of R.E.M's greatest moments. They were never more mysterious, ominous, tuneful or captivating as this, and if you're unfamiliar with their early stuff, go straight for this Deluxe version and get the extra live CD.
Critics and fans alike often say the same thing when talking about R.E.M. - the phrase "not as good as they used to be" regularly crops up, and as much as I love the band it pains me to say that although they're still a brilliant live act, their albums just aren't what they used to be. Like many, I first discovered the band when the "Out of Time" album was released, and then started to work my way through their back catalogue. Back then, when I first heard "Murmur" it was something of a revelation for me, and listening to the deluxe edition now it remains a seminal piece of work.
Casual fans won't find any songs here which they have heard before, with the possible exception of "Radio Free Europe", but there is much to enjoy. Right from this, their first album, their signature sound was there, and the songs are just extraordinary. For me, "Talk About The Passion" remains their finest ballad, and up-tempo tracks like "Moral Kiosk", "Catapult", "West of the Fields" and "Laughing" are among the best they've recorded. In fact, if I was asked to assemble a "Best of R.E.M." compilation for somebody I think at least three-quarters of this album would appear for starters.
For those of us who already love the album the deluxe edition is still a worthy purchase, and not purely because of the live CD which comes in the package. The main selling point for me was the fact that the album had been remastered, and so it now sounds cleaner and clearer than before, although you'll still find it difficult or impossible to decipher the lyrics of many of the tracks. There is a leaflet enclosed which folds out to a poster of the album's distinctive cover art, and the rear has accounts by various people (apart from the band) who worked on the album, which makes for interesting - if difficult, owing to the layout - reading, and you'll discover just what the strange sounds in "Radio Free Europe" and "We Walk" are at long last.
Many argue - rightly, in my opinion - that R.E.M. were at their best during their years with the IRS label (as witnessed in their excellent "...And I Feel Fine" compilation) and this album underlines this belief, and in some respects they have never topped this, their debut.
on 2 May 2005
Often touted as one of the finest debut albums of all time, Murmur really fits its billing. This started off sounding rather strange to me, with its quiet, jangly guitars, small-scale setups and inscrutible lyrics (and I was already very familiar with their early to mid-nineties stuff), but upon repeated listening a set of clear common themes emerged out of what had seemed (as first) like a garbled stream of consciousness.
Simple, sublime melodies, sophisticated harmonies and couterpoints (Radio Free Europe) and a unique sound pallette make this record sound better and better with repeated listening. It comes complete with haunting special effects that don't sound like the standard studio stuck-on embellishments, but instead are an integral part of each track (the album intro, We Walk, West of the Fields). Most of these effects, it turns out, were mostly home-made, as opposed to being mixing-desk presets. This contributes to making this album an event, a stand-out example of a band and producer doing things their way - ignoring 'best practices' and still getting great results.
The mix of the album is consistent with no one instrument pushed to the fore (each musician seems to be clamouring for the back, if anything).
Stipe's lyrics allude to reticence, fear of standing out yet not wanting to stand in line. Mills' bass keeps everything going in the right direction, and consistently provides as much melody as Buck's guitar or Stipe's vocals. In Berry, R.E.M. had a drummer with a unique style who didn't just sit down and bash around on the old pots and pans, he teased out swirling rhythms that helped set the mood of eack track. In addition, his contributions of various melodies on this album, especially in 'Perfect Circle', are nothing short of extraordinary (which has to make you wonder how badly they needed his help on 'Around the Sun'). Buck cannot be defined as a lead guitarist, or a rhythm guitarist. He switches roles repeatedly within songs, and on later albums, switched instruments. Just compare his work on 'Talk About the Passion' with that of '9-9'. Stipe mumbles, stumbles and slurs his way through the songs somehow getting the message across to the listener perfectly, provided the listener is paying close attention. On 'We Walk' he even has a good stab at a Buddy impersonation, which just adds to the charm of the song.
This is an album with a special kind of soul. Spirit-lifting, life-affirming stuff. The subject matter, the sound and the production of the album all contribute to making this a timeless record. There's still nothing passe or dated about it. It's just a delicate and lovingly made collection of songs that come together as one entity - and once it gets under your skin you'll always be prepared to give it 45 mins of your time.
on 19 September 2001
REM's debut album has had a major influence on rock music in America. But thats another story. Any album is about the music, and Murmur is sublime. The term Timeless Classic should not be used lightly, e.g Nevermind, Love's Forever Changes. I would safely say Murmur is a timeless classic. I first bought it a few years ago, and on the first listen I was blown away - it sounded so fresh and new (it was then already 16+ years old). The production by Mitch Easter was amazing!
Getting to the songs - well where to start. Murmur is packed with imagination, mystery, beauty and emotion. Perfect Circle is as good a song as they have written. Talk about the Passion is wonderful. All twelve tracks have something to offer. The trio of Pilgrimage, Moral Kiosk and 9-9 provide so much repeated joy.
Some critics have pointed towards Stipe's vocals as being too hard to figure out - but thats half of the appeal - you bring your own interpretation to the song, more so with the songs on Murmur. For me music isn't all about the meaning of the lyrics, its about the way it makes me feel. Murmur is awesome - an album to make you feel special. An album to treasure.
R.E.M/ surfaced from Athens, Georgia in the wake of local-peers The B52's & Pylon and released initial works 'Radio Free Europe'/'White Tornado', 'Gardening at Night' & the 'Chronic Town' e.p. With producers Don Dixon & Mitch Easter (who would later work with Pavement & Ride, as well as producing follow-up 'Reckoning'), R.E.M. captured their sound which sounded like a collision of then uncelebrated acts like The Byrds & The Velvet Underground and post-punk acts such as Pere Ubu, Mission of Burma, Wire, Television, & Gang of Four.
'Murmur', which was a critical favourite at the time, remains a classic debut recording - the chemistry between Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills & Michael Stipe is fantastic. Standout tracks include 'Perfect Circle' (which predicts later songs like 'Nightswimming' & 'Find the River'), 'Pilgrimage' (which builds & builds to an oblique anthem- who knows what Stipe is mumbling?- it sounds great...), southern-gothic-closer'West of the Fields', the tight-acoustic shiver that is 'Sitting Still' & the Byrdsian-'Talk About the Passion'...
'Murmur' more than stands up these days, and forms part of a trilogy of R.E.M. albums with 'Reckoning' (1984) & 'Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables' (1985)- afterwards the band would rock out more and Stipe's vocals were clearer. The voyage to empty commercial band as found on 'Monster', 'Reveal' & 'Around the Sun' would begin...