Sunday, April 05, 2009


While blockbuster R.E.M. albums like ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Automatic for the People’ might be more celebrated and recognisable by virtue of their massive commercial success and award-winning statures, it is ‘Murmur’, the veteran alternative-rock collective’s debut album from way back in 1983 that remains their most definitive, and also the most representative of their seminal sound. ‘Murmur’ was unique in the sense that it chose to eschew then-prevalent musical fashions of the day like new wave and stadium-rock, in favour of a more nuanced, somewhat ageless sound. The album also helped to pave the way for the college-rock movement, which would go on to become one of the major musical trends of the 80s, spawning such key acts like The Pixies, Throwing Muses and Dinosaur Jr.

‘Murmur’ has now been reissued in a deluxe edition, not just with the requisite remastering job, but also with a bonus disc of a July 1983 performance originally recorded live at the Larry’s Hideaway venue in Toronto. The live disc sounds decent enough, with spirited renditions of early-era classics like ‘Talk About the Passion’, ‘Carnival of Sorts’ and ‘Radio Free Europe’, but it is the original track listing that merits a more complete run-through, given its historical significance and artistic distinctiveness. The songs on ‘Murmur’ work exceptionally in their own ways, and for this, kudos has to be accorded to producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon for imparting a clean and straightforward, yet evocative and atmospheric sound to the proceedings

The building blocks of ‘Murmur’ mostly comprises elements of folk-rock and jangle-pop, as proven in the driving yet measured ‘Radio Free Europe’, the tightly wound, somewhat menacing ‘Pilgrimage’, the gorgeously jangly ‘Laughing’ (which effortlessly captures the sonic essence of the group), and the skittering, Byrds-influenced (and impressively titled) ‘Moral Kiosk’. Meanwhile, slower numbers like the cello-enriched ‘Talk About the Passion’ and the stately piano ballad ‘Perfect Circle’ display a more empathic facet of the band.

Elsewhere, the angular, somewhat atonal ‘Catapult’ signals a brief detour into art-rock, as the band lays down a disjointed twin-guitar groove behind frontman Michael Stipe’s typically idiosyncratic lyrics (“It’s nine o’clock, don’t try to turn it off, cowered in a hole, opie mouth”). ‘Sitting Still’ is a more conventionally-minded rock-out, and possibly the most traditional sounding number on the record, which stands in stark contrast to the just-plain-bizarre ‘9-9’, an outlandish tone poem constructed from random, out-of-time guitar riffs and Stipe’s speaking-in-tongues vocal mannerisms. The concluding ‘West of the Fields’ makes for a perfect finish, as the band conjures up a pastoral, idyllic sonic spot somewhat reminiscent of the peaceful folk stylings of the late Nick Drake.

This reissue of ‘Murmur’ will be a definite boon to those ageing R.E.M. aficionados seeking to upgrade their battered vinyl copies, and also a terrific introduction to one of the most essential rock outfits of our time. Even though nearly three decades have gone by since its initial release, ‘Murmur’ doesn’t once sound passé or clichéd, unlike other musical artefacts dating from that period. A brilliant reminder of how a one of the foremost rock institutions of today sounded like back in their halcyon days.


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