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Published: 2008/12/14
by Fady Khalil

Murmur: Deluxe Edition – R.E.M.

I.R.S./A&M/Universal

It seems impossible to imagine that Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers R.E.M were ever an underground band. Ironically, that’s what makes the reissue of 1983’s Murmur, relevant. For all listeners who’ve arrived at R.E.M. during the breakthrough success of the early 90’s, this album gives voice to their origin. The reissue captures one of the most significant sounds of American music history still struggling to find audience beyond the antiestablishment waves of college radio.

The 12 original songs come fully intact and digitally remastered, but a second disc containing a never-before released concert performance proves equally as essential. Staged at Larry’s Hideaway in Toronto, Canada, the concert includes a near entire performance of MurmurI> and cuts from the bands earlier 1982 EP, Chronic Town. Along with a few choice covers, early versions of their songs, “Seven Chinese Brothers” and “Harborcoat” – later to appear in 1984’s Reckoning – round out the performance.

Nearly mirroring the studio work in execution, songs on the live album possess a palpable force, the product of live performance and a modest, but receptive audience. Michael Stipe’s voice seems set to boil-over through out “Radio Free Europe,” the original lead single of the 1983 album. To be expected, the studio-vocals are cleaner, but Stipe's distant voice and mystifying lyrics are unhinged, fueled by live performance; the energy often prompts a frenzied exchange amongst the quartet. More introverted then the guttural howl of his work to come, the earliest stages of a signature croon incensed by social-activism remains apparent throughout the album.

“Moral Kiosk” captures Peter Buck’s oft-labeled jangle-pop guitar sound best. Instantly a revolution, the bright, clean tone refraining from overt displays of guitardom stood at ends with worn out conventions of the time. Most evident in the riff-heavy magnum opus “9-9,” Mike Mills’ bass considerably empowers Buck’s pioneering guitar work. Many punchy low-end grooves prove to possess a melodic character in their own right, even wholly seizing listener attention throughout “West of the Fields.” The antagonistic persona of Bill Berry’s drumming further propels Mills’ rhythms to reach yet higher levels of show-stealing.

Though spawning a myriad of similar sounds and styles in the years to come, Murmur stood nearly alone in the glory of a revolutionary sonic-vision that boldly eliminated all conventions of then modern-rock. Sans guitar solos and synthesizers, the album garnered the much coveted title of record of the year in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine, and all at once altered the very direction of music. Ultimately the album would go on to be identified by many, including Entertainment Weekly and Mojo, as one of the most influential albums of all time.

Experiencing Murmur through a retrospective filter provides essential context for a complete listening experience. Read the included fold-out poster. The exclusive essays by producers and executives surrounding the 83 project give the reissue a great deal of that context. Murmur’s greatest triumph lay in capturing a visionary sound through its earliest, ground-breaking inception. To all fans that missed the first go around, the 25th anniversary reissue of Murmur is an unseen snapshot of their formative years, a vital chapter in the R.E.M. story.

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