Keeping up with audiophile debates about music remastering is a niche activity. If you don’t consider yourself an out-and-out geek on the subject, you probably tune out the drama over this or that version of a classic album. And when you don’t already own a title but want to, you probably pick up the newest version—the one with the most up-to-date sonics and bonus-disc enticements—and then move on with your life. Usually, you’re right to behave this way. Particularly if the record in question has been released only once on CD (more than a decade ago), a remastering job can help clear away the digital affectations of the prior era and give us a truer (or at least another) vantage on what we’d like to think of as the “true” sound of the musicians. Often it’s all to the good.
Though not always. The dark side of the remastering craze becomes apparent when the label, or the engineer—or somebody—is trying to pull the sound of a record forward into our present moment in a way that doesn’t quite feel right. The iPod playlist, in particular, has created an impulse for us to have an overall collection of records that all sound good on “shuffle”—that is, when they’re all mastered with the same levels of audiophile-lexicon nouns like “compression” (or “loudness”). But what about an album that never wanted to be loud in the first place? Should you buy the pumped-up edition?
On the basis of hearing the new version of R.E.M.’s classic 1985 work Fables of the Reconstruction, I’m leaning closer than I ever have to “no.” That’s different from saying you shouldn’t buy the original album. In fact, let me revise that: you definitely should own some version of this album. If you have any taste at all for “alt-rock” or “indie”—or whatever left-of-dial nomenclature you prefer—and you somehow don’t have R.E.M.’s first five records (Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant [sic], and Document), then you’re doing it wrong. But of those five, Fables is certainly the hardest to love unreservedly. Its dark, amber-hued folk tones—courtesy of British producer Joe Boyd—are notoriously muddy, and therefore distinct from the crispness and jangle-pop of the band’s first two records. In a short essay that accompanies this new expanded edition of Fables, guitarist Peter Buck writes: “It’s a doomy, psycho record, dense and atmospheric. It creates its own strange little world, illogical but compelling.”
The remastering makes all of Fables’ constituent parts clearer—like Michael Stipe’s vocals, which come across with surprising distinctness—but at the expense of that doomy atmosphere. Buck’s own stuttering, three-note intro to “Feeling Gravitys Pull” (sic, again—they hated apostrophes, didn’t they?) ring like never before, though the paradox is that those notes don’t feel particularly weighed down by gravity, as they do on the original CD and LP issues. There are some reasons for R.E.M. fans to snap up this new issue of Fables—chief among them an interesting (if inessential) second disc of demos for the album that were recorded in Athens—but if you’ve never heard the album proper, this might be the rare remastered classic that isn’t a good starting point. You can still find used and new copies of the first Fables CD issue in record shops (and online). You’ll be able to tell it from the remaster job not only because it costs less but because it’s shaped like a regular CD—the new version sits in an unwieldy, collectible cardboard box. Contra Stipe’s lyrics in “Auctioneer,” though, you needn’t always heed the holler, when a barterer is trying to turn a penny into a nickel. And if you should need that original pressing of Fables to sound louder in order to make it play nice with something else on your playlist, you can always take the lo-fi approach and reach for your volume buttons.