Craft Recordings CR00548
Craft Recordings CR00550
Drummer Bill Berry left R.E.M. in 1997, due to health issues. The group carried on as a trio for five more albums, bringing in other drummers for sessions and touring. Craft Recordings has reissued R.E.M.’s last four albums on vinyl, making them available in that format for the first time since their original release dates. I’ll be looking at the vinyl reissues of Reveal (originally released in 2001) and Accelerate (2008). Kevin Gray of Cohearent Audio cut the lacquers for the new pressings using Bob Ludwig’s digital masters, and the LPs were manufactured by Memphis Record Pressing.
Reveal followed R.E.M.’s 11th album, Up (1998), which received mixed reviews and sold poorly. Reveal is not a guitar-driven record in the classic R.E.M. mold, but the songs are more accessible than those on the previous album. There’s still some sonic experimentation on Reveal, and the use of keyboards and studio effects to create atmosphere make it a companion album to Up.
I compared the vinyl reissue of Reveal with a 2016 CD reissue by Concord Records. When I went from the CD to the new LP, I immediately noticed that I had to push the volume on the LP. Reveal contains 53 minutes and 48 seconds of music: about 27 minutes per side. Most LPs run about 40 minutes in total, and Reveal exceeds that time by around seven minutes per side.
On his website, Gray recommends a maximum of 24 minutes of music per side for an LP. In a recent interview, he told me that cutting LP sides longer than that use too much space on the disc: “The only acceptable solution is to reduce the level [volume]. If the side is really bass-heavy or over-length, it means you will have to turn it up more on playback, and the background noise comes up as a result.”
It was fortunate that the vinyl of my copy of Reveal was generally quiet; I had to raise the volume a good bit to reach my usual listening level. In addition to the reduced output, I heard less compression on the music on the LP, compared to the CD. On “The Lifting,” I was able to pick out the electronic keyboard and guitar lines behind Michael Stipe’s voice. On the CD, the track sounded more aggressive, with all the elements coming at me together.
“I’ve Been High” mixes electronic and live percussion by Joey Waronker, and both were more fleshed out on the LP. The electronic blips and hiccups that run through the track were also more clearly presented and better separated than they were on the CD. “Imitation of Life” is the closest thing to early R.E.M. on Reveal, and Peter Buck’s acoustic guitar on the opening was more resonant on the LP. His electric-guitar chords throughout the song rang out more brightly. The LP also let the attack of Mike Mills’s bass lines come through more resolutely, and the string arrangement was pulled back in support of the music rather than being shoved up with the rest of the instrumentation.
Two songs on Up are homages to the Beach Boys, and Reveal includes three more nods to the group. “Beachball” closes the album, and its multitracked complexity and beauty were much more satisfying on the LP. The drum machine on the track was less mechanical, and the recurring horn arrangement was more inviting. Buck’s acoustic-guitar lines often got lost in the crowded CD but were much easier to follow on the LP, and the organ swells that give the song much of its emotional pull were more dynamic. Many of the carefully placed and delicate elements that serve to make the song so enchanting were more audible in this new vinyl edition.
Gray’s vinyl remaster let me appreciate more of the musical and sonic effort that went into creating Reveal. The increased definition of Mills’s bass lines made them more compelling, and small details throughout the recording caught my attention more fully. I could hear, for example, that Buck was using an EBow at points during “I’ve Been High”—something that didn’t come through as clearly in the over-crowded sound of the CD.
I wish Gray had been able to cut Reveal on two LPs, as this might have allowed for a louder cut. I couldn’t hear any surface noise when the music was playing—just between the tracks—but an LP that didn’t require me to crank the volume up so high would have been preferable. Despite that minor caveat, this new vinyl edition led me to reappraise an album I had ranked fairly low in R.E.M.’s discography. It still doesn’t stand with my favorites, but it’s a much better album than I had previously realized.
Around the Sun (2004) followed Reveal, and it was perhaps even more unpopular with critics and fans than Up had been. R.E.M. decided it might be time to return to guitar-based rock’n’roll; four years later, Accelerate was the result. The band debuted its songs during a five-night stand at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, and recorded Accelerate shortly after to maintain the live energy. The songs are built around Buck’s guitar, and some are loud guitar rock in the manner of Monster (1994), while others echo the band’s earlier recordings.
Accelerate comes in under 35 minutes, so Gray didn’t have to cut the LP at a low output, but he did pull back on the compression I could hear on the 2008 CD I used as a comparison. When I turned to the LP, I was able to feel the full impact of Bill Rieflin’s kick drum and Mills’s bass, which were buried in the mix on the CD. Stipe’s voice is deep in the mix on both formats, but it was clearer and more forceful on the new vinyl release.
Buck’s guitars on “Supernatural Superserious” have a bit more crunch on the CD, but hit harder and sound meatier on the LP. His arpeggios in the right channel rang out clearly. The full chords in the left channel were more audible on the LP, and their tone was more vibrant. Rieflin’s snare had more high-end snap on the CD, but a more rounded and satisfying resonance on the LP.
The notes on the arpeggio that opens “Sing for the Submarine” had more edge and were more emphatic on the CD, but individual notes sustained longer for a deeper, more harmonically compelling effect on the LP. Reiflin’s drums on the opening to “Horse to Water” sounded sharper on CD, but the kick drum thumped harder on the LP and the hi-hat accents had a more open sound.
Gray’s mastering on Reveal and Accelerate gave the instruments more space to breathe in my room, revealing more than the crammed, forward-sounding CDs allowed. Both recordings have a lot going on, and one casualty in the mix on the CDs was Stipe’s voice; on both, it’s just part of a wall of aggressive sound. The LPs gave his voice more room, conveying more of his phrasing and the feelings he expresses. The additional space also let me appreciate how the instruments and studio effects behind the vocals worked to present the song as a whole.
Both LPs have standard-weight covers with lyric sheet inserts, and the LPs are in static-free sleeves. The vinyl of my copies of both LPs was quiet during playback; Accelerate didn’t require me to turn my amp up as much as I had found with Reveal, so backgrounds were quieter between tracks. I wouldn’t rank the pressings as high as those from RTI or QRP, but the overall quality was very good.
Craft Recordings has also reissued Around the Sun (2004) and Collapse into Now (2011) on vinyl, and is scheduled to release a 25th-anniversary edition of Up on various formats, including vinyl, in November. When I listened to Up again as I was preparing for this review, I thought I might need to reconsider my earlier impressions of the album. I look forward to hearing the new vinyl release.
. . . Joseph Taylor