There is an ominous, reverberating guitar figure opening the first side of the new R.E.M. album "Fables of the Reconstruction" (IRS-5592) that, like the creepy theme to "Perry Mason," is a bone-chilling introduction to mystery. Even granting lead singer Michael Stipe his characteristic burry unintelligibility, the third album from this much-heralded Georgia quartet asserts its musical magic on terms darker and more elusive than ever.
Eschewing radio-tailored accessibility and immediacy, "Fables of the Reconstruction" unfolds a dense and colorful rock tapestry, every bit as involving as a riddle with no solution. Traveling to England to work with producer Joe Boyd represents a significant change in R.E.M.'s typical southern recording strategy. Boyd, known for his work with Celtic rocker Richard Thompson, has deepened the band's sound, moving it from its cheerier folk-rock heritage toward the more foreboding temper of Celtic culture and mythology.
The few explicit production touches Boyd does provide -- the violins ending "Feeling Gravity's Pull," the fat soul horns that fade out "Can't Get There From Here" and the plucky banjo coursing through "Wendell Gee" -- work like musical echoes of something buried in the past. Stipe's voice, too -- crying, moaning, humming and floating through the band's overgrown thicket of guitar, bass and drums -- sounds like a weary soul in search of something missing.
As always, Stipe's lyrics are mostly indecipherable, but what surfaces carries the provocative and allusive character of dream fragments. In "Feeling Gravity's Pull," Stipe moans, "Gravity's pulling me around," and later, "Oceans fall, mountains drift." Throughout "Fables," the music moves as if pulled by unconscious forces beyond the band's control. If the album title can be read explicitly, then these songs are the emotional fallout from an old South struggling for a place in a new America.
This theme is overt in the album's last song, a sad eulogy to one of those folksy characters, "Wendell Gee," who used to signify America at its most independent and eccentric. The album's catchiest rocker, "Can't Get There From Here," is even more painfully evocative. Set on a kinetic funk guitar riff, the song establishes a distraught dialogue, Stipe crying "Can't get there from here" while the band teasingly answers, "I've been there, I know the way."
If R.E.M. sounds confused, that is only an artistic effect reinforced by the maddening circularity of Peter Buck's chiming guitar patterns. Like Stipe's voice, Buck's guitar takes off on tangents that find no resolution, but do draw the listener deeper into their sticky song constructions. What renders "Fables" a unique pleasure is that it is so emotionally entangling, sustaining hearing after hearing without making itself known. It is because of R.E.M.'s special brilliance that the group continues to mean so much to contemporary rock, while begging the question of what exactly it means.
If R.E.M. is lost in the reconstructed South, then Phoenix's Meat Puppets are meandering in the new West. On its third album, "Up on the Sun" (SST-039), this young trio triumphantly completes its metamorphosis from hard-core punk to a sound that might be called neo-psychedelic dada. Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Curt Kirkwood, the Meat Puppets have pieced together fragments of country-western, jazz and psychedelia into an original sound that is playful, highly personal and a little disturbing.
The flexible rhythms of bassist Cris Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom allow Curt Kirkwood's frail vocals and shimmering guitar to follow his imagination. Kirkwood's lyrics drift from the commonplace to tales of animal kingdoms, pink volcanoes, swimming holes, rivers and red pistachios. This smacks a little of hippie utopianism, but the disjointed feel and eccentric humor of these compositions hardly supports it.
Much of the musical pleasure of this fascinating album derives from Kirkwood's dizzying, fanciful guitar work. In the instrumental "Maidens Milk," he offers some jazzy runs and then breaks into pretty folk-rock chordings before shifting to a single-note country lead accompanied by whistling. At the bottom of the Meat Puppets' engagingly silly music-making, though, there is an honest and somewhat painful self-awareness. In "Too Real," Kirkwood deadpans, "Around here it's all the same," and then concludes, "Well, I don't see no greener pastures, so this must be where I belong."