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Why Your Favorite Alt-Rock Legends Are Remixing Their Old Albums

Acts like The Replacements, Pearl Jam, and now R.E.M. have decided to tinker with the past. But they’re not rewriting history—just presenting it from a new angle.

by Josh Modell
Nov 18 2019, 7:31pm

Photo of R.E.M. courtesy of Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images

No one quite knew what to make of R.E.M's 1994 album Monster, including the band members themselves. Compared with their last two albums, which had established the band as top-notch melancholy balladeers, it sounded like a glam-rock lark, with big, monstrous songs that felt like a reaction to what came before. Guitarist Peter Buck called it a "rock album with 'rock' in quotation marks," and listening back to it now, it almost sounds like the record is at war with itself.

R.E.M. had ditched the strings and mandolins of 1991's Out of Time and 1992's Automatic for the People in favor of grunge-inspired guitar, but then mixed these straightforward rock songs in a way that seemed designed to make them more difficult to process. Michael Stipe's vocals, so upfront on those previous two records, were walled in by guitars, making them hard to understand, much less sing along with. Even if the songs themselves were good, it was hard to hear them. It was as if one part of R.E.M. wanted to embrace super-stardom and all of its glamorous trappings, while the other part wanted to sabotage those intentions.

Monster sold well, but beyond "What's the Frequency, Kenneth," you'd be hard-pressed to find a long-time fan who considers it a favorite. Many of those "Everybody Hurts" fans sold it back used-CD stores long ago, where old copies of Monster have a reputation for sitting around for years, collecting dust. (One writer chronicled his quest to sell his copy; it took seven years). Even producer Scott Litt, who had worked with R.E.M. on every record since 1987's Document, knew that something was amiss.

"I was never really happy with the mixing I did on the Monster album," he says in an essay that accompanies a just-released six-disc box set marking the record's 25th birthday. "The two albums before that were very expansive and layered, but finding room for everything in the mix on those didn't seem to be too much of a problem. But on Monster, for some reason having fewer instruments made it harder. There was actually a point during mixing where I asked Peter [Buck] and the guys if we should get another mixer in. He and the band were really encouraging, and said 'hang in there.' So I did, but I had told the band through the years that if there was ever a chance to take another shot at mixing the album, I wanted to do it."

His opportunity came this year, with the Monster box. In addition to a remastering job and the usual bonus and live tracks, the set includes Litt's remix of the entire album. The differences, while subtle, are definitely noticeable: On "Let Me In," the band's tribute to Kurt Cobain, he eliminates an entire synth part, allowing the vocal to punch through. On "King of Comedy," the vocals are so greatly increased that Stipe's sly declaration of "I'm straight, I'm queer, I'm bi" is actually audible. The remix feels like a corrective, and it's bold enough that it could turn Monster haters around.

But R.E.M. aren't the only big alt-rock band to opt for a do-over: Over the past decade, acts like Nirvana, the Replacements, and Pearl Jam have also decided to tinker with the past. They're not rewriting history, exactly—more presenting it from a new angle. And for bands that are no longer putting out original music, it's a way to give fans something new, just as The Beatles did with 2003's Let It Be… Naked—another remix.

Before diving too deep, we need to clarify some terms—specifically, what we mean by "remix" and "remaster" in the context of a rock album. Legendary producer and Big Black/Shellac frontman Steve Albini, who both produced Nirvana's 1993 album In Utero and completely remixed it for its twentieth anniversary in 2013, sums up the difference in an interview with VICE: "A remix takes the original sounds from the session—the individual tracks, like the drums, bass, guitar, voice tracks—and rebalances them in a completely new stereo master," he says. "There's a lot of things you can do at that stage: It's possible to completely remove instruments, or to feature things that had been subdued. You can change things much more dramatically with a remix than a remaster. A remaster just means that you're taking the original master tape and making a new transfer of it. In the process of remastering, it is possible to make adjustments in the sound, but those adjustments are typically much smaller-scale and less aggressive than the changes you can make by remixing."

In other words, a remaster might not even register to the ears of a casual fan, or even a big one. A remix, though generally composed of the same exact ingredients as the original, can be strikingly different. In the case of Monster, it's redemptive. In the liner notes, Buck describes the new mix as "a lot more coherent," which is hard to read as anything but "better." R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, for his part, sees the whole thing as more of an experiment: "Some of it I like better, some of it I don't… I like the fact that he brought the vocals out. I don't like that he took Scott [McCaughey]'s noisy guitar off 'What's The Frequency, Kenneth,' but that's the way he heard it, and that's okay with me." He also stresses that Monster's poor reception wasn't a factor in the commission of this remix: "That didn't have anything to do with the reception to Monster as far as I'm concerned. When you go from selling a million or two million records to selling ten million, you're adding on a lot of people who are not necessarily fans of the band, but fans of hits… So when you have these new fans that have come along and you give them something completely different that they weren't expecting and weren't looking for, you're going to shed some of those fans. And that's okay. I wouldn't change what we did."

More direct about their desire for a do-over are R.E.M. contemporaries The Replacements, who reportedly hated the radio-friendly sheen on their 1989 album Don't Tell a Soul as much as many longtime fans did. For their third major-label album, they'd turned over the mixing to Chris Lord-Alge, a guy known for slick pop. He'd compressed the band's sound to make it more radio-friendly—subtracting certain elements, adding horns, and largely ripping away much of the scraggly, rag-tag magic that had informed classics like Let It Be and Pleased To Meet Me.

But when guitarist Slim Dunlap's wife found an early mix by the album's original producer, Matt Wallace, in her basement, it provided the blueprint for what would become Dead Man's Pop, a 2019 box-set reissue of Don't Tell a Soul that includes live tracks and demos from the same era. Though it's composed of the same exact takes as the original, it feels like an entirely new album, the one diehard Replacements fans probably expected thirty years ago.

"Some of it was just allowing certain choices—guitar parts, banjo parts, keyboard parts—to exist and be audible," says Bob Mehr, author of the definitive Replacements history Trouble Boys and co-producer of the box set. "Chris' mix took everything and smooshed it into the middle, and that created this monolith of sound in the middle of the spectrum, whereas Matt's version is much more true to what the band sounded like live." Mehr sees the remix as a necessary corrective: "Even though it was the best-selling Replacements record, it was the most divisive, and elements of it really threw people," he says." And part of that was that it wasn't a pure, 100 percent Replacements record because it was handed off to someone who didn't know them or get them to mix. Now you're hearing much more of the record that the band made."

Other big-name full-album remixes have flown more under the radar, but are nonetheless worth noting. For a 2009 reissue of Ten, Pearl Jam asked Brendan O'Brien—who produced their grittier, more sonically pleasing Vs. and Vitalogy albums—to go back and remix their smash debut. The finished product stripped away some of the more 90s-sounding elements of the original, particularly by dialing back the muddy reverb that had been slathered on the guitars and by bringing Jeff Ament's bass lines way up in the mix; it also felt a whole lot closer to Pearl Jam's raucous live sound.

In a press release at the time, O'Brien chose his words diplomatically while making clear that the band wanted to inject their gajillion-selling debut with more punk spirit: "The band loved the original mix of Ten, but were also interested in what it would sound like if I were to deconstruct and remix it," he said. "The original Ten sound is what millions of people bought, dug and loved, so I was initially hesitant to mess around with that. After years of persistent nudging from the band, I was able to wrap my head around the idea of offering it as a companion piece to the original and giving a fresh take on it, a more direct sound."

Nirvana's In Utero got the remix treatment in 2013, for its 20th birthday, by original producer Steve Albini. Kurt Cobain had reportedly been a fan of his production style—simple, no-frills, focused on capturing the band as it sounds—but Geffen and the band ended up asking Scott Litt—yes, the same producer behind R.E.M.'s Monster—to remix a couple of songs: "All Apologies" and "Heart Shaped Box." So the 1993 release is technically produced and mixed by Steve Albini, with two songs remixed by Scott Litt.

Albini's full-album 2013 mix is fantastic; it's almost poppier-sounding at points than his original, yet somehow more raw. "It was Krist Novoselic's idea," Albini says of the new edit. "They wanted to do something special for the anniversary, but they had already released all the outtakes. His claimed inspiration for it was that he had heard a surround-sound version of a Doors album where he noticed a whole bunch of things that weren't present on the original. He said, 'What if we go through every song on the album and make alternate choices?' For example, there was a guitar solo for 'Heart Shaped Box.' They tried one solo and then Kurt re-did it, so we thought, 'Why not let people hear the alternate solo that didn't end up on the record?'"

While one could argue that all of these full-album remixes are needlessly messing with the past, Albini makes a strong point about the new version of In Utero: "I don't think anybody would say that the alternate mix version was the definitive version," he says. "It's supposed to be a companion piece to the remastered original album." And with the exception of the original Replacements' record, that's true of all of these remixes. They don't erase the originals; they just offer fans a new way of hearing them. If they're done well, they can offer insight into something old and give fans something new to fall in love with.

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