Full honesty and disclosure: I’ve been a really big fan of R.E.M. for a really long time and approached Arthur Buck’s self-titled debut album with no small amount of trepidation. I didn’t want to risk sullying my memory of Peter Buck – but it turns out I needn’t have worried. In fact, by crossing Buck’s instantly recognizable guitar tone (which, let’s be honest, helped inspire almost an entire generation of songwriters) with Joe Arthur’s bluesy, backwoods soul, this album finds a great sound which can satiate R.E.M. fans without coming off as derivative in the slightest.
As soon as a turntable’s needle touches down and “I Am The Moment” opens the A-side of Arthur Buck, listeners will find to their delight that what they hear sounds simultaneously fresh AS WELL AS like a homecoming. There, Peter Buck reverts to the lush and beautiful arpeggios which characterized songs like “Radio Song,” “Drive,” “Everybody Hurts” and “Strange Currencies” in R.E.M.’s glory days while a spectacular programmed beat and solid set of samples give the backdrop a decidedly suburban vibe loaded with hooks to pull listeners along. That’s all solid enough, but the X-factor (and greatest attention-getter) is Joe Arthur’s vocals and performance; sounding decidedly very moody thanks to its reliance on minor chords, lines like “Becoming free is not as easy as I’d like it to be/ All these eyes that can no longer see/ In disguise, buried into the screams of insignificance/ But there’s nothin’ to fear” play well outside of every pop paradigm currently on the books and instantly hook the more bookish and academically inclined among those listening. In short, what listeners get right away both is and is not what listeners expect (it is stoic as all fans of R.E.M. expect, but more focused of mind than anything that band used to do), and wonderfully piques listeners’ curiosity for its effort.
With that unique and wholly engaging point pinned down, Arthur Buck then proceeds to spend the remainder of this album’s A-side elaborating on the beginning and possibilities put forth by “I Am The Moment,” and really laying down some great surprises as they do so. First, “Are You Electrified” sees Joe Arthur get a little more breathless and raspy than normal as he pours himself into a pop melody before trading it all for a really bizarre found-sound beat and a guitar solo which sounds like it might have been lifted from Mike Campbell on “The Wanderer” and then angling a little closer to Afghan Whigs-esque, acute emotional articulation for “Forever Waiting” and the vaguely political “If You Wake Up In Time” before trading guitars and cool, manufactured beats for chilly echoes and piano on “Summertime.” Throughout each of those movements, listeners will find that the gears change consistently with each track and keep them guessing which is a really good thing; every time another song starts, listeners will find they won’t be able to leave the edge of their collective seat because, while there is a sense of consistency all along the way, the development of the sound throughout each song just feels so unique – both in a pop music context in general, as well as within the context of this album’s running too.
After listeners flip the record over excitedly to see what the B-side has in store, they might be left a little concerned by the altogether-too-slick styling of “American Century” but will be reassured when “Before Your Love Is Gone” turns to images of junkies and burning bibles and still manages to come out feeling warm, folksy and positive by song’s end. That turn is reassuring and makes the return to political discussion for “Wide Awake In November” easy to appreciate before the beautiful and ghostly resolve of “Can’t Make It Without You” tucks listeners in for the end of the record and puts them to bed.
And when it does close that way, listeners will find that while not every song on Arthur Buck was flawless, it would be impossible for them to make the claim that they were left unsatisfied by the experience. The way this album is laid out makes it a perfect introduction to this band for any listener who runs across it; it isn’t so perfectly streamlined or measured that it feels like a phoned-in new work from a couple of old hands, it feels like music intent on making something fresh and new and tentatively testing a few boundaries to scan what might be possible for the group in the future. That spirit is great and will definitely leave those who experience it excited to see what comes next.
(New West Records)