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Fricke’s Picks: R.E.M., Soft Machine and More

Also in this edition: Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck’s new duo, and an album teaming forward-thinking folk guitarist Peter Walker with Mercury Rev

MIchael Stipe with R.E.M. in 1984, Peter Walker with the Harmony Rockets

David Fricke runs down his favorite new music, including R.E.M.'s BBC recordings and a new LP from genre-blurring guitar vet Peter Walker.

Rtallen/Mediapunch/REX Shutterstock, Letitia Smith

Arthur Buck, Arthur Buck (New West)
For two weeks in September, Arthur Buck — the newly minted duo of singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur and ex-R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck — toured with the songs from their debut album, Arthur Buck, as a quintet with keyboard player Gregg Foreman, drummer Linda Pitmon of Steve Wynn’s Miracle Three and longtime R.E.M. sideman Scott McCaughey, looking hale and sounding hearty on bass and backing vocals after suffering a stroke last year. The effect was robust and promising, adding the bond and fortified glow of a working band to the plaintive jangle of “I Am the Moment,” the urgent glam of “American Century” and the autumnal swoon of “Wide Awake in November.” Arthur and Buck sang and played virtually everything on the record, one of modern rock’s best in 2018. Live, in a set with new, unrecorded songs and astute back-track covers (Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons,” Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”), Arthur Buck‘s hermetic cohesion and densely textured flair sounded like an adventure with legs.

R.E.M., R.E.M. at the BBC (Craft)
In November 1984, Buck’s former band was on its third trip to the U.K. in 12 months when he, singer Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry made their BBC Radio debut: an In Concert special taped in Nottingham. That exuberant snapshot of R.E.M.’s original, eccentric stage force — a much-bootlegged artifact given the group’s aversion to live albums until the next century — is included in the nine-disc edition of this audio-visual whirl through R.E.M.’s performing life on BBC radio and TV. After Nottingham, the set leapfrogs to a sublime 1991 acoustic studio session; a stadium blowout from Berry’s last tour in 1995; and overwhelming evidence, across another decade, of the surviving trio’s determined searching and reinvented concert vigor. Of special note on the DVD: that coltish ’84 R.E.M. on The Old Grey Whistle Test a week after the Nottingham broadcast; and Stipe as a liberated showman in 1998, leading the after-Berry band on Later … With Jools Holland and declaring the way forward in a proud, fierce “Walk Unafraid.”

Harmony Rockets with Peter Walker, Lachesis/Clotho/Atropos (Tompkins Square)
The upstate-New York psychedelic rangers Mercury Rev, here under a periodic alias, take on extra crew for this studio excursion in galactic instrumental travel: Wilco-etc. guitarist Nels Cline, ex-Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and a Sixties cult legend, guitarist Peter Walker, whose two albums of acid-touched Indo-blues fusion for Vanguard — 1966’s Rainy Day Raga and 1968’s Second Poem to Karmela — have become belated touchstones in the modal-improvising renaissance. Walker is especially forward and effective in the framing of this layered, shifting movement: a gently punctuative soliloquy at the last of “Lachesis”‘ 17 minutes; his opening and closing sequences in “Clotho.” Walker is also a vintage, binding factor in the dream-state procession “Atropos,” bridging the electric bird song of Cline and Rev guitarist Grasshopper — and the respective, underground eras at play.

Soft Machine, Hidden Details (MoonJune)
On October 12th at the New York club Iridium, I saw a band I last experienced live in March 1974: the English jazz-rock institution Soft Machine. Founded in 1966, the group had passed through its initial, psychedelic ferment, the 1970 fusion landmark Third and relentless personnel changes by the time I caught the lineup that made 1973’s Seven — with the striking addition of guitarist and eminent prog-rock hero Allan Holdsworth. The rhythm section at the ’74 gig — bassist Roy Babbington and drummer John Marshall — was back at Iridium, in racing precision, with guitarist John Etheridge — Holdsworth’s spitfire replacement in 1975 — and the English saxophonist, flautist and keyboard player Theo Travis. Until Hidden Details, the four previously recorded and toured as Soft Machine Legacy — a still-perfect description of the way they live up to the original name here in the jigsaw communion of new pieces such as Travis’ title composition and the spirited regeneration of Third‘s “Out-Bloody-Rageous.”

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