When it came to 1980s guitar heroes, R.E.M. axe man Peter Buck was a somewhat unlikely figure. Gangly and slightly goofy, Buck was heavily influenced by the folk rock jangle of The Byrds, the punk rock ethos of Patti Smith, and the alternative drive of The Velvet Underground. Most ’80s six stringers were bombastic and over the top, but Buck was exactly the opposite: understated and straightforward.
“Peter Buck has the best right hand in the business,” bassist Mike Mills once observed. And he’s not wrong: in order to play R.E.M. songs the way they’re meant to be played, your picking hand has to be precise and adept at jumping strings. Especially in the band’s early days, Buck rarely did full strums or big chords: arpeggios and articulation were the keys to giving R.E.M. a signature sound and Buck a signature style.
Fables of the Reconstruction is one of those fabled “difficult third albums”. The band absconded over to England in the dead of winter to record with producer Joe Boyd, even though most of the album’s themes revolved around the southern gothic setting of their native homeland. The members became depressed and homesick, and when combined with the somewhat muddy production sound that resulted from the mixes, R.E.M. would occasionally shrug off Fables as being one of the band’s worst albums.
That’s far from the truth, as Fables of the Reconstruction features some of the band’s best material. The opening track ‘Feeling Gravitys Pull’ is an atonal left turn from the band’s usual sound, while ‘Old Man Kensey’ and ‘Auctioneer (Another Engine)’ continued the jarring use of metallic guitar tones. But it’s in the softer moments that Fables truly shines, including the wonderfully languid ‘Maps and Legends’, the expertly arranged ‘Green Grow the Rushes’, and the warmly sentimental ‘Wendell Gee’.
However, if there’s one song that found the band perfectly replicating what they did best, it would be ‘Driver 8′. A classic railroad song that features Mills’ melodic bass lines and the group’s iconic overlapping vocal lines, ‘Driver 8’ is also a showcase for the two sides of Peter Buck: the intricate picker and the folky rock star. The multiple guitar overdubs add fullness to the band’s sound without ever overcrowding the arrangement or getting too dense in the mix. It’s all balanced perfectly, with Buck’s chime cutting through in just the right way.
Listen to the isolated guitar parts for ‘Driver 8’ down below.