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Even Cuter Than on Their CD
30 · 24 August 95
Buffalo Tom: Sleepy Eyed
I got into Buffalo Tom with their sublime 1992 album Let Me Come Over, which found them emerging from the Dinosaur Jr.-like haze of their first two records (co-produced by J Mascis, so the sound was not coincidental), and finding a magical middle point between furious distortion and calm grandeur. That album made my 1992 top ten list at #4, and "Taillights Fade", my favorite track, made #8 on my song list. The follow-up, 1993's Big Red Letter Day, seemed to me to be missing some of Let Me Come Over's drive, and I never quite surrendered to it. Almost as important as that for context, though, in my mind, is that earlier this year guitarist Bill Janovitz's brother Paul's band, Cold Water Flat, released their major-label debut, staking an alternate claim to precisely the sort of charged melancholy that Buffalo Tom seemed to me to have drifted away from.
Unaccountably, Buffalo Tom doesn't appear to be interested in catering to my linear ideas of stylistic succession, and Sleepy Eyed carries on their own evolution without any apparent reference to Cold Water Flat. The album is a bit more energized than Big Red Letter Day, more electric than acoustic, but it doesn't attempt to replicate Cold Water Flat's relentless catharsis. Initially I was disappointed by this, but with some better perspective I think it was just a misguided expectation. Really, I think Sleepy Eyed finds Buffalo Tom just trying to derive new colors in what might seem to be a relatively limited sonic palette.
They're only a trio, after all, and both bassist Chris Colbourn and drummer Tom Maginnis only took up those instruments because the band decided at formation that having three guitarists and no other players was going to be an awkward balance (a reasonable stance, but a conventional one, and a part of me is definitely curious what they might have sounded like if they'd stuck to that arrangement). Remaining guitarist Janovitz has gotten pretty good at it, the other two have learned their instruments pretty well, and Bill and Chris take turns at singing that make up in sincerity what they lack in technical polish, but a troop of aural chameleons Buffalo Tom are not. It's a rare Buffalo Tom song that you can't attribute to them after hearing only a moment of it. The rattling off-beat cadences of Maginnis' drumming are distinctive, and the thick roar of bass and bar-chord guitar is unmistakable both in timbre and in progression. Bill and Chris' singing styles share the raw fervor produced when somebody is so wrapped up in a song that they don't notice how close it is veering to the precipitous edges of their range.
The classic Buffalo Tom use of these ingredients is represented by "Summer", the first single from this album. A deliberate, oscillating guitar part anchors the pace of the song, freeing Maginnis' drums to clatter off in contrast, reversing the usual guitar and drum roles. Janovitz's vocals are subdued in the verse, and push forward in the chorus, where the line "Summer's gone, a summer song, / You've wasted every day" captures the mixture of sadness and triumph (it's quite an accomplishment to waste every day) that Buffalo Tom does best.
Differences in approach are subtle at best. In "It's You" the vocals take the lead, and the other instruments follow. In "Your Stripes" the snare sticks to the beat more strictly, and it's the bass drum that moves around. "Clobbered" rides a single three-note pattern obsessively, its chorus floating essentially in free fall until the pattern returns. "Twenty-Points", one of Chris Colbourn's three lead-vocal appearances, is soft and acoustic, flavored with delicate electric figures and some ambient organ, and reminds me of George Huntley's songs with the Connells. (It also again demonstrates Buffalo Tom's apparent inability to completely fathom the correct use of hyphens: this song title doesn't need one, while the album titles Big Red Letter Day and Sleepy Eyed could each have used one.)
For the most part, though, these songs are structurally similar to the ones on Let Me Come Over. Yet, somehow, none of them seem like retreads to me. This sends me off into a odd meditation on the nature of variation in pop music. On some passes through this album, it feels completely natural to me, like there are hundreds more songs in Buffalo Tom's idiom, and these just happen to be the next fourteen they assembled and committed to disc. Some other passes the chord sequences seem forced and arbitrary to me, like the process of not repeating themselves has become overly conscious, and I begin to wonder whether the spectrum of possibility this band represents has already been covered well enough, and we are into diminishing returns. But letting yourself follow this line of reasoning too far tends to lure you close to the conclusion that, in fact, the whole guitar-bass-drums-vocals 4/4 pop/rock song thing has been artistically exhausted, and in order to escape from overrun territory you have to challenge the structure in some fundamental way (like having three guitarists and no rhythm section, for example). Whether this is true or not, and in whatever sense, it remains that listening to some albums the thought doesn't enter my mind, and listening to some others it does. With some I find that I couldn't care less whether the whole harmonic structure was cribbed from that awful Jethro Tull album with the comic book inside. When Matthew Sweet tears into "Sick of Myself", the fact that its central three-chord riff has been used somewhere on the order of seven billion times before doesn't make the slightest difference to me. It's a great riff, and I bet we'll hear a hundred more great songs based on it every year until somebody figures out how to trademark it and the rest of us are forced to either go back to the music theory books for some new staple, or else finally conduct that lawyer-pogrom we've been talking about for so long.
For whatever reason, nothing here can drill through my over-analytical predilections as cleanly. I vacillate between thinking that this is a flaw and thinking that it's a virtue. That They Might Be Giants line keeps coming to mind: "There's only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third." Is this hollow recapitulation of past successes, or defiance of destiny through sheer willpower? Is it tragic, or triumphant? I think it's some of both. Appropriately enough, those are precisely the two emotions Buffalo Tom are best at combining.
Letters to Cleo: Wholesale Meats and Fish
Letters to Cleo are another Boston band, and another one whose new album finds me wondering how unique I think they are and, independently, how good. Their debut, Aurora Gory Alice, had some irrepressibly catchy moments, notably their breakthrough single "Here and Now", with its machine-gun chorus rap. The album was also nearly terminally inconsistent, a disorganized patchwork of styles that belied its demo-tape origins, and trying to deduce what sort of band Letters to Cleo really were from that scattered collection of fragmented identities was pretty hopeless. Wholesale Meats and Fish, gratifyingly, establishes a much stronger personality for the band. The one they choose, that of a female-led band playing loud guitar-pop with hard musical edges, is hardly an underpopulated field, of course, so justifying their presence in it takes some doing.
In their advantage is a very strong grasp of recent Boston musical history, though whether it's overt or instinctive I don't know. Kay Hanley's voice at times hints at the waifish frailty of Juliana Hatfield or Mary Lou Lord, at other times alludes to the warped elfin glee of Kim Deal, and at still other times leans into phrases like recent notables Jennifer Trynin and Tracy Bonham. The band is capable of the dense textures of Buffalo Tom, the straightforward drive of the Bags or the Cavedogs, the oblique angles of Throwing Muses, or moments of camp chaos that owe a debt to the Pixies. In integrating all these influences, though, they seem to me to have come up with a blend that may be more immediately accessible than any of those precursors. Their guitar attack avoids the sort of ironic distance that Juliana usually employs, and bowls over Lord's sketchy busker's arrangements. They avoid the difficult harmonic structures of the Breeders, Throwing Muses or Belly, rarely straying out of sight of a big shiny melodic hook. The five-piece band's sound is fuller than the Bags' or the Cavedogs' were, and less self-consciously anachronistic. And Hanley sounds much happier than Trynin or Bonham.
Of course, the bad way of putting this is that Letters to Cleo are as wholly creatures of this moment in musical history as any band I can think of. You'd be hard-pressed to construct songs more squarely aimed at the crossroads of "alternative" and mainstream rock, circa 1995 if you simply took raw material spat straight out of The Machine. There are just enough quirks and menace to get the band on 120 Minutes and into the playlists of all those college radio stations that have gotten unhealthily accustomed to nearly-commercial-scale audience share, but enough bouncy good cheer and non-threatening goofiness to not scare off the daytime programmers or the parents of 15-year-olds hoping for an all-ages show. There's no indication that this adherence to demographic targeting is calculated, but fortuity doesn't constitute a defense in itself.
The saving grace, at least for me, is that these songs are so charming that I can't find much more than a volt or two of energy with which to resent them. If this is what "standard issue" has come to mean, then this is one of rock music's better eras. I mean, put this album on. What's to dislike? Listen to that great throaty guitar roar in "Demon Rock", and those trumpeting-elephant-like guitar wails. Listen to the perfect high guitar harmonics on the fiery choruses of "Fast Way", not to mention the vintage Nirvana-esque transitions from bass-and-drums verses to wall-of-guitars choruses, and the guitar solo that starts out like the Pixies and then veers into slide. Dance around madly to the shuffling hi-hats and priceless hand-claps on the delirious "Awake", and shout along to the line "Baby, I'm leaving out the irony" like you mean it. Check out the demented organ on "Acid Jed". Feel the cool vein of darkness in "Pizza Cutter" (a touch of Tribe?), as well as the deftly executed transitions when the off-beat opening drum pattern snaps into the chorus groove. Smile at the airy vocals and toy-drum sounds of "Little Rosa". Memorize the line in "He's Got an Answer" about world history ("So if you want to know about landlocked countries in Asia under the strong-arm hold of Buddhists, it's Nepal, it's Nepal..."; as useful to know as most other things you learn from rock songs, I suppose). And relax to the breathy sway of "I Could Sleep (The Wuss Song)" (a little better enjoyed if you put your thumb over the juvenile subtitle).
It's not that you couldn't find stuff to pick on if you were to insist -- for starters, Hanley's lyrics rarely transcend forgettable for any good reasons -- it's that doing so is so patently small-minded. Impishly and unapologetically waving the banner of "enjoyable and unessential", this is an album to either play for fun, or not play. Whether "fun" is what you're looking for in an album or not is your own business.
The Dambuilders: Ruby Red
If Letters to Cleo get too sweet for you, another Boston band offers a handy antidote. The Dambuilders have some other albums, but this is the first one I've bought, taking the engaging "Teenage Loser Anthem" as the only excuse I needed to buy an album by any band with a violin player. The song itself is another of those signs of the times; for some reason this year it seems to me like catchy pop-rock songs are reaching plague levels. I can't turn on the car radio without ten songs with aspirations to instant pop stardom clamoring for my attention, grabbing at my sleeves and making it difficult to steer properly. At least half of them, naturally, are annoying as hell (right now the ones that send me spinning into the "rock without the hard edge" FM doldrums seeking asylum are "Lump", "Weird Me Out", "I've Got a Girl", anything by Green Day or Rancid, and that Edwyn Collins thing, though thankfully these seem to have finally crowded out that Flaming Lips one about blowing your nose with magazine pages), but for every one I can't stand there seems to be an "Awake", a "Judy Staring at the Sun", "Stars", Teenage Fanclub, "Misery", "You Oughta Know" or that new U2 one that just make me ecstatic that the guy I bought this car from was such a car-stereo-head, and not at all resentful that a little evening traffic is extending my fifteen-minute cross-town commute by another subwoofer-enhanced song or two.
The Dambuilders entry into this field is inauspiciously named; I hate titling that labels a piece from outside of it, rather than being a part of the work itself, and "Teenage Loser Anthem" in particular sounds way too much like the Beck/Mascis/Cracker/Offspring axis of lethargic self-loathing for my tastes. The song, however, is terrific, with X-like vocal harmony between guitarist Eric Masunaga and violinist Joan Wasser, a crisp guitar hook, and propulsive violin arpeggios. The lyrics have the ring of Beavis-and-Butthead authority-defiance ("Forget the middle class and fuck his middle age rules"), but anything more than cursory inspection reveals bitter sarcasm ("Do you know why you never slashed your wrist?"), which makes me feel much better about the whole thing.
I fear that many people drawn into this album by the superficial appeal of that one song will be disappointed by the rest, though. This is a pretty complicated and more than a little abrasive album, something like the Geraldine Fibbers might sound if you tore out the Hole and Thin White Rope influences and replaced them with some Mission of Burma and a little Fugazi (most notably, perhaps, in the anti-capitalist spoken-verse minimalism of "Rocket to the Moon"), or perhaps like Catherine Wheel could have sounded if they'd grown up in Boston. There's a lot of keening guitar dissonance, and the violin is often rather unsettling. The rhythm section work is pretty straightforward most of the time, and Masunaga's vocals can be plain at times, but when he gets interested and the rest of the band joins in to back him up, as on the riveting "Put in your order for chaos" chorus in "Bending Machine", the blend is pretty magical, redeeming the dissonant build-ups admirably. There's even one song that reminds me of Big Star at their most disintegratingly intense ("Down"), and one whose verses (but only the verses) remind me both of Tommy Keene and one of my favorite Boston-rock anthems, Big Dipper's "Ron Klaus Wrecked His House", though admittedly neither of those featured droning insectoid violins.
And in a way, the best things about this album, especially in the context of Sleepy Eyed and Wholesale Meats and Fish, are all the songs that never do break into catchy melodic redemption. Self-reliant without being quite as confrontational and unwelcoming as Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, this is an album that for me strikes a fine balance between experiment and surface appeal, a record that isn't likely to be effectively supplanted by whatever I buy this week. It's precisely records like this that keep the pile of CDs by my player that I'm not ready to shelve yet at such a dangerous height, and given how many CDs I buy, even ones I like, that get filed after the fourth listen or so, perhaps never to be played again, this is one of the most telling and complimentary things that can happen to a disc in my house. The CDs I buy and file are the cost of finding ones like this. The ratio can get imposing at times, but what else am I going to spend my money on? Shoes?