195 · 22 October 98
Buffalo Tom: Smitten
Usually once, in every concert I go to, there's a moment when I drift outside of myself, and just briefly see the spectacle from the vantage point of an unspecified skeptic, typically somebody's parents, although for some reason never my own. Most rock concerts, viewed from this emotional remove, are some variation of insane. The room is dark and overheated and overcrowded, the music is frequently too loud for even fans to appreciate properly, the audience is focused at least as intently on drinking and bellowing in each other's ears (producing louder transients, I'm almost sure, and thus perhaps a greater hearing hazard, than the concerts themselves) as on the music. Sometimes the performers' technical abilities are undeniable, whether the uses to which they are put match your tastes or not. Other times, in this moment of simulated naïveté, the spectacle just crumbles, and neither the crushing roar nor the crowd's numbed transfixion makes any sense to me. Sometimes, even when I can observe the rapture on the listeners' faces, even when one of their faces is my own, I peer down out of our collective disembodied parents' eyes in profound, irremediable confusion, and can't help but wonder if the entire scene is an elaborate practical joke. Surely all these people are just pretending not to notice that the band on the stage operates within a stylistic continuum barely wide enough to admit one chorus measurably different from one verse, let alone a repertoire that justifies all these lights, and all these minutes spent watching them bruise themselves against their limitations. Is this really a song?, I ask from the air. Was the last one meaningfully different? I can shift into this perspective with albums, too, although without a crazy environment as a catalyst I do it less automatically. Without the sense of event, "Are people really enjoying this?" tends to turn into "Will this last?", but the same general spectrum of impressions applies.
But truths change, like everything else, and what self-respecting generation would forge an identity that does not, in at least some aspects, baffle their parents? Back inside my own body, the logic may be difficult to explicate, but it's easy to experience. There are some extremely interesting things you can do with technical virtuosity, but some of the music that reaches most unerringly into my soul is based on the subtle perfection of the most constrained possibilities. Outside of the pathological reductions (of which there are also plenty, including some I love dearly), it's hard for me to think of a clearer example of transcending limited means than Let Me Come Over, Buffalo Tom's third album. It came out in 1992, and six years isn't really long enough to answer "Will this last?" in the sense with which it was asked, but it's more than enough time, in pop years, especially with two subsequent band albums and Bill Janovitz's 1996 solo record for context, for counterfeit magic to begin unraveling. I thought "Taillights Fade" was dull and obvious, the first time I heard it. Later I changed my mind and decided it was magnificent, choked and tense to the brink of agony, the whole album a fevered evocation of passionate melancholy bent in on itself by sheer ignorance of alternatives. By now I could have gone back to my original opinion. Six years on, though, Let Me Come Over still affects me exactly the same way it did the day I broke down and bought it. It is the sound of a heart that has deduced the existence of exultation, but doesn't have the slightest idea what it really looks like, and so is forced to try to arrive at it by pushing away, at once, from all the things it does know. The trio sound almost unaware that there is a body of technical knowledge about their instruments, that hitting them harder isn't the only way to express their resolve. I would never try to argue the album's objective merits, but there is a way I often feel, as if the pain of my own dissatisfactions is the thin thread tying me, both for good and evil, to the ground, that Buffalo Tom captured, for one album, as well as anything in art.
It's an oblique testament to Let Me Come Over's achievement, I think, or else proof of the capriciousness of my tastes, that the other four Buffalo Tom albums, despite being barely different on any rational scale, do next to nothing for me. I enjoyed Big Red Letter Day and Sleepy Eyed for a while, each, when they came out, but I haven't felt compelled to listen to either of them in years. The first two, Buffalo Tom and Birdbrain, have been reduced, in my mind, to a long undifferentiated blur with a haunting acoustic cover of the Psychedelic Furs' "Heaven" at the end of it. The easiest explanation, given the nature of the band, would be that there aren't very many ways in which Buffalo Tom's pieces can be assembled, and only one of them produces a click audible from where I'm standing. It's been three years since Sleepy Eyed, the band's last record, and two since Lonesome Billy, Janovitz's solo album, and you could learn a new language, literally or figuratively, in either span of time, but only if you realize that there's something inadequate about the one you already know. If I hadn't just had such an intense reaction to Juliana Hatfield's new album, bought in a moment of letting My So-Called Life ache outvote low expectations, and Buffalo Tom hadn't also appeared in a pivotal MSCL episode, I probably would have let Smitten slip by.
And on such tiny exigencies of decision-making do such monumental tracts of our happiness turn. Sometimes expectations are preemptive, and the experience never has a chance, but maybe as often, expectations amount to leaning into the blow. If I'd rolled some dice, and decided to assume that Smitten was going to sound like a cross between Soul Asylum and the Connells, I might merely have been pleased. But I put it on expecting to be bored, however pleasantly, and so I'm staggered, and may never quite recover. The list of rock bands who have opted, in the past year or two, to make buoyant, expansive pop records is growing steadily, but I would have credited Buffalo Tom with neither the musical capacity nor the self-possession required to join it. And yet, thirty seconds into "Rachael", when Janovitz's acoustic-guitar sparkle, some watery Hammond shimmer and Chris Colbourn plaintive inquiry explode into pounding, harmony-drenched electric-guitar catharsis, I'm caught up, not with the clenched, redemptive fury of Let Me Come Over but in some entirely sunnier, but equally helpless, reverie. "Rachael tell me what I'm waiting for; / Aren't you really just a penny whore?", Colbourn asks, and somehow he infuses the question with enough rueful affection to spill out in both directions, bathing himself in the noble futility of his crush, and Rachael in the quaint currency of her supposed trade, as if she's the house stripper for a family-entertainment replica tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. "Postcard" opens with slow guitar chords and Janovitz's frayed sigh, like half of Let Me Come Over, but where the earlier songs crescendo like choruses are the only way Bill and Chris ever learned to howl, this one takes off with soulful classic-rock flourishes, and by the time Bill wonders "Wherefore art thou, Johnny Carson, / Retired and never coming back?", three decades of rock-and-roll loneliness, from "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" to "I ain't missing you at all" have all come tumbling into the studio, knocking things over and making everybody half infuriated and half charmed and changed for life. "Knot in It", a noisy collage built out of a measured drum loop, fluttering guitar noise, scratchy dialog samples, striding piano and slashing guitar, finds Janovitz trying to simultaneously channel Mike Peters and Joe Cocker. "The Bible" sounds like Squeeze and Soul Asylum trying to collaborate on a song half of them think is supposed to be a lullaby, and the other half think is supposed to be a doubter's hymn. A string section joins in for the swelling romantic anthem "Scottish Windows", an entry in the long line that would lead from Thin Lizzy straight through Oasis, if only Oasis were sincere, and in the equally long line of rock songs to address the appealing lyrical conceit that "All I ever wanted" can be reduced to a single talismanic synecdoche. "Don't it make you want to cry all day?", "White Paint Morning" asks, with brass blasts and an unselfconscious "bop bah-da-da" nonsense-harmony choir rendering the question rhetorical and ebullient, as if sitting under a shade-tree, sobbing, is the best possible way to enjoy a cloudless summer afternoon. "Wiser" is slow and pensive, with a satiated sway that sounds purposefully engineered for encores. "See to Me" segues from a bagpipe-and-snare introductory march into a blaring rock song lifted almost wholesale from some old Replacements record the copyright lawyers forgot about. "Register Side" layers more guitar squall over a poignant, old-fashioned, quiet-desperation ballad that won't have led a full life until Rod Stewart has covered it. Sputtering drums and an oscillating two-chord guitar cycle underpin the straining "Do You In". Colbourn takes the lead again for the elliptical, jangly, gentle "Under Milkwood", most of which could easily be a Connells song. And the album ends, back in slurred, open-hearted, post-Replacements clatter, with the gloriously ragged "Walking Wounded", dual torn-speaker guitar lines clashing over waves of organ and a melody that pulls Janovitz and Colbourn after it like they're attached to tow lines.
As convincing as the impersonation of a seasoned rock band is on most of this record, though, there are still telltale traces, in almost every song, of Buffalo Tom's somber, claustrophobic past. The "sure/for/whore" rhymes in "Rachael" all have an extra syllable on the end of them, as if some malicious private tutor once convinced them the words were supposed to be said that way, and then left town without undoing the prank. "I say look at your mouth, / It's breathing now so it all pours out. / So easily you choose / my version of the truth, / When all I ask of you / Is send me a postcard / When you get there.", goes the chorus of "Postcard", as if terrifying vulnerability and emotional overcompensation are the base ingredients of every normal relationship. Janovitz's voice wavers as he tries to hold notes toward the end of "Knot in It", as if he forgot, when he wrote it, that he can't sing that way, or else hasn't noticed. Colbourn draws out the first syllables of each line of "The Bible" like they're part of a Seussian mnemonic that is the only way he can remember what he's supposed to sing. Much of "Scottish Windows" sounds like a love song to a life-long friend, but when I take the time to puzzle out the verses I find that the object of his delirious professions seems to be a girl he glanced once, through a store window (and oddly, though possibly only because he chose Scotland for the setting, this only makes me sympathize more). "Wiser" employs enough car metaphors (including the anti-heroic tag line "You ride your little Pinto in the rain", "ride" like a Pinto is closer to a moped than a car) and closing-time exhaustion to be a linear sequel to "Taillights Fade". "Register Side" is unusually narrative, for a Buffalo Tom song, but its main character's face is the same one that peers through a fogged window at other people's lives passing by in all the static-tableau songs. "Do You In" stretches out awkward phrases to fit the chorus like Janovitz doesn't know there's a method to chorus-writing, although surrounded here by songs that so obviously know better this is a little less charming than it might once have been. On the other hand, I still find "Walking Wounded"'s sledgehammer chorus couplets ("Greetings from the walking wounded, / Did you just see what the moon did?" and "Went away but I'm not forgetting, / Falling up from Armageddon") endearing, so my reactions are, as always, suspect.
But if the soul of Let Me Come Over is its myopia, and the eerie sense that the band doesn't know that pain could ever produce anything but music, or that music could ever communicate anything but pain, then it's approximately miraculous that they've learned the (or another) truth without it simply ruining them. I can imagine transformations that would be more dramatic, superficially (like Shampoo going from "Shiny Black Taxi Cab" to Jane Siberry's "The Taxi Ride"), and people who hear only music, not emotions, when Buffalo Tom play, may find it unfathomable that I categorize the two records as fundamentally different works of art. But Let Me Come Over, for me, is as close as I get to being drunk, a musical method of coping with sorrows by blurring them until they're just pretty shapes, and you can't remember what was tragic about them any more, or what tragedy even consists of. The escape Let Me Come Over offers is a dimension-folding trick, getting outside yourself by coiling tighter than space. Smitten, on the other hand, and again I'm not sure this would work if both albums weren't by the same band, escapes via a perspective-shifting trick that makes it seem like your own broken self is someone else. And if you can get away from yourself, only a foot or two, you can sometimes just brush away problems that from the inside looked like scars.
Melissa Ferrick: Everything I Need
I greet a new Melissa Ferrick album with more complicated expectations. The big hopes derive from the fact that "Honest Eyes" and "Happy Song", the two opening tracks on her 1993 debut, Massive Blur, are still on my books as one of the most arresting debut-album beginnings in my experience. Add the reeling "Blue Sky Night", from later in the album, and you might see why I thought Melissa could go on to be the combined successor to Sinéad O'Connor and Maria McKee (not that either of them are ready to be succeeded, individually, yet). The doubts enter because after five years, my patience with the noisier, more abstract stretches of Massive Blur has worn a bit thin. Willing to Wait, the smaller-cast second album, seemed like a perfect progression to me at the time, but it too has come apart a little in hindsight, with "Falling on Fists" and "Til You're Dead" tending to eclipse the other sparer songs in my memory of it. Last year's live acoustic album, Melissa Ferrick+1, had many of its own virtues, but was another step further away from my dream of getting to hear what Ani DiFranco fronting Lone Justice would sound like. So my warring hopes for this new album were that it would either deliver the shameless big-production spectacle I've been pining for since those first two songs, or that it would clearly affirm Melissa's acoustic direction, so I could stop waiting for something else.
Uncooperatively, it sort of does neither. On the quiet side, almost half the album are songs that bear at least partial resemblances to Ani DiFranco in her slow mode: "It's Alright" is mostly sketchy acoustic guitar and drums, with a scattering of near-subliminal horn stabs; the smoky "Fear and Time" billows on brushed snare and producer Rob Laufer's graceful piano, Melissa's occasional vocal syncopations guided back into step by the instrumentation's steady, careful pace; much of "I Like It That Way" could be a Laura Nyro song transposed down to Melissa's vocal register; "Stand Still" is like five minutes of a free-fall instrumental break from the middle of a concert version of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"; "To Let You See Me" is reprised from Melissa Ferrick+1 with only some understated piano and flugelhorn for additional texture; and "Don't Say Goodbye" is jittery and quick, but Melissa's vocal rarely rises above a mutter, and the song ends without ever breaking into the sprint it always seems to be a beat away from. If my experience with the earlier albums repeats itself, and of course it might not, these are the songs I'll eventually forget. Ani loses me, too, when she slows down. Both women are too good at speed and terror to be wasted on murky calm.
The other half of the album are the rock songs. The band, this time around, is Melissa on guitars and the flugelhorn, veteran session player Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and Laufer on just about everything else. On "I Will Arrive" they weave some mournful electric slide guitar into Melissa's acoustic, and add rumbling drums, but Melissa keeps her singing under control, and the song ends up mid-tempo in spirit, even though it's a little faster than that in fact. "Particular Place to Be" has Melissa's machine-gun finger-picking in the verses, and a little double-tracked harmony in the choruses, but only really breaks free for a short bridge, split between a guitar solo and Melissa's wordless vocal equivalent. "Do It Over" twirls from synth-string hum to bouncy pop with a mild country twang. "Asking for Love", an electrified version of the vitriolic woman-in-a-smalltown-bar rant from Melissa Ferrick+1, is the most charged track here, with churning rhythm guitar, wailing bottleneck leads, crashing drums and Melissa snapping off the ends of words like she's biting off bits of the redneck locals' ears. My favorite, though, ends up being the far less histrionic "Everything I Need", which wouldn't be out of place, vocal timbre aside, on a John Mellencamp album. The drums, bongo tattoos and hand-claps filling in the spaces in the blocky kick/snare groove keep the song on a level keel, and the guitars content themselves with some standard-issue chord-progression hooks, but Melissa careens around this frame like she's testing a cage, and a frazzled virtual chorus joins her for the coda, all singing a song that could, if only everybody listened to albums in the same order I do, be the answer to Buffalo Tom's "Scottish Windows", a self-reliant "Everything I need is / Right here in my hands" rebuttal mantra to Janovitz's starry-eyed "All I ever wanted" lament. And somewhere in suspension between these songs is the precise state of mind I'm after, in which it can somehow be true both that all moral strength emanates from internal sources, and also that your soul can be wired directly to something over which you have no control. This is an emotional trick as risky as surgery, so I probably want both songs along for support, the soaring "Scottish Windows" supplying courage, and the unflappable "Everything I Need" to sing my heart a click track.