Monday, 21 March 2011

Buffalo Tom - Let Me Come Over

Having seen the recent release of Skins and a live show, I was inspired to write an album review again, but ended up writing about the gig instead. The temptation was to write about the new record, and discuss Buffalo Tom’s history more comprehensively, how second-string vocalist/bassist Chris Colbourn’s songs had improved relatively as the band matured, how the band expanded and yet somewhat began to fall in line with what was expected of them, and so on. Instead, I figured I’d take a look at my favourite record of theirs, which lends itself merely to mentioning their early history in passing. The band was once dubbed “Dinosaur Jr Jr” for the fuzzy style of college rock on its first two albums, Buffalo Tom (1988) and Birdbrain (1990), which were indeed produced by Dinosaur Jr big daddy J Mascis. I considered the comparisons a bit unfair on both acts even in those early stages, as the typical guitar work and vocal melodies weren’t as comparable as many suggest, although admittedly a fair chunk of that had to do with the difference between Mascis’ low squeaking moan and the slightly gravelly and much less weird singing voice of lead singer/guitarist Bill Janovitz.

Nevertheless, 1992’s Let Me Come Over was a turning point that steered the band clearly out of the realms of the likes of Dinosaur Jr, Hüsker Dü (for some reason, the go-to band to compare with any punk or alt rock band with any degree of fuzzy distortion in the guitars is one that doesn’t even have a clearly defined characteristic sound) and teen college rock in general. The album didn’t feature Mascis at the production helm, which helped to no end. While the style employed previously had worked well enough on the relatively simplistic self-titled debut, Birdbrain sounds tired, and the increasing songwriting and instrumental skills were being held back. Drummer Tom Maginnis had to reduce the intensity of his drumming for this album, which featured less straightforward rock, but used the opportunity to increase the intricacy.

However, for all the talk of softening the overall sound, the band kept to the formula of starting off their album with a belter of a track. An upbeat little bass intro belies a song that soon kicks into life. Janovitz is bitter at times, but the melodies work. There’s a lot of energy that successfully recalls classic older Buffalo Tom songs like “Sunflower Suit” and “Crawl”, which is maintained throughout the track, through the solos and the last iteration of Janovitz’s hanging choral refrain. The album formula continues to hold true as the second track is a relative ballad, but the new direction the band was taking has allowed them to do these songs properly. The guitar work is clearer and more settled in the verses so Janovitz can restrain his vocals slightly, allowing for a more dynamic effect once the chorus kicks in. The lyrical content makes for the sad ballad of a downtrodden man, which came to be the definitive Buffalo Tom song.

A gentle descending riff combining with a slightly more energetic stop-start riff make up the meat of “Mountains Of Your Head”, and, with some high note singing, keep interesting a track that could otherwise be construed as less significant. There’s less to grab a hold of with this track, but it’s by no means a blemish. However, you could be forgiven for thinking so, because the following track is “Mineral”, which makes much heavier use of an acoustic guitar dubbed over the three-man band for a memorable musical piece. The lyrics are simple, the chorus is incredibly basic, but Janovitz uses his voice brilliantly to transition into the instrumental segment, and that upbeat section has an excellent comedown riff at the end to take us back into a verse. Apart from fading out gradually into silence, “Mineral” is an exceptionally well-crafted song, and an album highlight that deserved a fitting climax.

Chris Colbourn provides two songs this time, having contributed just the one song to the band’s previous releases. It’s fair to say that at this point, he wasn’t singing any of the band’s best material, and while his more gentle crooning would be applied to some of the best songs on later albums such as “Clobbered” and “She’s Not Your Thing”, what we’re given here is some slightly awkward yelping. “Darl” is a little bit unfortunate at times, but is a brisk and bright enough song musically, giving it some backbone. The shortest track is followed by the longest, and Janovitz takes “Larry” almost twice the distance. Although it could be argued that it drags on a bit, it’s got an unusual rhythm to it that gives it life beyond a soothing song to bridge two more energetic ones.

After the previous track ends on slightly protracted watery feedback, “Velvet Roof” jumps in with a much more powerful riff that evokes “Birdbrain”, but doesn’t suffer from a languid chorus. The song’s central hook is complemented by bags of melody and unrelenting catchiness, and the only minor damp squib is the presence of a harmonica (I hate those blasted things), but it fails to stop “Velvet Roof” from being a great track. Colbourn has another go with “I’m Not There”, and it starts promisingly enough, but doesn’t live up to it. The music is too bland, the solo doesn’t do anything of note, and the melodies fall flat, particularly in the strained chorus. “Stymied” opens up with a very grouchy riff, but with the exception of the chorus, the chord progressions and overdubbed guitar work make this a much better track than its predecessor.

“Porchlight” brings back the sensible pop structure of “Taillights Fade”, but with a twist. The music’s much catchier, and Janovitz reins in his voice throughout, instead supplying an undercurrent of drenching feedback in the chorus. There isn’t a guitar solo, but the song doesn’t need one as it stands up well on its own. Unfortunately, “Frozen Lake” can’t quite have the same said of it. You can see what they’re trying to do, having the primarily acoustic number with low bass input and almost zero percussion, but it doesn’t come off spectacularly. Not that I could see the track working well as a typical three piece song, but the only thing “Frozen Lake” succeeds in doing is reducing the pace of the album to a crawl.

“Saving Grace” is an instant rocker that has its power heightened by the sleepy previous track. No fireworks, but an appreciable shot in the arm, as the last track to have as much adrenaline was as far back as “Velvet Roof”. The coup de grâce is “Crutch”, which sounds exactly like what I was trying to imagine “Frozen Lake” should have been, mellow, but making use of the tools at hand. The chorus implements a more subtle form of one of those stop-start riffs and a very smart change of pace, and the presence of some piano in the background of an instrumental section does no harm.

The song eventually bleeds out of life leaving the listener with the satisfaction of having listened to a great album. Let Me Come Over is not quite perfect, but goes beyond the required checkbox of being assembled into a dynamic piece, and presents us with some top notch songs from across the scale they’ve played to. No “I like the fast ones” or “I love the ballads”, the band have hit the mark at a variety of paces, and deserve a lot  of credit for doing so. They also deserve credit for one of the spookiest band photo arrangements, where Colbourn looks like a disembodied head sleeping on Janovitz's shoulder, but it's hidden in the tray art booklet, so just don't open it. It's not like they put lyrics in there. I'd suggest making a law about lyrics being included in the tray art, but then all the indie bands would stop putting lyrics in as some sort of act of defiance, so my solution, which is applied to most problems, is simple. If bands don't include lyrics in their tray art, steal their shoes.

Personal picks: Staples, Velvet Roof, Mineral
Picks for others, Mineral, Taillights Fade, Porchlight
Relative weaknesses: I’m Not There, Frozen Lake

01 – Staples
02 – Taillights Fade
03 – Mountains Of Your Head
04 – Mineral
05 – Darl
06 – Larry
07 – Velvet Roof
08 – I’m Not There
09 – Stymied
10 – Porchlight
11 – Frozen Lake
12 – Saving Grace
13 – Crutch

Monday, 14 March 2011

Buffalo Tom - Live At Sound Control, Manchester, England, UK, 11/03/2011

Going to a gig in a strange city can be pretty daunting. More so when going solo, when driving with an unreliable satellite navigation gizmo that refuses to recognise the existence of your destination, when running late, when it’s a different type of show than previously experienced, and when knowing that the second half of four hours of driving will be done in pitch black on a single lane snaking road going along a slope. Going alone to a show is relative, but being a naturally introverted southerner running low on self-esteem in a proud north, talking to strangers at gigs isn’t much of an option, especially considering they’re already in their own groups and clusters. Of course, running late is also a relative thing. You never know how many keeners are going to show up early/on time and park themselves in a good spot. Having no other reason to go than for the music itself, the least I wanted was to have a good spot on the front row, which invariably involves bearing any and all support acts. It’s an excuse to check out some different material, but you do feel bad being at the front despite not giving a toss or really digging the material.

Despite running late, by about a minute, I was still well ahead of Sound Control. Wondering where the barriers and bouncers were, I walked straight in, wandered very slowly past some bar staff to the stairs, up and round the corner to the actual room, past more bar staff and a sound man, shuffled around looking at flyers of shows I didn’t care to see, and rolled back downstairs to find a bouncer wrestling with a barrier. Being the sort of chap who’d actually paid for entry, I didn’t have a problem with seeing myself out, and the bouncer was surprisingly relaxed about it, and told me it was going to be a late start. After grabbing a quick half a cola from a student pub across the road (without feeling old, surprisingly), I pottered back in past the bouncer (who asked for identification, further entrenching my apparent youth), got a silly little stamp on my hand, and went through to discover that the upstairs was now blocked with a mighty chain, giving me ten minutes to wallow on the stamp and its cause, the e-ticket. Not having to take a ticket seems like a sensible solution to things like postage costs, environmentally friendly paper savings, and not worrying about losing or fatally damaging the damned thing. However, not only are you deprived of a physical memento of your presence short of buying merchandise, but you’re also ushered to one side to check off a list, which means bringing your card for proof of purchase, a far more consequential loss than that of a ticket, and also that anyone who did get a physical ticket from the more expensive vendor could have scooted right past me. As it was, that wasn’t the case, and all of about three people had arrived by the time the chain was dismantled by a crack team of youths in cheap hats. It then took another half hour before the first support act came up, by which time about thirty people were in the room and two people had wandered briefly to the front, then away again, then back again, so, having been able to stand at the side and rest against a wall, I decided to step in. After finding myself indifferent to sets from a one man band and a six-piece that were both incredibly sluggish, I noticed that the room was almost full, maybe three hundred or so strong, except for a five foot vacuum between the front and the next row of people. Such is the nature of being as standoffish and overtly reluctant as possible if you aren’t going to step in.

The presence of the main act’s roadie sucked the crowd into that vacuum, and not long after I managed to lurch over the barrier to see the last few songs on the setlist (which contained a lot of “or” and uncertainty), Buffalo Tom were greeted warmly, and immediately launched into classics “Tree House” and “Summer”. Immediately apparent was guitarist Bill Janovitz’s dominance on stage, exaggerated by his on-and-off hat-wearing, diminishing bassist Chris Colbourn, who always seems to come across as the shy, retiring type. Janovitz also seemed determined to experiment on some unfamiliar solo licks at every opportunity, as well as change up the emphasis on vowels, which seemed to be effective in preventing people from singing along.

The band introduced a couple of new songs, with “Guilty Girls” following Colbourn’s “She’s Not Your Thing”, both from the freshly released Skins album. Colbourn’s vocal delivery was much more predictable and solid, although the latter quality evaded his memory at one point. After playing standards “Taillights Fade” and “Sunflower Suit”, Colbourn had stepped up again preparing to sing “Late At Night”. A crowd member shouted out a request for “Lost Weekend”, and Colbourn paused, and eventually shook his head and replied “I don’t even recognise that one.” Three songs down the line, he stepped up and addressed the crowd member again. “I just realised, you said ‘Lost Weekend’? That’s off the new record, isn’t it?” Drummer Tom Maginnis laughed, and Janovitz taunted.

The band went through the setlist, providing the tried and trusted formula. Slower rock ballads were interspersed with high energy songs, and older material surrounded new material. They neither fell into the trap of being a nostalgia act, nor proceeded to stuff Skins material down our throats as if it was the only thing they did that mattered. The band seemed to be having fun, and Janovitz in particular put in a lot of energy and was enjoying the variation he was throwing in. Playing until a bit after eleven, I wasn’t expecting an encore given the standard curfew, but after claiming to have found the stage door to be locked, the band did indeed respond to the encore-querying cheers after a few minutes to play a few more songs. Cries of “Staples” had echoed occasionally throughout the night, and while Colbourn seemed eager to play it, Janovitz was less keen, and picked the perfect way out. “Do you want to hear ‘Staples’, or ‘Mineral’?” Of course, the crowd opted in favour of the latter, a relative hit, albeit marginally. The band closed on a New Order cover, and left to hearty cheers.

Given that “Staples” was probably the song I wanted to hear most that was in the running, that was a mild disappointment, along with the somewhat downbeat closer. Overall though, I was pretty happy. This was the first time I went to a non-punk rock show, but there was still enough sound and energy to keep things lively enough, and the only thing that didn’t work was the harmonica, which I can most certainly live with. The drive up in a small overheated car had worked a minor miracle on a dreadful head cold I was suffering from. There was also the added bonus of not being pulverised against the front barrier by waves of youths, skinheads, circle pit runners, and youthful skinhead circle pit runners, and not living in fear of crowd surfers. The first time I saw the Dropkick Murphys a few years earlier in Oxford, I had badly bruised breasts (not that I really have them, although they probably will come with old age) and knees, which is fair enough given that the barriers are typically sheets of metal with a metal pole going across the top, but a guy two along from me got clobbered in the head by some joker crowd surfing forwards, belly up, feet first. The heel bashed the back of his head forwards, smacking his face against the barrier pole. Blood everywhere, and the poor chap probably needed a dental appointment. This is why I’m an avid supporter of stealing crowd surfers’ shoes. It’s not that cool, it’s not assault, it’s not petty theft, and the fact that you may enjoy it is irrelevant. It’s protecting the health and safety of yourself and those around you from getting a serious head injury from someone else’s selfish behaviour, and discouraging them from repeating the offence. Going into a show with the confidence that I wouldn’t be badly injured gave me the confidence to plan to drive back home, which I duly did to the sound of a China Drum tape. Given that most trains, including the one I would have needed, don’t run after about half ten, let alone half eleven when the show finally finished, that saved me a bundle on a hotel room, in which experience tells me that time is best spent wallowing in the hottest bath you can handle so that you can still move your limbs the following morning. Maybe more subdued crowds are a good thing. Maybe I’m just getting old.

Tree House (Big Red Letter Day)
Summer (Sleepy Eyed)
She’s Not Your Thing (Skins)
Guilty Girls (Skins)
Taillights Fade (Let Me Come Over)
Sunflower Suit (Buffalo Tom)
Late At Night (Big Red Letter Day)
Sunday Night (Sleepy Eyed)
Velvet Roof (Let Me Come Over)
I’m Allowed (Big Red Letter Day)
Down (Skins)
Larry (Let Me Come Over)
Sodajerk (Big Red Letter Day)
Your Stripes (Sleepy Eyed)
Arise Watch (Skins)
Kitchen Door (Sleepy Eyed)
You’ll Never Catch Him (Three Easy Pieces)
Tangerine (Sleepy Eyed)
Don’t Forget Me (Skins)
CC And Callas (Three Easy Pieces)
Mineral (Let Me Come Over)
Age Of Consent (New Order cover)

*undoubtedly contains errors in the middle section, not having an opportunity to write down the setlist right after and listening to different music for a two hour drive before getting the opportunity does affect the quality of setlist memory.