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

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