Whenever I go back to my parents' house, I find myself wanting to listen to Buffalo Tom. They were one of my favorite bands back when I was in high school, and driving through the hills and fields of rural Virginia, around my parents' house, never fails to get their songs stuck in my head. Even without all of the memories I have of driving around that area back when I still lived there, listening to Buffalo Tom tapes, their music is naturally evocative of that sort of setting anyway. I guess you could call it heartland rock, though that's not all there is to them.
Most of the bands that I'd put on a list of my favorites ever are bands that almost everyone has heard, and has an opinion on. There are a few, though, that despite my personal love for them, have almost completely been forgotten by the world at large. Buffalo Tom is one of those. When I mention them, if anyone I'm talking to remembers them, it is almost always because they were featured on an episode of "My So-Called Life". In fact, a lot of people think they were a band that the writers of that show made up. So much for that particular PR gambit... not that it matters now.
I have no idea why Buffalo Tom have disappeared so completely from the minds of so many. A lot of their CDs are available at used CD stores for $5 or less, and they're worth every penny they'd cost you and a good bit more besides. They're easily written off by people who've never actually heard them as third rate also-rans of the early 90s alternative rock movement, but they had so much more going on than that. I hear echoes of what they were doing in such diverse places as early Uncle Tupelo, Dinosaur Jr, and Ordination of Aaron (the only hardcore band I've ever heard who could be described as sounding pastoral). The Dinosaur Jr echoes are understandable, considering J Mascis was their earliest proponent, and produced their SST debut. A few overt Dinosaur touches showed up on this album, most notably the lead guitar on "Impossible", which was played by J Mascis and mixed extremely loud. This might have been a pure ego move on the part of Buffalo Tom's producer, but even if so it works really well, adding a note of discord to what is otherwise just a straight up rock song, albeit an incredibly catchy one. This was always Buffalo Tom's biggest strength; they weren't breaking any new ground by any stretch, but they wrote incredibly catchy songs.
They did this with varying amounts of success on their first album; "Impossible" and "Sunflower Suit" were highlights, but there were also duds on display, such as "500,000 Warnings." Their second album, "Birdbrain", was when they came into their own, and it started on the chorus to the opening title track. This was the first Buffalo Tom song I ever heard, when the video was played on MTV's "120 Minutes" sometime in 1990. I was already into it before the chorus hit, but when it did, I was nearly knocked out of my chair. The idea that a guitar driven rock band could flawlessly integrate the kind of pure pop hook that this chorus was based around into their sound was completely new to me, and I couldn't get over how great it was. This began my love affair with Buffalo Tom's music.
Things got more intense on their third album, "Let Me Come Over". Now, in addition to mixing pop hooks with crunching rock guitars and a pounding rhythm section, guitarist/vocalist Bill Janovitz was finding ways, through lyrics as well as music, to make the kind of emotionally evocative music that has always touched me on the deepest levels. I was still a bit fuzzy on how possible this sort of integration even was, so songs like "Porchlight" and "Mountains of Your Head" were a powerful shock to my system, mixing riffing that made me run around my room playing air guitar with lines like "What's on your mind? If it's on your tongue you should speak," and "It's like the man said, 'I ain't here on business.' It's all work anyway". The stories they told felt real to me at a point in my life when metal's revenge fantasies and punk rock's vague polemics didn't have much to offer. Bassist/vocalist Chris Colbourn started to reveal himself as an impressive songwriter also, especially on "Darl", which began, "I ain't cryin for ya. I'll let the angels mourn ya. I'm just trying to understand," and went on to tell the story of being pushed away by a loved one in excruciating detail.
This was just as much what made me love Buffalo Tom as their incredible ability to come up with catchy yet powerful rock riffs. They always had a story to tell in their lyrics, and it was generally a story of unrequited love, alienation and loneliness, subjects I thought about a lot myself (and still do, more than I'd like to admit). They could have riddled their words with cliches as so many other bands did, left you with lyrics that only sounded good until you really thought about them and realized how insubstantial and even dumb they were. Instead, Janovitz and, occasionally, Colbourn went the extra mile to come up with lyrics that sounded good even on their own, and were amazing when laid over the kind of exceptional music they were given as backing.
Buffalo Tom's streak of excellent albums continued up until the very end of their career. Their peak was "Sleepy Eyed", their fifth album, which contained fourteen songs and still left the listener wanting more. There was one misstep in "Twenty Points", which featured heavy-handed lyrics decrying spousal abuse and a melody that was too slow and never really went anywhere. The subject was certainly a worthy one to preach against, but perhaps Buffalo Tom weren't the best band to write overt social commentary. Their strengths obviously lay elsewhere. However, the other songs on the album were flawless no matter what sound they tackled, from slow, mournful ballads ("Sunday Nights") to ominous-sounding midpaced tracks ("Summer") to upbeat songs with a positive sound, even if the love they described was still unrequited ("Sundress", "It's You").
Buffalo Tom finally broke up after their sixth album, "Smitten", and it was probably good that they did. The distorted edge to their guitar sound, which had always kept things focused on rocking no matter how far they drifted into pop territory, was starting to dull, and although I'd say they were still far from adult contemporary, some felt they were sliding in that direction. There were still plenty of amazing songs on this album, including "White Paint Morning" and "Scottish Windows", which I would rank amongst their best songs ever. That said, inspiration seemed to be wearing thin, and it's best that they quit while they were ahead, rather than ending their career ignobly, foisting duds upon the public and slowly winnowing away at their fanbase by doing so.
Buffalo Tom have been gone for over half a decade, and I've played all of their records so many times by now that sometimes I'll go months without even contemplating putting any of them on. However, all it takes is a trip back to the Virginia countryside where I come from, especially on those days when it's sunny outside and I'm driving in the middle of the day because I've got a holiday from work and I'm on the way to spend it with my family, to put them back in the forefront of my mind. At times like that, Buffalo Tom are perfect, and I'm sure they always will be. I can't imagine that I'll ever get tired of hearing their music, even if the day comes that I'm the only one who remembers them at all.