Buffalo Tom.

Summer seems to be coming to an end here in Richmond. This is the American South, so it seems a bit strange for the nights to be getting cold, for the sizzle to be leaving the air, with a few days still left in the official calendar period set aside for this season. Generally, this part of the country still feels like summer until at least mid-October, sometimes quite a bit later. And I can't imagine that things won't warm up again sometime in the next week or two, and give us the requisite indian summer that'll carry us through until the usual time when it cools off for good. But right now, it's almost 2 in the morning, and the air blowing through my bedroom window has a chill to it.

Which makes it fitting that I'm listening to the new Buffalo Tom album, their first in a decade, which I downloaded last week. Man... normally I wouldn't care at all, but I feel like a bad person even typing those words in the same sentence. Downloaded. Buffalo Tom. Buffalo Tom are not only one of my favorite bands of all time, I feel a serious psychic connection to their music. I own every one of their previous six albums, half of them in multiple formats. I am a true believer where this band is concerned. Several of my friends learned the hard way years ago that a great way to set me off is to say, "Oh, Buffalo Tom? That band from 'My So-Called Life'? That was a real band? I thought they were made up just for the show." Holy shit, that drives me crazy. Therefore, of course, I feel like an asshole for not having already ponied up the $15 it'll take to get me a copy of their new CD. Bill Janovitz, Chris Colbourn, and Tom Maginnis need my money. So what's my problem?

Well, maybe it's the same thing that's making me listen to this album so much lately. I'm just not feeling all that great right now. I can't help but blame the change in the weather, either--this whole thing started at the same time that everything cooled off by ten or so degrees. Fall and, especially, winter always bum me out. I don't know what it is about those seasons, but they just feel lonely. It's like, whenever things start getting a bit colder, I start thinking, "Well, another year is drawing to a close, and what do I have to show for it?" Not a good question for me to ask, ever. Life feels pretty good on a day to day basis. In fact, ever since the bad-date incident last December (see my blog entry pertaining to Drowningman's "My First Restraining Order"), when after a week of feeling like cutting my insides out with a rusty screwdriver, I stepped back and said, "This is fucking ridiculous and I'm tired of feeling like crap," I've been doing quite well. But I can't examine anything that should stand as a long term indicator of how my life is doing without feeling crappy. Let's look at the facts--I'm over 30 and so incredibly single that I haven't actually had a girlfriend in nearly three years. I tipped the scales at 230 pounds last week, more than I've ever weighed in my life, and I can see it in my gut. Granted, since I am built like a refrigerator, it doesn't show on me the way that weight would show on a lot of people, but it doesn't make me feel good. I still haven't gotten paid for a single piece of my writing--and despite constantly swearing that I'm going to try to make that happen, fact is, I haven't even sent anything to anyone. The novel I started working on in January still consists of less than 10,000 words, some of which are in terribly rough form. See? I shouldn't do things like this, ever. It's not a good idea.

Even before they wrote what is, to my mind, their most insightful song, I always associated Buffalo Tom with this feeling. There's a yearning, mournful quality to many of their best songs, which often mix minor-key riffs with a pastoral feel that always makes me think of drving through the Virginia countryside where I grew up, and laid over all of this are brilliant lyrics that use vague yet perfect phrases to encapsulate a mood that could occur in any one of dozens of circumstances. Man, that's a convoluted sentence. I hope it made sense, because I'm not editing this one at ALL. Anyway, the perfect Buffalo Tom song, the one I would play for anyone who didn't know anything about them to explain everything that they might need to know, is "Summer", track two from their fifth album, "Sleepy Eyed". It has that minor-key mournful thing going on, and its chorus is: "Summer's gone, we've wasted every day." That's it, right there--in those six words, everything I feel every year when the weather starts turning colder. And they have a lot of other songs with that feel, too. All of them are brilliant in their own way. "Summer" may be the Platonic form for a Buffalo Tom song, but it's only in my top ten or so of their songs. There are some I like significantly better than it.

I'm pretty sure that track one from their new album, "Three Easy Pieces", will be joining that list. "Bad Phone Call" begins Bill Janovitz singing a sort of wordless sigh, his guitar feeding back underneath of it, just for a second, until the whole band comes in with a classic minor-key Buffalo Tom melody. It's one of their slower tunes, which used to be a bad sign back on the first few albums when they still hadn't figured out how to do slow as well as they always did uptempo. But ever since "Larry", from 1991's "Let Me Come Over", Buffalo Tom have been proving over and over that they can do slow material well, and indeed, make it just as classic as their faster songs. "Bad Phone Call" does that musically, and lyrically uses the indelible image that makes up the title as a metaphor, a jumping-off point for a tale of dramatic, painful depression. As usual, they don't get specific enough for the listener to really pin down what exactly they're singing about, but they use this vagueness to hit upon a deeper truth, in a manner that brings to mind Raymond Carver, in some weird way (cue thousands of literature students scoffing). This song also has the distinction of being the first Buffalo Tom track on which both Bill Janovitz and Chris Colbourn sing lead at different points. After that first wordless chorus, in which Janovitz sings by himself, Colbourn starts to sing lyrics over the sad sighing Janovitz vocals. "I'll leave the boxes on the kitchen floor, and then I'll lock the door", he says, which could be a reference to anything, but, as with the song's title, is an evocative phrase just on its own.

Things pick up with the title track, a Colbourn lead vocal that's driven by a throbbing, melodic bass line which picks out a counterpoint to the descending guitar chords Janovitz plays overtop of it. This song moves quickly, and mixes that same old Dinosaur Jr-ish distorted-classic-rock feel that's stuck with these guys since J Mascis produced their first album with a hint of something more British, maybe even a bit of Creation Records influence. Maybe I'm hearing things, but it's definitely at least a little bit different from Colbourn's usual songwriting style, and since I don't generally like his songs quite as much as Janovitz's, this is a welcome divergence. Janovitz gets up to his usual brilliant tricks on the classic Buffalo Tom rocker "Bottom Of The Rain", which presents another classic chorus: "All the questions that I never got to ask you, like: Where'd they go? Where are all those golden years?" A sentiment that's only too easy to understand for me--and will probably bite that much harder when the birthday I'm on the wrong side of is not my 30th but my 40th, as is the case for these guys. On the song's bridge, Janovitz talks of a "phone call from a friend so far away, asking me if I remember days..." He sounds like he's experiencing a sort of bittersweet nostalgia, remembering times that may not have been that great, but when he definitely felt more alive, more vital than he does now. Or maybe that's me, projecting. Because dudes, college was hell. But I can't hear this record without sort of wishing I was back there. I want the chance to try again. To feel the things that seemed so pure, so important then. These days, everything is so dulled out. I used to fall in love with so many people all the time... now I don't fall in love with anyone. And I think that's what Janovitz is trying to evoke with the next song, "Lost Downtown." Again, maybe. It's hard to tell. But this song seems to be about trying to find a way to see the overly familiar with fresh eyes, to reconnect with something vital that has been lost in day to day routines. "Gotta have some souls around me to see, right now." Yeah, that's another feeling I know, and miss--maybe the reason I never fall in love with anyone anymore is because I don't get forced by circumstance into big social groups that I haven't chosen myself anymore. No more school hallways in which to spy pretty girls that I don't know, but who might know a friend of a friend that can introduce me. These days, the only times I feel like I'm seeing anyone new are when I'm working, behind the counter in the bookstore in the upscale shopping district downtown. And lots of times, I wish I could get up from behind that counter and just walk out the door into that mass of people. Am I projecting again? I think I've always projected on this band. It's probably why I love them so much.

But it's not something random--I didn't pick them to project onto for no reason. Their songs have an evocative feel that I just can't deny. Something about the way they put chords together into melodies, the way they connect melodies together into songs, the lyrics they write and sing over those songs, it all combines to bring reactions about deep down inside of me, on a level that I don't completely understand. It feels like this band unlocks a piece of my soul that very few other musicians have any access to. And I love a lot of music, so that's a pretty strong statement for me to make, but I stand by it completely. And it's even more remarkable that they could disappear for a fucking DECADE and come back so strong, with an album that's as good as any others they've ever released (OK, maybe not as good as "Let Me Come Over" and "Sleepy Eyed", but better than "Smitten" and probably better than "Birdbrain" too--though don't get me wrong, I fuckin love both of those albums like they're my children). I've barely even mentioned the actual songs on here, and what has come out has been disorganized babble for the most part--I know, I can tell when what I'm writing in this blog isn't exactly deathless prose. But that's where my head's at right now, because I'm kind of a mess, and Buffalo Tom can't really do anything to help that.

But they can make me feel better. Because they understand. I hear it in every note they play. And thank god for that.

Buffalo Tom - Bad Phone Call
Buffalo Tom - Bottom Of The Rain



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