buffalo tom

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Buffalo Tom - Birdbrain

In fall of 1990, I was 14 years old and in 10th grade. A new student, who was a grade ahead of me, started at my high school that year, and was in my art class. He and I soon became good friends, having in-depth conversations while making art projects and calling each other on the phone after school to talk for an hour or two almost every day. The subject we discussed, almost to the exclusion of any other, was music. Being young for my grade, and having strict parents, I was still living a pretty strictly regimented life at the time, and short of the occasional trip to the cool record store downtown to spend my allowance, the only way I ever got any new and interesting music was from the local university radio station. At the time, the tapes I had made from the radio, and the knowledge I had picked up by obsessively reading every alternative/underground-oriented book and magazine I could find, were the only intellectual currencies I had to trade with my new friend. He, on the other hand, had played in bands, been going to shows for years, and was even old enough to drive, so he could hit up the cool record store downtown whenever he wanted. He had a lot to teach me, and I felt lucky whenever I had anything to introduce him to.

On the other hand, we were both still kids, no matter how smart and precocious we might be, and that had its effect on our interests. One really obvious way that that showed was in our obsessive collecting of VHS tapes full of MTV videos by artists we deemed as cool. When he and I first met, my part of the rural county in Virginia where we lived still did not have cable. When my friend would tell me about the tapes he had, I would salivate at the prospect of being able to watch them. Eventually, I gave him a few dollars for some blank VHS tapes, and he hooked up two VCRs together and dubbed me a few 6-hour compilations of cool MTV videos (and some non-MTV oddities, like Sonic Youth on David Sanborn’s short-lived TV show Night Music, or a 1985 MuchMusic interview with Henry Rollins about his spoken word performances). This took months, as the work inherent in even creating a 30-minute stretch of one of these tapes would consume an entire afternoon. Over the course of fall 1990 and spring 1991, my friend took some suggestions from me and some of his own initiative and cobbled several video mixes together for me.

It was on the second of those tapes, which I received just as school was letting out for Christmas that year, that I first heard Buffalo Tom. My friend had placed the “Birdbrain” video inbetween a bunch of other videos that I’d requested, all most likely from the same episode of 120 Minutes. I didn’t know who the hell Buffalo Tom were, but I was immediately taken with the song. It had that same gritty guitar tone that I’d come to love from Dinosaur Jr records—which made sense, as both bands were from the same part of Massachusetts, on the same label (SST), and J Mascis even produced the first two Buffalo Tom records. And yet, the early criticisms of Buffalo Tom as “Dinosaur Jr Jr,” often dispensed by a gleefully iconoclastic fanzine press who always seemed primed for the first excuse that allowed them to dismiss a band, rang false to me. When that first chorus of “Birdbrain” rolled around, the acoustic guitars came in behind the buzzing distortion, and Bill Janovitz raised his voice into a high, tuneful wail that was more achingly catchy than anything Dinosaur Jr had ever done up to that point. Buffalo Tom liked to rock out, and that was great—that’s what initially set the hook for me. But it was the fact that they weren’t afraid to get really melodic that really made me a fan.

And then there were their lyrics, which, truthfully, I couldn’t understand about half the time. Looking at lyric websites now, I find lines like “Shoe straps and eyelashes, washing my brain” somewhat incomprehensible even when they’re spelled out before my eyes. But the final lines of each verse: “They say I’m a birdbrain—if I am, then can I just fly away?” Well, that was enough to break my little 14 year old heart. The uncomfortable reality is that I would not be writing about Buffalo Tom today, that I would not consider them one of my all-time favorite bands, if it weren’t for my lifelong history of depression, alienation, and loneliness. Like it or not (and I almost never do), feeling crappy and out of place made me who I am today. I think a lot of what I was looking for when I got into alternative music and culture was a place where I could be accepted and celebrated for who I was. It would not be true to say I found that, but that’s another essay for another time (one that will probably have a lot to do with the bee girl from Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video). But I did find a lot of really great songs written by people who understood, and were often expressing, the same feelings I lived with on a daily basis. Living out in the middle of nowhere, where everyone loved country music and jacked-up trucks, it was hard to feel like anyone understood me. But when I turned to the records I listened to, I could at least hear from other people who’d been in the same place I was. And that helped, a little bit. “Birdbrain” was just the first of many songs Buffalo Tom wrote that touched me on that level.

I also want to talk about the way their music resonated for me, separate from the lyrics. It’s tough for me to describe Buffalo Tom’s music to other people, considering that in my mind, they are kind of their own genre. I’m much more likely to say something sounds like Buffalo Tom, as if that explains everything about a record or a band, than to try and define what Buffalo Tom sounds like. However, I also have been playing their records pretty constantly for two decades. They are a personal musical touchstone for me. They are not that for very many people, though, and so I want to try and translate what it is about “Birdbrain,” and about Buffalo Tom’s music as a whole, that I connect with so strongly (I’m sure I will get into this more over the course of this week).

I may have hated growing up in the country for how isolating it was, and how uncomfortable with the predominant culture of rural Virginia that I generally am, but there were a lot of things about growing up in the area where I’m from that I feel like were a blessing. Whenever I go back to the country, even now, I can’t get over how beautiful it all is. As wonderful as it is that a 7-11 and a Subway sub shop are each a 5 minute walk from my house right now, there was something pretty fucking amazing about walking for an hour down the road I lived on and passing a dozen houses, two wooded areas, and a pasture full of cows. That was how I used to pass my afternoons as a teenager a lot of times—between when I got home from school and when I ate dinner, I would go for long walks with my Walkman. A lot of times the music I listened to sounded like Buffalo Tom, or Dinosaur Jr—I also really liked the early Pavement EPs later collected on Westing (By Musket And Sextant), and the stuff R.E.M. released on IRS. Buffalo Tom were the band out of all of those bands that most exemplified a musical quality that I’ve come to think of as “pastoral.” That’s a literary term I learned in college, which really just refers to people writing poetry in the 18th century about frolicking in meadows in the English countryside and stuff like that. To me, Buffalo Tom’s music has that same joyful connection with gorgeous rural countrysides that Wordsworth’s poetry had. It’s something about the way their guitars sound, the way they overlay distorted electric noise with cleanly strummed acoustic guitar tracks—a trick made far more famous by J Mascis, though I’m really not sure whether he or Bill Janovitz and company were doing it first. Regardless, Buffalo Tom do a lot more with that sound than Dinosaur Jr does, so I tend to associate it with them. And when I listen to their records, I think of walking down country roads with the sun shining down and everything looking perfect. And being FUCKING MISERABLE—because oh god, I was so terribly miserable as an adolescent—and wanting nothing more than to get the fuck out of where I was and start my real life already. But at the same time, I was surrounded by such unspoiled beauty, and there was always a little part of me that knew it. That’s what I love about Buffalo Tom—they could have screamed and howled those same lyrics over dark, noisy music with no melody at all, and maybe I would have connected with them just as strongly (I also listened to a lot of Black Sabbath and Slayer in high school). But they chose to integrate the beauty of the world into the whole thing, and bring to life that terrible contrast that is the crux of a lot of my depression, when I feel it: that the world around you is amazing and wonderful, and you’d love to feel like you are a part of it. But you’re just not. You’re outside looking in, and that makes it feel almost worse than if you didn’t know that good things could exist in the world.

If I am, then can I just fly away?


Buffalo Tom - Birdbrain

Having mentioned that the “Birdbrain” video was actually how I first heard Buffalo Tom, I’d be remiss if I didn’t post it too. It’s funny how these things work now—I own the Birdbrain album on vinyl, cassette, and mp3, and can listen to this song whenever and wherever I want, but back in 1990 and 1991, when I could barely afford to buy used cassettes for $2 a pop during my monthly record shopping excursions, I had to play the videotape of this song on the VCR in my parents’ basement whenever I wanted to hear it. Before today, I probably hadn’t watched this video in at least 15 years, but the images from it are all burned into my brain, and watching this video was one long, continual shock of recognition. I still can’t hear the song without thinking of Buffalo Tom drummer Tom Maginnis, his hair hanging in his face, drawing on a cigar as the song starts. The image of the girl riding her bike down a street in a small town during the first chorus is also pretty inseparable from the song as a whole, as is the shirtless guy standing in the bed of a truck waving his arms around like he’s trying to fly. What’s weird, though, is that my old videotape of this song was entirely in black and white. Maybe that had something to do with the low-quality high-generation copy I had—when you dub something too many times, the color starts to leech out of it. On the other hand, those color shots look like old TCM broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life, with the “colorization” process in effect, like they were colored in later. So maybe the original video was all black and white, and it’s been restored sometime in the past two decades. The important thing is that I remember every single shot in this video, even the ones I haven’t thought of in 17 years. The hand plucking the spider off the top of a sandwich. The cat jumping 12 feet or so out of the arms of someone sitting in a tree, then glaring at the camera. The ice cubes bouncing across a shiny floor. Buffalo Tom playing the song in a field after dark while spectators set off firecrackers at their feet. All of it. This is a piece of my childhood right here.

To take things back a little ways, here is the video for “Sunflower Suit,” from Buffalo Tom’s self-titled 1988 debut album on SST. The self-titled album is a bit spottier than the next four albums they released (Birdbrain, Let Me Come Over, Big Red Letter Day, and Sleepy Eyed—all classics), and even the best songs do show a heavy influence from producer J Mascis—far more than he had on Birdbrain. I never saw or heard “Sunflower Suit” until years after owning and loving Birdbrain, and although I do love the self-titled album like it’s one of my own children, I admit that I understand why those who heard that record first may have dismissed Buffalo Tom as a second-rate band. The “Dinosaur Jr. Jr.” putdown actually doesn’t make as much sense when you hear the album as a whole—it contains quite a few dark acoustic numbers that remind me more of Rain Parade than anything Dinosaur Jr ever did. And in fact, the CD reissue of the self-titled album that came out on Beggars Banquet in the mid-90s contains a Rain Parade cover as a bonus track. As far as I’m concerned, Bill Janovitz was and is more talented than David Roback—my apologies to the Opal/Mazzy Star fans among you—but clearly, his work with Rain Parade was a prime early influence. Buffalo Tom got a lot better once they started to sound more like themselves.

This is kind of a cheat—a youtube audio-only track of Buffalo Tom’s “Impossible”—but I ultimately decided that I couldn’t waste one of my five mp3s on an example of how Buffalo Tom sounded before they really got good. However, this was initially going to be my Monday track. It’s probably the best song from the self-titled album, and has some pretty great qualities, though what’s most interesting about it are probably its flaws. The lead guitar break between verses, played by J Mascis and mixed way louder than the rest of the song on purpose, works well with the rest of the track, but makes Buffalo Tom sound a lot more like Dinosaur Jr here than I’ll bet they ever did when they played this song live. Lyrically, “Impossible” consists of little more than “And if it’s true, I will believe you. And if you’re sure, say no more,” plus a few other frequently-repeated lines. The lyrical genius to come on “Birdbrain” and other songs we’ll talk about this week is in no evidence here. And by the end of the song, you start feeling like it should have had one less verse and so have ended already. But whatever, it’s still pretty great (said the incurable fanboy), and I wanted to post it and show you guys that even when they aren’t at their best, Buffalo Tom are still worthy of more than brusque dismissal.

OK, that’s all I’ve got for you today—we’ll pick up tomorrow with Buffalo Tom’s third and, almost surely, their best album.

Let Me Come Over is Buffalo Tom’s third album, released on Beggar’s Banquet Records in 1992. Don’t get me wrong, I love every album Buffalo Tom have ever released, and I think several of them are inarguable classics. But Let Me Come Over is almost certainly their finest hour. It’s the first Buffalo Tom album made without the involvement of J Mascis. Instead, the band returned to Fort Apache studios, where they’d made their first two albums, and basically produced themselves. Fort Apache owners Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade are credited as co-producers on the album, and doubtless they had some input, but it’s clear that this is a band who has come into their own, and are now controlling their own sound. That pastoral quality in their music shines through even more clearly on this album, with the heavy guitar distortion pretty much gone in favor of a cleaner sound that gains energy and urgency through the way the songs are played rather than the equipment used to play them. Let Me Come Over may be less immediately catchy as a result—I’ve never really considered it before, but it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have gotten into Buffalo Tom as easily had I not started with the noisier Birdbrain. But why worry about that at this point? What’s important is that this album is a classic, one on which I could much more quickly list the songs I DON’T absolutely love than the ones that are hugely important to me. If I could, I’d post at least eight songs from this album. High-res

Let Me Come Over is Buffalo Tom’s third album, released on Beggar’s Banquet Records in 1992. Don’t get me wrong, I love every album Buffalo Tom have ever released, and I think several of them are inarguable classics. But Let Me Come Over is almost certainly their finest hour. It’s the first Buffalo Tom album made without the involvement of J Mascis. Instead, the band returned to Fort Apache studios, where they’d made their first two albums, and basically produced themselves. Fort Apache owners Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade are credited as co-producers on the album, and doubtless they had some input, but it’s clear that this is a band who has come into their own, and are now controlling their own sound. That pastoral quality in their music shines through even more clearly on this album, with the heavy guitar distortion pretty much gone in favor of a cleaner sound that gains energy and urgency through the way the songs are played rather than the equipment used to play them. Let Me Come Over may be less immediately catchy as a result—I’ve never really considered it before, but it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have gotten into Buffalo Tom as easily had I not started with the noisier Birdbrain. But why worry about that at this point? What’s important is that this album is a classic, one on which I could much more quickly list the songs I DON’T absolutely love than the ones that are hugely important to me. If I could, I’d post at least eight songs from this album.

Buffalo Tom - Darl

Well, this is it. This is pretty much what this whole week is about. If you put a gun to my head and demanded that I pick one Buffalo Tom song to represent their entire recorded output, I’d pick “Darl.” There are a lot of perfectly rational reasons why I shouldn’t do that—the main one being that it’s one of the two or so songs per album where guitarist Bill Janovitz cedes the lead vocal role to bassist Chris Colbourn. Colbourn is kind of the Grant Hart to Janovitz’s Bob Mould—capable of writing good songs, and will shock you on occasion, but for the most part, his songs are the weaker ones on a Buffalo Tom album. That said, “Darl” stands as the biggest shock of his entire songwriting career, the one time on a Buffalo Tom album when one of his songs was better than every song Bill Janovitz had contributed. It shouldn’t be, either; it’s a three-chord verse and a two-chord chorus, played at the same tempo and with the same energy, and that’s it. The whole song is over in less than three minutes—one of the only Buffalo Tom songs you can say that about, and the shortest song on Let Me Come Over by a 30-second margin.

But none of that matters, because the passion Colbourn and Buffalo Tom put into this song overrides it all. The first time I heard it, it was playing on the local college radio station, and even before I knew who it was, I was really glad that I had a blank tape in my cassette deck, capturing the whole thing. When the DJ back-announced what she had played, I was surprised and pleased to learn that it was a Buffalo Tom song that had jumped out at me that way. I’d heard a few of their tunes by that point—“Birdbrain” and “Fortune Teller,” which were the two MTV videos from Birdbrain, plus “Velvet Roof,” which had been played by another college radio DJ, and “Taillights Fade,” the MTV video from Let Me Come Over, about which more later. But I’d never heard Chris Colbourn sing, and even “Birdbrain” hadn’t had the energy of “Darl,” so of course I didn’t guess that it was the same band. A funny side note: when she back-announced the songs, the DJ read the wrong song title off of her copy of Let Me Come Over. For quite a while, I thought this song was called “Larry,” the excellent Bill Janovitz tune that follows it on the album. I figured it out when I dubbed Let Me Come Over from a friend of mine who went to a different high school, whom I had met through drama club, but that was months later.

Buffalo Tom lyrics, whether they’re written by Janovitz or Colbourn, tend to be vague. I don’t consider this a bad thing; in fact, both of them are talented lyricists, and Janovitz gets quite poetic at times (more on that later as well). But they never write a song that is specific enough to prevent the listener from applying a great deal of different interpretations to it. I think this is part of what I liked so much about their songs back when I was in high school and college—if a line from a song seemed like it had something to do with what I was going through at the time, it was never much of a problem to stretch the rest of the lyrics to fit onto what I was going through. In my mind, I could sing along with that song and be singing it to or about some specific person or group of people in my life. It was never an awkward match. And yeah, there’s definitely a particular situation that existed in my senior year of high school, when this album came out, that the lyrics to “Darl” fit with in my mind. I don’t want to get into the details, because we’re talking about a song, not my life (no matter how easily I tend towards confusion and blurring of distinctions between the two over the course of my usual writings), and because, more importantly, it’s a painful memory. But I’ve applied these lyrics to plenty of other situations since, and I have a feeling that a lot of people can relate to the ideas herein, so since it’s a pretty universal song in the end, let’s get into it.

"I’m not crying for you," Colbourn announces as the song begins, over Janovitz strumming an acoustic guitar. The first few lines are quiet and mostly acoustic, though Colbourn’s bass and a second guitar track, this one electric, are lingering around underneath the acoustic rhythm guitar, playing a few understated melodic notes as accents and waiting for things to get rolling. Before they do, though, Colbourn says, "I’ll let the angels mourn you. I’m just trying to understand." Lyrically, these first few lines set the tone for the entire song, which says a lot of things that I’m typically too scared to say. My perception of "Darl“‘s lyrics is that the song is written from the point of view of someone who has been trying to pretend like everything’s fine, but deep down, he wants to be seen through. And then he reaches out to another person who also seems depressed, and that other person is dismissive of his attempts to help. So he just kind of snaps, and says everything he’s been thinking but not saying for a long time. And that’s where we are in the song as Colbourn sings, "I’m just trying to understand," and Tom Maginnis does a huge snare roll and brings the whole band in.

Now, musically, from here on in the song basically stays the same until the very end. Verse-chorus-verse, all played at a frenetic tempo, with plenty of loud guitar and pounding drums. And yet, the song still manages to steadily increase in intensity as it goes, entirely due to the vocals. Colbourn grows more and more agitated as he sings, starting immediately after the band kicks in, as he sings, “I’m calling but you just keep on walking.” There’s more to that line—some counting, maybe a name—but I’ve never really understood what he’s saying there, and the words that lyric websites tell me fill in the gaps in my understanding just don’t sound right. So whatever, who knows what else is being said there. It doesn’t matter. What Colbourn is singing here basically translates to, “I’m reaching out for you, and you don’t seem to care.” He tries to make clear that he’s serious, and that he’s in just as much pain as whoever he’s addressing—“I can’t laugh at all that matters, I can’t sleep at night without a scare.” But it doesn’t work, and so he only grows more agitated, finishing the chorus by gasping out “I’m just trying to make a change.”

This is where things get really intense. The second verse has lines in it that have hit home for me almost every day of my life. As Bill Janovitz sings wordless harmonies, Colbourn gets more and more upset, leaving the melody behind and getting closer to outright yelling. “I am sick of your goldfish manners,” he sings. “I am sick of being in my head!” I know how that feels. And I know the next lines even better: “No one talks about my problems. No one really cares if I’m not here.” That line strikes deeper than I even want to admit. I’ve felt like that so many times—that even when I’m trying to have a serious conversation about how I feel, the other person is just waiting for their turn to speak. There have been times where I’ve wanted to say something like, “You sit here and tell me how terrible you feel, but at least someone cares. At least I’m sitting here and listening. No one cares about me! NOT EVEN YOU.” The thing I really think of here is those fights you get into towards the end of a relationship that isn’t working out. Whenever I’ve been through those last apocalyptic fights, the ones that precede the inevitable breakup by a few days or weeks, I’ve always been the one trying to hold things together and keep the other person from pulling the plug, whereas the other person usually doesn’t seem to care anymore. They let me have it with both barrels, as I desperately attempt to calm them down. Those are the times when I most want to spit the lyrics to this song right back into their face. And then roll right into the next chorus, where Chris Colbourn tries to prove that he deserves better than that. “But I ain’t cryin’ for ya,” he says. “My greenest eyes are for you.” He’s like me—still trying, still walking on eggshells in a most likely vain effort to keep things cool. But then he says something that always kills me. “I’ll get up and fly someday.” It’s like he knows that he is made for better than this, and the hope to get to that better place is all that keeps him hanging on. At the same time, though, the way he delivers the line makes clear how hard it is to hold onto that hope. “I’ll get up and fly some…” he gasps, and runs out of air. Bang! Bill Janovitz launches into a fast, anguished solo, leaving Colbourn behind. After a few seconds of soloing, he manages to finish the last word: “…someday.” But it’s hard to imagine that he believes all that fervently in what he’s saying there.

Even though the song is fiery throughout, the last verse is the big climactic moment, the one where everything explodes and flaming wreckage smashes down all around us. “Hold my hand and hold my temper, hold my ticket while I go away,” Colbourn sings. “Because all the earth, all the angels, all the crystal crosses are the same.” I’m not sure what the religious iconography means here, but I get the idea nonetheless. He’s done with fighting it out, done trying to make things better. He’s out, he’s gone. But would he really be saying it if it weren’t for some final hope, deep down, that saying it will make things better? That’s what makes the last line of the last chorus so hard to take: “I’m trying to pretend!” Colbourn all but screams, the vague amounts of melody left in his voice contrasted by Janovitz in the background, nowhere near a mic, screaming incoherently. This is it, the big crashing explosion.

And then, as the drums stop and the electric guitars come in for a final crash landing, we get the same acoustic strumming that started the whole thing off. And over this brief, quiet coda, Colbourn repeats the lines about calling as you just keep on walking. It’s like he’s burned himself out, and this is all of the energy he has left. The song’s final seconds are the sound of a kind of surrender, an admission of the futility of trying to connect, trying to find another person who can soothe your own personal pain.

Or at least that’s what I heard when I was 16 years old, and it’s probably what I’ll always hear when I hear this song. I feel really lucky, after years of therapy, to have worked myself back from the ledge a bit, so that I don’t really have days where these sorts of feelings are right at the surface anymore. But I’ll always know what it’s like, because this is a place where I spent too many years of my life. 

Let me start by saying that I do not necessarily hate “Taillights Fade,” the main single from Let Me Come Over. It’s not a bad song, and I certainly understand why they picked it as the big representative for the entire album. Ballads do well with the radio and the MTV, and some fast rave-up would probably not have reached as many people. That’s fine. But I’m still kind of bitter about how well known this song is compared to other Buffalo Tom tunes. I try to talk about how much I like them, and people go, “Oh yeah, I guess ‘Talllights Fade’ is pretty decent at that.” It makes me want to scream, because in my mind I’m thinking, “But that’s like their WORST SONG!” And no, it isn’t really their worst song, not by any stretch. But it’s just not a very good candidate to be one of their best-known songs. I mean, it could be worse—we could be having the discussion about another great power pop band, Nada Surf. When you bring up that band and everyone just thinks of their one crossover hit, “Popular,” it’s enough to make a fan claw their eyeballs out. “Popular” is kind of a joke song, it sounds nothing like the rest of their stuff, and pretty much any other Nada Surf song (“Stalemate,” “Always Love,” “Weightless”… you name it) is orders of magnitude better. OK, enough about that, this is a Buffalo Tom post, not a Nada Surf post.

Anyway, I’m just saying that most of Let Me Come Over is way better than this song. If they wanted to release a ballad as a single, I would really prefer “Mineral,” but songs like “Staples,” “Mountains Of Your Head,” and “Saving Grace” seem like even better candidates than that.