Buffalo Tom – Three Easy Pieces

Buffalo Tom
Three Easy Pieces

When Buffalo Tom slipped-off into hibernation sometime after 1998’s feloniously-spurned Smitten, it appeared like the end was pretty much nigh for the Bostonian power-trio. For many fans, 2000’s Asides and 2002’s Besides compilations felt like admirable, albeit bittersweet, acts of closure. And when singer/guitarist Bill Janovitz talked rather dismissively about a recording reunion in interviews for his even more overlooked solo releases, it seemed like there was never going to be a right time or reason for Buffalo Tom to exist beyond the occasional US live show and the CD/vinyl racks of ruefully-maturing followers of seminal college-rock. So why does summer 2007 unexpectedly find Janovitz, singer/bassist Chris Colbourn and drummer Tom Maginnis back with a brand new album that cuts it with some of their best work?

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons why, but it may have something to do with the more positive climate that Buffalo Tom’s unpretentious yet impossibly passionate breed of rugged folk-rock now finds itself. With the reunified original line-up of Dinosaur Jr., a reconfigured/relaunched Lemonheads, ongoing deluxe reissue campaigns for Pavement, Sebadoh et al. and a resurgent interest in Kristin Hersh, Buffalo Tom’s broad guitar-slinging peer group is finally enjoying its due historical recognition. Couple such retrospective warmth with The Hold Steady’s success in picking-up the baton from Buffalo Tom’s Hüsker Dü-meets-early-Springsteen marathon running, and it looks/sounds like 2007 is pretty much the best time in a nearly decade for a freshly-baked Buffalo Tom LP. Such zeitgeist-matching speculation aside, there’s more than likely been plenty of ‘internal’ impulses to push these three old friends back into the studio too; whether it be to take a break from fatherhood-necessitating day-jobs, to complete some ‘unfinished business’ or to just recapture the thrill of making music together again. Whatever the reasons behind it all, it ultimately matters little when the end-product is so assuredly well-built.

Neither too mature (i.e. boring), nor too desperately age-defying (i.e. embarrassing), Three Easy Pieces potently reenergizes older Tom trademarks as well as imprinting a few new ones. Put in lazier chronologically-contextual terms, this 13-song collection is sonically and thematically pitched somewhere the loose raw power of 1995’s Sleepy Eyed and the eclectic craftsmanship of Smitten. This means that there are indeed many direct connections to the rich Buffalo back catalogue, but not in a laurel-resting or obviously-retreading kind of way.

Traditionalists craving more sprightly and gutsy anthems – driven by layered meshes of acoustic and eclectic guitars and Janovitz’s earthy tones – will certainly not be disappointed by the “Tangerine”-flavoured chug of “September Shirt”, the scorching “Summer”-sized “Bottom of the Rain” and the vivacious “Velvet Roof”-echoing of “Good Girl”. Those who preferred the intangible tenderness of “Larry” will certainly feel their heart-strings strained by the evocative “You’ll Never Catch Him”. Whilst anyone previously enrapt by the threesome’s occasional Neil Young-nodding epics – such as the sublime “Sunday Night” from Sleepy Eyed – will be kept in thrall by the pedal-steel laced “Thrown” and the steadily-unfurling “Hearts of Palm”.

With all the family-silver proudly redisplayed, much of the extra enchantment comes from one unlikely primary source – Chris Colbourn. Always a bit of a love/hate figure for Buffalo-lovers; Colbourn is either seen as the band’s sweet pop heart or its twee underbelly. But as 2002’s revealing rarities compilation proved, his better songs have often been unfairly disqualified from the group’s tightly-sequenced long-players. But here, Colbourn seems to have finally been given the room to let himself shine; and thankfully he hasn’t squandered such an opportunity. His leading vocal/lyrical role on the terrific Teenage Fanclub-style power-pop of the title-track and the swooning “CC And Callas” is well-measured and assured. There are also some great almost duet-shaped tracks with Janovitz, that allow him space to excel as an equal, as best evidenced by the dual-hollered “Bad Phone Call”. However, it’s with the utterly glorious piano-ballad “Pendleton” that Colbourn delivers the crowns jewels of Three Easy Pieces, a composition sturdy enough to double as possibly his best ever contribution to the Buffalo Tom canon.

Inevitably, not everything quite hits the mark; ill-fitting backing vocals from Mission of Burma’s Clint Conley take some of the sparkle out of the otherwise respectable “Renovating” and there’s a few clunky lyrical couplets here and there (especially on the slightly-laboured “Gravity”). But then even 1992’s classic Let Me Come Over had the tiresome twosome of “I’m Not There” and “Stymied”; so we should know not to expect total Buffalo Tom perfection, and neither should we demand it, in case the trio’s ragged magic were to be put in jeopardy.

Overall though, the defining charm of Three Easy Pieces comes via a collective feeling – perhaps superficially interpreted by this scribe – that Janovitz, Maginnis and Colbourn are finally coming to terms with their legacy of commercial underachievement, realising that it has perversely managed to sustain their fraternity, consistency, integrity and honesty. It’s a redemptive journey that’s traced from “Bottom of the Rain” (“Where are all those golden years?”), inside “Good Girl” (“Maybe I can be someone this time?”) and right through to the climatic tranquillity of “Thrown” (“I have always known/You land where you’ve been thrown/Make that house your home”). Real or imagined, it’s a warm-hearted philosophy that beats at the core of a very special and ghoul-free return from the indie-rock grave.