Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Narrative Arc

Artists: Buffalo Tom; Cold Water Flat
: s/t, Birdbrain, Let Me Come Over, Big Red Letter Day, Three Easy Pieces (BT); Listen (CWF)
: Bought new (BT, BB, BRLD, Listen); bought used (LMCO, 3EP)

One of the more infuriating/confounding aspects of any big political season is the degree to which we are all in thrall to the narrative arc. Political reporters are, like most writers of any stripe, storytellers; so they look for a story in the constant churn of information, misinformation and disinformation that surrounds the candidates and their surrogates. Once there's a good story (Gore fibs, Dubbya's not that bright, Kerry's too effete, etc.), they ride the narrative arc all the way...until the next one pops up.

It's often not that helpful (Gore lies more than GWB?), but the impulse in in all of us. After all, who doesn't like a good story? And if it can have both a constant through-line and some twists & turns, all the better.

That's one of the nice things about Buffalo Tom, a band that has been riding a nice narrative arc since the late 1980s. Listen to their records all in a row, and the sound changes/progresses quite a bit: the "Dinosaur Jr, Jr" guitar squalls of the first two records give way to cleaner, more crafted rock songs (electric and acoustic), which bend and pop within a variety of production styles. They can sound like the Stones or the Lemonheads or Dinosaur or Husker Du or Neil Young or...

Which is not to say that Buffalo Tom is inconsistent. In good narrative fashion, they have a tremendous through-line. Regardless of the sonic context, I'd recognize Bill Janovitz's singing and songwriting voice anywhere; the band, overall, locks together in a remarkably consistent way, too. Taken at a trot, the Buff Tom discography is a story with a progressive rising and falling action: the noisy debut storms out of the gate; Birdbrain consolidates their emerging strengths; Let Me Come Over is a stunning leap forward, sharpening all of the band's existing characteristics while adding a few more; Big Red Letter Day works to figure out how to harness the power of these progressions; and so on. By the time of last year's comeback LP, Three Easy Pieces, the long-dormant group is able to slide right back into the sound they've had all along, once again putting a few new tricks into play (howabout those dual Janovitz/Colbourn vox?)

Of course, the problem with the narrative arc is it seems to tell you something that might not, in the end, be true and/or helpful. I mean, is the sound of everything from Come Over the result of natural progressions of craft, or the pressures of their new (and bigger) label? Is the drawing down of the guitar noise a conscious reaction to the post-Nevermind scene, or just maturing rockers showing their age a bit?

I have no idea on any of these points, and who knows if the band members themselves know? But it's all a good story, and I hope they continue to add more chapters--I'll certainly keep following along.

I've loved this band from the moment I heard Birdbrain at my college radio station in freshman year. Buffalo Tom manage the perfect mix of the audible emotional investment (which I'm always a sucker for) and the tight, energetic rocking that gets me going even when sitting still. Bill Janovitz is one hell of a songwriter, and I'd kill to know how he does what he does--the many nights my friend Matt and I worked on learning the Come Over songs on our guitars did little to distill Janovitz's considerable talents into anything I could work with. Once I hear any one of these songs I want to hear them all, and as such would be loathe to part with any.

Oh, and Cold Water Flat: a band put together by Bill's brother Paul. Whatever Bill's got, it must be at least partially genetic: if Buffalo Tom got ribbed for sounding like Dinosaur Jr, Jr, then Cold Water Flat is Buff Tom, Jr. I picked up Listen during one of my (many) deep Buffalo Tom periods (Bill plays on 1 or 2 tracks), and it's a somewhat nifty little disc. That said, only "Roll Me Over" really moves me anymore, so I think I'd be safe ripping that one and sending Listen along on its way.


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