Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 8

Buffalo Tom – Quiet and Peace

Buffalo Tom were once vitally important to me. Their eponymous debut scratched me violently on release with its controlled wildness, its curious combinations of Power Pop tunefulness caked in earthy Rock’n’Roll primacy and a melancholic Americana poignancy that appeared to amount to significantly more than the sum of its parts. I swear to God that ‘The Bus’ can still make me shed a tear whilst ‘Impossible’ remains perhaps J Mascis’ finest recorded moment.

It pains me somewhat to say then that Buffalo Tom fell somewhat out of my favour and in hindsight the only explanation I can give is that we moved apart musically, culturally, whatever. Such an excuse is partly to hide the crippling knee-jerk response of disclaiming interest in a particular thing when ‘popularity’ (always, one suspects, rather relative when discussing anything that appeals to the Unpopular tastebuds) threatens. The flipside of which is of course the pleasure of revisiting those things in later years when such bizarre notions of ‘coolness’ have long since evaporated. Which means that I have for some years now been able to tell anyone who might listen that yes, ‘Let Me Come Over’ really was a terrific album and that ‘Taillights Fade’ maybe was one of the finest songs of the era.

Listening to ‘Quiet and Peace’ in 2018 then I am struck by just how fine a group Buffalo Tom sound in the here and now. There are threads of commonality to previous records of course, but ‘Quiet and Peace’ does sound like something newer, fresher and as warming as one might expect from a group who have not spent the seven years since their last record in each others’ pockets. Two cover versions (one on the original vinyl record, one a ‘bonus’ track on CD and download) really set the two opposite reference points for the album. Their take on The Who’s ‘Seeker’ is punchy, dynamic and entirely appropriate whilst the version of Paul Simon’s ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ is plaintive, beguiling and infused with nods to the American Country Folk tradition that has long filtered into Buffalo Tom’s music. It’s the song that marks the gentler end of ‘Quiet and Peace’ and indeed ‘gentle’ is a key word here for even when Buffalo Tom thrash guitars and layer sonic waterfalls of power they always, at their core, sound gentle and pure. Remember what we were saying (and continue to say) about being soft yet strong?

This time around then it is for me those songs that most explicitly tap into a folk tradition that most appeal. Specifically this means that it is invariably the songs that Chris Colbourne sings which win for me. On cuts such as the power-popping ‘Roman Cars’ and the (bonus) beautiful, downbeat ‘Saturday’ with its line about “hair like Brian Jones” Colbourne reminds me so strongly of Stephen Duffy it is uncanny. His songs musically too are tinged with very much the same kind of folkie tints that The Lilac Time have employed to such effect throughout the decades, never more so than on the wonderful ‘Hemlock’.

Like ‘The Bus’ I suspect that ‘Hemlock’ will continue to haunt me down the years to come for it is very much a song that mines a rich seam of mediated memory. It is there in the explicit lyrical reference to being seventeen and “like a picture in a magazine”, and it is further rooted specifically in time with “’Ocean Rain’ in our ears”. Not a Bunnymen fan? No problem, for throughout the song a softly oscillating keyboard drone drifts in and out like the tides, often invisible but in the end there it is shefallying like Kerouac’s Pacific. Time, seas, or the sound of a record pressed just off centre and shifting in pitch just so as it revolves, creating new and personal meaning. The physical melds with the imaginary and we recreate nowness out of then-ness, here out of there, inside out of out.

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