Someone smart once said that the most courageous act an individual could make was to change his mind.
Consider Buffalo Tom a courageous act.
The Boston-based Buff Toms have a four-year rø¡esumø¡e of hard-charging guitar songs ranging in texture from crunch to grunge. The band's 1989 debut was appropriately released on the rough-and-tumble SST Records and subsequent Buffalo Tom product offered little in the way of compromise.
But then Buffalo Tom changed its mind.
The band's recent release, Let Me Come Over, has a softer, more thoughtful touch. Stomping guitars share notes with acoustic strumming. Tempos vary with mood. Sensitivity supplants muscle at every chord change.
This from a band once commonly referred to as Dinosaur Jr. Jr." ²ÔWe realized that we made two similar-sounding records," explains bassist-vocalist Chris Colbourn. We wanted something a little different."
²What Colbourn and his bandmates-lead singer-guitarist Bill Janovitz and drummer Tom Maginnis-came up with was more than a little different. Let Me Come Over simmers with an emotional edge rarely approached on the band's previous work. Somber songs like Frozen Lake" and Mineral" reach a near Replacements level of raw nerve, while the CD's more raucous cuts-Staples" and, especially, Velvet Roof"-update the band's aggression with shorter, sharper corners.
We had always written our songs on acoustic guitars first," Colbourn says when asked why the newer tunes seem so much stronger. This time we decided to try and keep the acoustic versions more intact."
In essence, says Colbourn, it was a matter of pumping up the newer tunes by toning them down. Plus, we wanted to somehow get a piano into the mix," Colbourn adds. That was different, too."
But perhaps the major difference in the new and improved Buffalo Tom sound is the absence of J Mascis, lead singer-guitar guru of Dinosaur Jr. and the producer of Buffalo Tom's two previous albums. The Mascis touch helped give Buffalo Tom its initial identity as a credible newcomer on the alternative scene. But that identity soon developed into a stifling Dinosaur Jr. mask which Buffalo Tom considered little more than a clone of its master's voice.
The move away from Mascis was a good thing," Colbourn says.
I had actually started to talk with J about maybe coming in to do some remixes," Colbourn says. But he went on tour, and we went ahead without him. It's just as well. It was good for us to work with someone different. It helped us mature."
R.E.M.'s Peter Buck was considered as a possible candidate for knob-twisting Buffalo Tom's new sound. Colbourn says the band was looking for a Feelies feel and liked the way Buck produced the Feelies' 1986 record The Good Earth.
But the members of Buffalo Tom eventually recorded and produced Let Me Come Over themselves, with engineering help from a few Boston-area sound techs. The all-important remixes were handled by Ron St. Germain, whose radio-ready tweaking credits stretch from Ashford & Simpson to Soundgarden.
The results make for a CD the Replacements' Paul Westerberg would love. Buffalo Tom used to sing weenie lyrics-You say I'm a Birdbrain/Well if I am, then I'll just fly away"-with all the conviction of, well, a bunch of weenies. But on a newer song like Taillights Fade," the Tom-boys seem more focused: I feel so weak/I'm on a losing streak/...watch my taillights fade to black." Later, on Velvet Roof," the band flips the deck with a healthy hint of confidence: She could make my life complete," Janovitz sings beside a killer guitar hook. But I'm already there to compete with her."
It's a range of mood that shows surprising growth for a band that once threatened to fly away.
These newer songs do seem to be stronger with the quieter production," Colbourn says. Some of our older songs, like `Birdbrain,' needed that tougher sound. Most of the songs on the new album don't."
Buffalo Tom first started playing out six years ago. The three band members hooked up at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. We were all guitar players when we met," laughs Colbourn. He says it didn't take long to realize that Janovitz had the singer-guitarist thing" down best. Soon thereafter, Buffalo Tom's self-titled debut was released as an import on Europe's Megadisc Records. U.K. critics slobbered profusely and gave the newest American noise band a firm and collective thumbs up. Stateside college-radio types took note, as did SST Records, and Buffalo Tom quickly hit heavy rotation on U.S. alternative playlists. The success story peaked with a big-time record deal on the Beggars Banquet/RCA label.
But despite all the attention at home, Colbourn says Buffalo Tom is still a bigger hit with European critics and fans.
Yeah, we've always done very well over there," he says. We've toured Europe five times now, and this is only our second real American tour. It's easier going over there. The crowds are bigger for us-and you can do the whole continent in about five weeks. Things are too spread out here."
Colbourn accents the point by noting that he's speaking from a rest stop somewhere in North Dakota" as the band makes its way from Minneapolis to Seattle. Let me tell you," Colbourn sighs, ÔI've had way, way too much of touring."
But Colbourn is quick to add that Buffalo Tom's current road trip is its most important. Colbourn calls 1992 a real make-or-break year" for the band. He says Buffalo Tom's deal with RCA is such that the big push doesn't start until both the band and the record company agree that everyone's ready.
We didn't want to rush in with a big advance we couldn't cover," explains Colbourn. We wanted to take our time."
But Colbourn says RCA is showing increased attention of late and he figures the Nirvana thing" is speeding up the process. Seems every record company now wants a monster alternative" act on its roster. Such pressure is compounded by the fact that both Janovitz and Maginnis have wedding dates in the coming months. Making a career of music matters now more than ever for the Buff-boys.
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You know, Bill and I both come from families with five children," muses Colbourn. He's the oldest of five, I'm the youngest. So I've got all these brothers and sisters with families and mortgages and they're starting to wonder what I'm doing with my life. As for Bill, he's the first one out of the house and his parents are wondering the same thing." Colbourn then pauses from the wilds alongside the North Dakota interstate.
Sometimes I wonder myself," he says.
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