Tales from the Punchbowl is probably the delineation point that brought Primus to punky, bratty funk rockers to a trio fully prepared to embrace the jammy indulgence of post-prog rock. There were still curdled dollops of juvenilia, most notably in lead single “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” but the trio was just as likely to wrench their signature sound into the sprawling, shifting soundscapes “Professor Nutbutter’s House of Treats” and “Southbound Pachyderm.” Adding to the sense that they were ready to start crafting soundtracks to go with especially warped versions of one of Roger Dean’s vistas was the eventual existence of an “enhanced” version, meant to be played on a computer to unlock a storyline that involved a ferryboat ride through “an enchanted liquid atmosphere.” Primus burrowed further and further down this trippy rabbit hole, with star bassist Les Claypool becoming an especially noted figure to those who liked songs that constantly seem on the verge of expanding to the length of a Peter Jackson movie populated by hobbits.
13. Buffalo Tom, Sleepy Eyed
When a ridiculous number of alternative bands were exploding in the mid-nineties, I expended an unreasonable amount of time and worry trying to figure out why some of my favorite acts weren’t enjoying a similar surge of commercial success. It was widely acknowledged that bands like Hüsker Dü and even the Replacements cut the trail that Nirvana motored down, and Kurt Cobain himself presumably would have rather been in the Meat Puppets than his own titanic trio. Surely there was room in this brave new musical world for the bands I’d played with enthusiasm a few years earlier, the bands that seemed an even more direct extension of the foundational sound than those who were collecting hit singles on the modern rock charts. It’s a pretty clear measure of my own evaluative shortcomings when it comes to music that I could never quite wrap my head around why the kids who went bonkers for Bush didn’t seem all that interested in listening to Buffalo Tom.
Fronted by Bill Janovitz, the Boston band issued their fifth album, Sleepy Eyed, in the summer of 1995. It was an attempt by the band to deliver a purer version of their sound, striving for the immediacy of live-to-tape recordings rather than buffering a finish product with studio enhancements. The recording process only took three weeks, with the individual band members limiting themselves to the instruments they carried out onstage on a nightly basis. The result is direct and tuneful, bristling with the sort of emotional energy that only a great rock record can conjure up. Clear of vision, sharp in execution, and bereft of pandering aspiration, Sleepy Eyed never had a chance, at least outside of the more accepting realm of college radio.
The album is awash in the sort of yearning melancholy that was a Buffalo Tom specialty. “Summer” takes a more downbeat approach to the season that made a mint band’s ready to address it with cheery celebration of sun and surf (“Summer’s gone, a summer song/ You’ve wasted every day, every day”), and “Kitchen Door” is poised in that tender point between want and need. “It’s You” traces the tangle of self-destructive misery (“Here’s my crime, dried up twists of lime”) leavened by the hope stirred by another (“Truth is in your teeth/ Because your smile’s beyond belief”) that feels very authentic to emerging sense of adulthood that hopefully arrives sometime fairly early in one’s post-collegiate years. It’s not all forlorn, though. The album also has room for the pleasurable bashing of “Rules” and sputtering spark plug “Your Stripes,” which sounds enough like a club favorite from one of Minneapolis’s mid-eighties second string bands that First Avenue & 7th Street Entry arguably deserves a co-writing credit.
There are points where the album sags a bit, sounding more like a band stuck than one charging ahead. The languid, sprawling “Sunday Night” opens with a morass of guitars that offers a reminder that Buffalo Tom was once termed, somewhat derisively, “Dinosaur Jr. Jr.” (J. Mascis did produce their first two albums, so it wasn’t solely a drift toward the derivative that contributed to that early sound). And tracks like “Sparklers” and “Clobbered” are mostly notable for the ways in which they resemble the plodding, dour ballads that filled alternative rock radio. Of course, that brings me back around to wondering why a commercial breakthrough eluded Buffalo Tom. Then again, maybe that shouldn’t matter. The band persevered, taking the occasion lengthy break, but remaining intact with the same three players, self-releasing new music as recently as 2011. It may not be the truckloads of cash that come with having hit records, but longevity counts for something, too.
— An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night