14 tales14. Primus, Tales from the Punchbowl

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 sleepy

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.

Previously….

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

14 thoughts on “College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 14 and 13

  1. As a certified “young person” in the mid-to-late nineties, I will acknowledge that I was one of those unthinking masses ignoring Buffalo Tom. Remembering precisely the thought process of one’s teenage self can sometimes be difficult, but as I can recall, my thoughts were not actively negative, but more passively so. When I thought of Buffalo Tom (which I didn’t, more often than not), I think I found Buffalo Tom to be an overly earnest ensemble lacking in shade or color. Much later, after I started reading British pop music criticism, I would discover that the Brits had the perfect term for such a judgment… ‘po faced. Of course, by the time I had discovered the term, my opinion on Buffalo Tom had reversed at least somewhat. I now found them to be an agreeable lesser-light of bands that I genuinely loved (perfect for filling out a radio show playlist). They were a less arty cousin of their fellow Boston alternative brethren, a grungy power pop trio, a less self-concious Superchunk. And if their meat-and-potatoes melancholy tunefulness didn’t effect me like some of their contemporaries (or influences), I appreciated their place in the general vicinity of so many things I already liked (this opinion was only reinforced when I read Bill Janovitz’s smart and erudite book on the Rolling Stones). Freed of the unforgiving aesthetic judgments common to adolescents and early adults, by my mid-to-late twenties, I was finally ready to meet Buffalo Tom on their own terms.

    1. I will admit that my affection for the band is attributable to a degree (probably a sizable degree) to your apt description of their music as “perfect for filling out a radio show playlist.” Drop the needle anywhere on the records and it there was going to be sturdily enjoyable music coming through the speakers for the next few minutes, even if it was unlikely to send anyone scrambling to the local purveyor of music (we were obviously to CDs by this point, but using that technology in the description eradicates the poetry). Buffalo Tom were the college radio equivalent of a strong utility infielder: never a star, but handy to have around.

      On the other hand, “Taillights Fade” is a great song by any measure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s