Buffalo Tom - Skins [Album Review]
Known for a gritty rock snarl, yet containing a penchant for achingly beautiful ballads, Buffalo Tom returns with its first album in four years to remind fans and new listeners why the decade of the '90s mattered so much.
Skins, the band's eighth studio album and first since their 2007 release Three Easy Pieces adds yet another solid entry to their exceedingly strong catalog. The album will be released on their new label Scrawny Records on March 8, 2011. Eschewing the typical label set up the band decided to form their own with help from a distributor. Rare for a band that's been around for 25 years who are all now firmly in their forties with families, children and responsibilies, Buffalo Tom still retains the original trio of Bill Janovitz (guitars and vocals), Chris Colbourn (bass and vocals) and Tom Maginnis (drums).
The band produced Skins in their hometown of Boston, MA between commitments to life, work and family. Playing to their strengths the band trusted mixing the album to long-time friends Paul Q. Kolderie (known for his work at Massachusetts studio Fort Apache) and Tom Polce. Kolderie, along with Sean Slade, produced the band’s breakout third album, 1992’s Let Me Come Over and Polce mixed 2007′s Three Easy Pieces. The band found their voice on the former album and reformed to continue their string of solid albums on the latter album.
"Arise, Watch," the lead single and first track on the album combines the best of the gritty rock and dreamy ballad sound the band does best. Building slowly, Janovitz warmly croons over layered guitars while Colbourn adds backing vocals behind him. The song pushes into another gear with great fuzzy guitar work from Janovitz giving hope that the song will develop even further in the live setting.
With its layered acoustic guitar mixed with a distorted electric "Down" brings back memories of the classic "Taillights Fade" from Let Me Come Over while "Guilty Girls", an uptempo rocker again takes cues from the band's classic 1990s sound. Nevertheless, Janovitz guitar solos are more colorful, Colbourn's bass is more nuanced and Maginnis' time keeping tighter. Not to be taken as a criticism but as a compliment, the sound evolves with each subsequent release as much as it stays the same.
Following their standard tradition, Janovitz sings lead on 9 of the 13 tracks on the album as bassist Chris Colbourn takes lead vocals on four tracks: "She's Not Your Thing", "Miss Barren Brookes", "The Hawks & The Sparrows" and "The Kids Just Sleep." Colbourn's songs typically contain more of a lighter pop musical sound yet add somewhat darker lyrics. The new tracks hold true to that formula yet add a wiser tone gleaned from an older perspective. Clocking in at just over 2 minutes, the concise "She's Not Your Thing" bounces along with sweet harmonies and strummed guitar. Colbourn gives great advice in this mature relationship song as he sings, "If you gotta think about it/talk about it/call about it/shout about it..." Basically advising the listener that you'll know real love when you see it and working too hard at it becomes detrimental.
Standout track "Don't Forget Me" is an achingly beautiful ballad fans have come to expect, yet adding a duet between Janovitz and guest vocalist Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders, Belly) gives listeners an even greater reward. The collaboration works perfectly as both picked and strumming acoustic guitar over piano accompaniment push the melody while a mandolin gorgeously complements between verses. Maginnis puts down the drumsticks and instead adds lightly brushed drums to great effect. Colburn contributes solid backing vocals to the song's chorus enhancing the track even further. With the protagonist asking to not be forgotten and lamenting the current pace of everyday life. Donnelly sings, "To be forgotten is the most frightening thought/for those boys and girls and other ones who time forgot."
What I think has resonated with people who have heard this record is our wizened perspective about relationships: families, bands, couples, etc. There is birth, death, and the present in all of these songs, sometimes all in one.
- Bill Janovitz from an interview with The Alternate Side.
Though piano and organ appeared on a few tracks on their previous album, the addition to piano to many of the tracks on Skins adds another layer of depth to the mix. The sound becomes more mature and full. This development blends well with the layered vocal arrangements already a hallmark of many of their recordings as both Janovitz and Colburn tend to sing a low and high harmony vocals on the tracks.
Never an over indulgent rock trio with virtuoso players trying to outdo one another, Buffalo Tom understand their sound achieves more when the sum of these three distinctive parts play together as one rather than apart. Paying no heed to current music conventions and wearing their heart on their sleeves, their style of indie rock contains a solid, timeless quality. Though a cohesive grouping of songs, the tracks each stand firmly on their own, and like an old friend you wait to hear the stories unfold. Many bands would gladly give anything to be as good as they were 20 years ago while continuing to build technical skills to become better musicians along the way. Buffalo Tom makes it look easy.
Buffalo Tom - Skins track listing
01 Arise, Watch
02 She’s Not Your Thing
04 Don’t Forget Me
05 Guilty Girls
06 Miss Barren Brooks
07 Paper Knife
08 Here I Come
09 Lost Weekend
10 The Hawks & The Sparrows
11 The Big Light
12 The Kids Just Sleep
13 Out of The Dark
Currently the band is accepting pre-orders of the album in 4 packages. First, a high quality digital download in DRM-free 320kbps MP3 or Apple Lossless format delivered on March 8th + CD version for $10.99. Second, a high quality digital download + deluxe CD with the album plus the demos from the album. The same format exists for vinyl with the deluxe edition vinyl containing a CD with the album, demos and B-sides, plus a limited edition t-shirt and a postcard.
The band recently moved toward having a larger presence on the web. You can find the group on both Twitter and Facebook. For a more private look at singer/guitarist Janovitz, please check out his blog. When he’s not working his day job in real estate, Janovitz also finds time to write about his life and music and includes great stories with his versions of some of his favorite songs.