Dylan at a Gallop
Boston Phoenix, August 4, 1988
AS LEAD SINGER and guitarist for Buffalo Tom, Bill Janovitz’s heavy-fuzz bombast seems to sprout its own rhythm section. On their homonymous debut for SST, the band finds ample new ground to chart in hard rock trio diagrams that other bands have long since worn out. Songs rise out of the opening tremor of Janovitz’s guitar and quickly cascade into tidal waves, then oceans of sound—it seems impossible that there are only three instruments responsible for all the noise. As the local debut of the season, it shoots straight through the “debut” qualifier, making you think this band has a longer past.
Janovitz met drummer Tom Maginnis and bassist Chris Colbourn at school in Amherst in 1986, and they all claim guitar as their first instrument. That’s not surprising. Colbourn stands with his back to the audience, humping out his lines towards the drummer as though his bass were a whip, Maginnis plays deep into his skins and assaults his cymbals, squeezing impossibly tight fills into impossibly tight spaces. Together, they pitch salvos of sound out toJanovitz, but the oceans spring from his guitar’s all-encompassing roar. All Colbourn and Maginnis can do is play inside Janovitz’s sound, fill it up from within, to the point where even cymbal smashes come to resemble high-wire guitar stunts.
All Colboum and Maginnis can do is play inside Janovitz’s sound, fill it up from within, to the point where even cymbal smashes come to resemble high-wire guitar stunts.
And yet the spark of Buffalo Tom is not that they have a guitar-heavy anchor; their strength stems from their heavy-weight sense of ensemble, kicks that spike both sharp and deep. Songs typically visit three and four sections, spin deftly in and out of bridges, often circulate toward distant key areas to finish (“Sunflower Suit”). “The Bus” a dreamy (but not queasy) exercise in rolling thunder psychedelia, drops a line about Billie Holiday without sounding gratuitous. As Janovitz’s guitar leaps up to glide above the wreckage, it comes close to the pervasive sense of loss that the blues can provide. “I don’t care if you don’t understand,” he wails. “I will be there anyway/Just found out what you mean today,” coaxing himself as much as his lover.
As the group’s lyricist, Janovitz is gaining skill at both name songs like “Racine” (a manic tour of Penn Station) and lickety-split spookers like “The Attic” (a psychic tour of emotional leftoever), “Flushing Stars,” a medium-tempo bazooka with a semi-automatic trigger of melodic hook (But I can’t wait forever I’ve no time…”). “Impossible,” an unsteady devotion gripped by a deceptively simple guitar line, works against itself in ways that suggest a sure-footed wordsmith. Like the best ironists, Janovitz gets away with a self-contradicting title; every move in the song suggests possibility, gambles taken and won.
The only problem here is that one of the band’s best songs, “Enemy,” isn’t included. Slow, calculating, and not a little scary, “Enemy” maps the way romance can curdle into unhealthy dependence way before lovers have a chance to get a grip on themselves. And when you see Buffalo Tom live, be sure to request their lion’s-roar treatment of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” wherein they turn a declamatory statement of romantic obsessiveness into a galloping stampede of tension. By the end, Janovitz’s voice—already a cross between a howl and a riot act—writhes just enough to be heard above the din. (This record’s sessions also included a noble stab at the Rolling Stones’ “Sway.”)
Like the best ironists, Janovitz gets away with a self-contradicting title; every move in the song suggests possibility, gambles taken and won.
Buffalo Tom are still getting slotted as an opening act—they were inexplicably left out of this year’s WBCN Rumble. But they have proved themselves even in the most adverse of circumstances. When they opened for the Bullet LaVolta/Lemonheads/Galaxie 500 slugfest at the Channel recently, at the deadly hour of 9:30 p.m., no more than 40 listeners were milling around. The band members had obviously been skimped on the soundcheck and were juggling ensemble balances as they played. And yet the sound rang out triumphant, liberating (even though maybe half the audience could have cared).
After recording a follow-up in August (again with producer J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.), Buffalo Tom are slated to tour the US and Europe, where they’ve already gotten rave German reviews and charted on alternative radio in Holland. A US release on a label not exactly known for such down-the-middle rock acts should give this endangered species (unfettered hard-rock trios) some new pastures to roam.