[7 July 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
New Zealand’s the Phoenix Foundation, so named after a fictitious organization on the hit ‘80s TV series MacGyver, has been riding a boatload of hype over their fourth proper album, Buffalo, which was originally released in their home country in 2010 and spent five consecutive weeks in the Top 10 there. The six-piece band got a lauded five-star review in the United Kingdom’s The Guardian newspaper, which called Buffalo “an album that already seems destined to be among the best of 2011”, when it was released in Britain earlier this year. The disc has gotten similarly glowing reviews from the likes of The Times and The Independent. Aside from such great press, the band has taken home hardware at award ceremonies in their native land—though most notably in technical categories such as producing and engineering, which says more about how the songs are actually constructed than the actual songs themselves—and has scored films by Oscar-nominated director Taiki Waititi such as Eagle Versus Shark and Boy. Clearly, the Phoenix Foundation—which shouldn’t be confused with a certain French electro-dance band—has a lot going for it.
It has taken awhile, but Buffalo has finally made it stateside, possibly owing to a philosophy of gradually and slowly build a world-wide following. The band is now signed to Memphis Industries, a label noted for bringing forth such diverse and challenging bands such as The Go! Team and Colourmusic, after a brief stint on New Zealand’s famed Flying Nun record label. All in all, this is a band that has embarked on its conquest to take on the world in a steady-hand-on-the-rudder fashion, not wanting to get too big too fast. Which is apt, considering that Buffalo, as an album, is a bit of a grower. It is also hardly worth the bucket loads of acclaim that the British press has accorded it. Buffalo is a consistent and engaging album, yes, and one that showcases a strong sense of songcraft. However, it lumbers at a snail’s pace at times, and is a bit too lazy and laconic for its own good.
Sonically, the Phoenix Foundation are a little like what you’d get if you crossed Super Furry Animals—the Phoenix Foundation’s vocalist Samuel Flynn Scott shares an uncanny resemblance to the voice of SFA’s Gruff Rhys—with The Bends and OK Computer-era Radiohead. There’s also a hint of prog rock’s muddiness to the proceedings, as well as the occasional nod to ‘70s MOR rock. The album opens with a song called “Eventually” that takes its sweet time crawling to the finish line. At five and a half minutes long, “Eventually” unspools leisurely and unhurriedly, nearly a soundtrack to ocean breezes or sitting beachside with a Margarita in your hand. “This is the life”, sighs Scott at one point in the song, which is an honest and accurate description of its languid laid-back vibe. The title track, which follows “Eventually”, is a slightly more boisterous affair, with drums that gallop into a large, cavernous setting. It’s almost misleasing that the band named the album Buffalo after this song, as it’s the most stampede-like song on the record and is the one song that is compact and to the point. Here, the ocean looms large as an image with lines like “I’m on the sea floor, closer to the planet’s core / I am a buffalo, through the ocean I do roam”. I guess it must have something to do with living on an island nation, being more or less surrounded by water, that would explain this infatuation.
“Flock of Hearts” has an almost Peter Frampton meets Jimmy Buffett vibe to it, and is another song you can drift away to on your own personal island paradise. From there, the album just floats away with its warm waves of sun-bleached Tropicana rhythms and doesn’t really get more engaging than pleasantness—until you get to the back half of the album, where things get a little more ambitious and adventurous. “Skeleton” has a haunting, echoy feel to it, and is the album’s most Radiohead-like moment in its threatening and moody theatrics. Here, Scott sheds the comparisons to Rhys and yelps like a Kiwi version of Thom Yorke. Just for its sheer ambition, “Skeleton” is Buffalo’s most endearing and rewarding track. That’s followed by “Orange & Mango”, which rubs a little close to Super Furry Animals’ “Northern Lites”, just without the calypso nature and steel drums. It also boasts the somewhat unfortunate line “It takes two to tango / Like an orange and a mango”. Still, it’s a sunny and humid song, perfect for your beach party. “Bailey’s Beach” is an acoustic number that informs us that “you’re going nowhere fast”, which is just like the song—a slow, bluesy shuffle that proceeds at the torpid pace of much of the rest of the album. “Wonton” has the cadence of a keyboard ballad from a ‘80s teen movie, the sort of thing John Hughes would have lapped up. The album ends with the more-than-six-minute “Golden Ship”, a nice acoustic number that recalls “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead, just without the emotional heft of that song—the sort of thing that would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Ultimately, what Buffalo lacks is any sort of variation between the tracks, particularly when it comes to pacing, which only alternates between the slow and soft and mid-tempo trots. This does make for an even listen, but that also means there’s a lack of any real emotional highlights. What Buffalo fails to do is gallop away at points, making the disc a truly restrained affair. That might be your cup of tea, but for this listener, a little more pep and vitality is needed, simply just to stay awake. Altogether, Buffalo is an interesting listen, and it does reveal sonic layers the more you listen to it—the acoustic noodling of “Pot” against a multi-tracked chorus of voices being one example. There isn’t a really embarrassing or terrible song, either, but, once again, that just means there are very few peaks to be found on Buffalo as well. When it comes right down to it, Buffalo is a remarkably solid record that makes you wish you were on a sand dune beside water to better enjoy it. But despite what the British music press might leave you to believe, Buffalo is nothing special. It is what it is: A quiet, unassuming little album that you can nod off to sleep to or relax to on a bright, summery day. Creating a summery album—one that happened to be released in the UK in the dark of winter, ironically—is a feat into and of itself, but that’s all Buffalo is. It’s just pleasant and nice.