Keep Your Shirts On: Skins Is Merely Good, Not Great
Music has a way of reaching out to people in far-flung places, and at a time when the Internet era was just getting off the ground, Buffalo Tom was a group that connected me to a young woman in Washington, D.C. that I’d become e-mail pen pals with. In 1995, I had exactly one Buffalo Tom album in my CD collection: 1993’s Big Red Letter Day. I had considered it to be an OK record, but it didn’t exactly shatter my world. I was pretty much into loud, angry alternative rock at the time, as was much of my peers at the university I was attending, and had found that Big Red Letter Day, which I’d acquired late in high school after reading a review of it in my bible at the time, Alternative Press, was a smidge too much on the lite-rock, soulful side. (This is ironic, considering that I like soul now. Anyhow.)
So to make a long story short, I had wound up meeting this young university student online, probably on a Usenet message board, and we got to conversing, and then we got to trading mixtapes with each other. This girl—let’s just refer to her as Rachael for kicks, since that’s a Buffalo Tom song—had originally been from Boston, so she started to introduce me to music from her hometown. While I had the Cavedogs’ Soul Martini taped from a friend’s CD in high school, she turned me onto the brilliance of the band’s earlier debut album, Joyrides for Shut-Ins. And then, on one of the hometown-band mixtapes she sent me, she had a run of six Buffalo Tom songs from a little album that I hadn’t heard called Let Me Come Over, plus their cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Heaven”, which, by the way, is a rarity amongst cover versions in that it utterly blows the original out of the water by being just stripped down to an acoustic guitar and a heartbreaking vocal. Cutting to the chase, the tracks she put on this tape utterly made me rethink the brilliance of that band. I know that a lot of type has been printed about the angst-fueled 1992 milestone that is Let Me Come Over and it shouldn’t bear repeating that the record is considered the band’s high-water mark, but, needless to say, I tracked down the CD and it has been in my possession ever since. That’s more than I can say about Big Red Letter Day and 1998’s Smitten, the last record the group would put out before going on hiatus for nine years, both of which eventually got plucked out of my collected assortment of discs and sold off to used CD stores when such stores actually tended to buy used CDs as opposed to vinyl, which is more sell-able now as things would have it. Anyhow, I guess you can say I was underwhelmed with both efforts.
Well, those mixtapes are long gone, too, and Rachael and I eventually stopped writing each other—it has been a good 15 years or so since I last heard from her. One thing does remain: even though what I’ve heard from Buffalo Tom other than Let Me Come Over hasn’t exactly grabbed my ear, there is a curiosity I still have about the band—I always wonder if they might scale the same heights as Let Me Cover Over, even if only for a flash here and there. And so here I have a copy of Buffalo Tom’s new self-released album Skins, simply because when a band makes one album that is consistently engaging as you-know-who-can-come-over, it makes them still worthy of being checked out to see if lightning can be recaptured in a bottle. Well, one thing that can be said about Skins, which is the follow-up to the band’s initial reunion album Three Easy Pieces from 2007, is that it is a more democratic affair than what I’m familiar with from their ‘90s period work. Skins sees bassist Chris Colbourn get a chance to sing four songs, whereas he used to only get one or two per album. There are also a number of startling changes that mark a departure from their trademark alt-country-with-a-flannel-twinge sound. On Skins the sound is polished and refined, and a clutch of tracks from the first half of the album veer perilously close to New Country territory, tip-toeing into the smooth, easy-listening sounds of the Eagles. The ragged, feedback-laden guitar sound? Mostly gone (or, at the very least, pushed into the background as it is on opener “Arise, Watch”). The crushing melancholy and melodrama of tunes like “Taillights Fade”, “Mineral” or “Larry”? Largely absent. The gravelly voice of guitarist and main vocalist Bill Janovitz? Greatly robbed of its power at times thanks to the trials and tribulations of age. In fact, Skins is a shadow of Buffalo Tom’s glorious early ‘90s peak with all of the edginess filed away, but that’s to be expected. After all, these are men now in their 40s, married with children, and it would be unfair to expect another album like Let Me Come Over unfurl out of them in its entirety. Thus, what we get with Skins is a mildly pleasant album that’s easy on the ears, and is utterly predictable. You know what, though? I would much rather that than hear a retread of 1998’s Smitten, with its foray into looped drum beats and orchestral string sections that couldn’t mask the fact that the gas was nearly out of the tank in terms of coming up with a catchy tune, save for “Wiser”. At least on Skins, the band is more or less playing to its strengths. It’s a safe game of hockey-like stick-handling, where Buffalo Tom is merely trying to protect the puck and solidify any lead they’ve garnered since regrouping. For long-time fans, that might be enough. However, if you are expecting a total game changer like Let Me Come Over, you’re going to walk away from this album sorely, sorely disappointed.
Skins is an album that is lacking cohesion, which is evident by the disparity of the two opening tracks: the acoustic Elliot Smith-sound-a-like “Arise, Watch” and the Colbourn-sung “She’s Not Your Thing”, which sees the band kicking it into lite-country rock mode for a paltry two minutes and five seconds, making it a shot at being the de facto theme song for some kind of Friends-like sitcom in an alternate universe. The album does gather a bit of steam from there, however. “Down” is a serviceable roots-rock tune that recalls the band’s earlier work, just with the grime wiped away. Then, there’s the lovely mandolin-led “Don’t Forget Me”, which boasts guest vocals from another New Englander and ‘90s alternative rock demi-icon Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses, the Breeders and Belly. “Guilty Girls” is a rocking rave-up with a catchy chorus, but it does veer into Gin Blossoms terrain with its slick, glossy sheen. And from there, it’s pretty much only worthwhile talking about the various highlights, since Skins vacillates in tone and consistency throughout, and it’s just not worth picking apart the sequencing, which, to me, is a subject that has been a bit of a sticking point with the band for me, even on Let Me Come Over. “Paper Knife” is a lovely waltz-y song that, if the band were any more popular, could have been the type of song that gets played during slow dances in high schools across the land. “The Hawks & The Sparrows” is the best ballad that Colbourn has sung, and his standout on the record as he sounds remarkably confident and assured there, whereas in the past he had a habit of sounding warbly and annoying. “The Big Light” builds to a rousing crescendo of guitar-drenched chord strumming during its chorus and “The Kids Just Sleep”, meanwhile, is an all out rocker about the trials and tribulations of being a parent. And more or less you have it: the tracks you need to download if you’re only mildly curious about this album. Everything else is just unremarkable by-the-numbers country rock that isn’t exactly horrible, just routine and run of the mill.
I guess that’s just another way of putting across the obvious: Skins is not a return to form or even an album that remotely approaches their best work. In fact, in listening to this record, I started kicking myself for selling off Big Red Letter Day as I’m sure I would appreciate it a lot more now that I’m gradually approaching the age of 40 and it seemed to mark a maturation in their sound. However, Skins is not an outright embarrassment either, and it does make me moderately happy that the band decided to reunite and start making music on whatever they consider to be their own terms once again, rather than failing at regurgitating the critical success of, well, if you don’t know what record by now, you’ve only just skimmed this review. This is an album that will satiate long-term fans best, who will probably just be overjoyed at the fact that Buffalo Tom is an ongoing concern once again. Everyone else would be best served by going back to 1992 and slowly, gradually working their way forward from there. (Which is not to overlook 1990’s Birdbrain I suppose, but I haven’t heard it save for “Heaven” so I can’t really comment.) All in all, Skins is an amiable album worth hearing if only to reminisce about how great things once were for this band. And, in doing so, I can only wonder what Rachael—wherever she might be (and I truly hope she’s doing well)—might think about Buffalo Tom now that their salad days of once adequately fueled post-adolescent yearning contained in a viable and potent mixture are now, alas, largely behind them. I’d have to ask her if any of Skins is worthy of putting on a mixtape. Me? I’d answer just maybe. Maybe.
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