Buxton have been kicking around Houston for several years, but with Nothing Here Seems Strange, their first album for alt-country stalwart New West (and third overall), they seem poised to become a national act. At least, that’s how the copy will probably read from the local music press here in Houston, who are always happy to promote any local band that gets a whiff of outside attention. It’s a good story, but with one caveat: Nothing Here Seems Strange might not be distinctive or strongly written enough to make waves.
The album starts off well enough, with what sounds like a wash of backwards-recorded sound that coalesces into an echo-y solo banjo riff. The song, “Wolves and Owls”, remains stark and low-key throughout, even when the rest of the band joins in. Crashing guitar chords occasionally accentuate the simple harmony vocals, but there’s a sense of wide-open space to the song that makes it a good opener. Next up, the strolling, piano-heavy ballad “Fingertips” provides a nice sense of contrast, and it’s tough to fault the band for the extended, classic country-style outro that gives the band a chance to jam out a little.
But really, nothing much happens in that outro beyond a couple of really nice fills from drummer Justin Terrell that are buried in the mix anyway. It’s 70 seconds of solid musicianship that nevertheless fails to be distinctive. It’s at this point that Nothing Here Seems Strange starts to become background music. Third track “Blown a Fuse” takes its time getting going, with an intro that lasts over a minute before blossoming into a pretty capable pop-rock song with a nice chorus. But it’s not a great pop-rock song. It doesn’t make the listener sit up and pay attention, and the rest of the album suffers from the same issue. Everything on this disc is competently written and capably played. Buxton is a strong band from top to bottom, and they know just when to throw in, say, an organ part, some strings, or female backing vocals courtesy of part-time member Haley Barnes.
The problem is that Buxton is doing nothing to set themselves apart from other bands in their increasingly crowded genre, and they don’t quite have the songwriting chops to overcome that lack of character. Sure, they combine banjos with distorted guitars really nicely. But the whole alt-country / roots-rock scene is full of bands that stand firmly with one foot in rock and another in classic country, with maybe an arm over in bluegrass. Buxton knows their way around this style, but they never quite manage to find that one great song or memorable melody. So there’s a lot of stuff like “Riverbed”, a pretty ballad that sounds nice but doesn’t stay with the listener. Or first single “Boy of Nine”, which uses an accordion, mandolin, and tambourine to create an upbeat stomper, but eschews a chorus entirely, robbing the song of an essential hook.
All of this may sound like I’m tearing Buxton down, and that’s not really the point. Nothing Here Seems Strange is a good album from top to bottom. None of the 10 tracks is bad, or really even mediocre. It’s just that little stands out about it. The album finally finds some traction at track eight with “Lynchburg Ferry”, a banjo-heavy song that starts off quiet and builds throughout. The song uses male-female harmonies nicely, and employs a trumpet section to great effect. The dark, hard-edged rocker “Oh My Boy” also comes near the end and recaptures the same widescreen effect as album opener “Wolves and Owls.” But these songs come a bit too late to really change the overall feel of the album. With better songwriting, Buxton could really be exciting, but they aren’t there yet.
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