You can’t go back, as you’ve most likely heard many times and in many clichéd contexts, especially when “back” is tangible, decade-old history. Only zealous sentimentalists would endorse such a thing, and even they must be aware of that other forward-looking maxims caution against seemingly innocent actions like looking back, let alone actually going back.
That said, damn, does rock ‘n’ roll love to go back like over-the-hill linebackers eager to relive some fleeting high school glory days. From Pixies to the Police, it’s become commonplace for once spitefully-separated bands to bury hatchets, plot reunions, and incite riotous glee amongst their fans. As the most ordinary of “extraordinary” reunions prove, these comebacks are actually transparent nostalgia mills devoid of any true worth other than monetary. The truly extraordinary returns, on the other hand, are those that aren’t billed as such, those that happen, if not out of nowhere, then from a place of more moderate expectations.
Take Buffalo Tom, the one-time muscled apex of Boston’s fertile college rock scene in the early ‘90s, for example. After a self-imposed period of dormancy, the band has returned with a great new studio album, Three Easy Pieces, its first album of new material since 1998’s Smitten. Buffalo Tom never went through a well-publicized break-up like its rocker-brethren of the Commonwealth (Pixies, Dinosaur Jr.)—in fact, the band never officially “broke up”, instead passing the years in between albums enjoying lower profiles and, in the case of the band’s singer/guitarist, Bill Janovitz, pursuing a solo career that owed plenty of debt to Buffalo Tom’s established sound. That’s a big reason why Three Easy Pieces sounds as remarkable as it does: although it was physically removed from the popular consciousness, the band never made a big deal about disappearing, and so a return as unassuming as this feels less like ego-stroking hubbub and more a seamless continuation of a pre-existing good thing.
Three Easy Pieces is a stone-faced ringer for Buffalo Tom’s heyday, but it’s by no means a retread of the past. The dizzying punch of the band’s younger years still exists in uptempo songs like “Bottom of the Rain”, “September Shirt”, and the charging title track; however, the group’s existential weight has grown with time, evidenced by the aching “Bad Phone Call”, the forlorn “Lost Downtown”, and near-epic “Hearts of Palm”. Buffalo Tom has always had a flair for injecting emotional heft into unsuspecting pop form, but here, on songs like “Thrown”, “Pendleton”, and “CC and Callas”, the sincerity digs itself even deeper into the skeletons of the songs.
The landscape of popular music today looks nothing like it did when Buffalo Tom teetered on the cusp of bigger things. College rock of the early-to-mid-‘90s morphed into alternative rock in the late ‘90s (bigger and dumber), and then into indie rock in the mid-‘00s (cloyingly quirky and helpless), all of it struggling to maintain some semblance of populist-defying individuality as each tweak of the definition shed a skin that assimilated into the mainstream. Buffalo Tom’s music, likewise, was widely imitated around the time its greatest album, Big Red Letter Day (1993), was released, and in the decade-plus since, has been misappropriated by legions of hard rockers who embrace the striding gait of the band’s power but beat the nuanced pop into an anonymous pulp. So while I’d like to get behind old adages and preach the importance of progression and futures and so forth, sometimes, given the half-baked alternative, there ain’t no shame in looking back—particularly when it sounds this good in the present.