Listening to The Picture Show, the debut disc from British quartet the Buffseeds, proved something of a surreal experience for my wife and me. We grabbed the disc to listen to in the car while we were out running errands on a recent afternoon:
“I like the singer,” I said as we drove.
“Yeah,” the wife agreed. “She can actually sing, which is something I can’t say for a lot of other girls these days.”
We drove on for a bit and continued to listen to the disc. After a while, I had a strange thought.
“Honey,” I began, “Is this singer a girl or a guy?”
“It’s got to be a girl,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”
“I dunno . . . just something about the phrasing. That’s all. What’s the singer’s name?”
She reached for the CD and opened the liner notes.
“Kieran Scragg,” she answered. “I was right. That’s a girl’s name.”
Well, in case you haven’t guessed by now, after we got home and I checked the sheaf of promo materials that they had sent along with the album, it turned out that Kieran was indeed a boy’s name.
What does this have to do with anything? How does this affect my enjoyment of the album? I don’t really know. It’s an odd question to ask.
The Picture Show is an enjoyable album, a modestly majestic achievement from a group that could have a bright future if they continue down this road. There’s no new ground broken here, but fans of simple and melancholy rock music will find many rewards. I hesitate to open comparisons with other so-called “shoegazer” bands, but it must be said that I found myself reminded of Mazzy Star and Turin Breaks more than once.
“Sparkle Me” begins the album with a perfect evocation of languid glamour. The melodies are slightly sad, the guitars are appropriately jangly, and Scragg’s voice lifts the song to a gratifyingly indolent climax. In the space of one track they’ve already mastered the kind of achingly sincere detachment that enabled Coldplay to become one of the biggest bands in the world.
“Casino” introduces some aggressive guitar work and allows the band to showcase a slightly less fey facet. “Sunlight” kicks things back down a notch, however, and introduces the album’s first truly majestic melody, an affecting shuffle that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with most of what succeeds on college radio these days.
“The Day She Fell to Earth” is a similarly effective track, but the matter of Scragg’s voice must again be mentioned. If you don’t mind highly affected, demonstrably yearning vocal performances, you should have no problem whatsoever with Scragg. If, however, you have a low tolerance for keening, effeminate male vocals, you would probably do best to seek your pleasure elsewhere. This track, just like the rest of the album, depends on his slurred vox for emotional gravity. But sometimes it’s more annoying than not.
“Who Stole the Weekend” continues the album’s pattern of alternating one slow ballad with a midtempo rocker. The problem is that when the Buffseeds try to punch their rhythms up, they sometimes lose sight of their melodic impetus. It’s a fine line to draw, but it seems that an expert producer could easily remedy this problem. “Barricade” is perhaps most redolent of Travis, with a genially loping beat and loosely graceful guitar work.
“Riot” is the album’s most convincing rocker, with a quiet/loud dynamic that surges in time to Scragg’s slurred equivocations. If they could consistently harness these two conflicting forces to the service of their melodies, they would have no troubles at all. “Ocean Blue” introduces some unfortunate sonic ornamentation (xylophone or glockenspiel?), but also highlights a joyfully Corgan-esque guitar fuzz movement. The album ends with the fragile “Hideaway”, an effective capstone for The Picture Show‘s melancholic splendor.
This is a good album. Based on the sole evidence of the Buffseeds’ ample melodic instinct, I predict that they might someday produce a great album. But The Picture Show suffers from unfortunately generic production. Pop like the Buffseeds’ needs to shimmer and crackle in your ears, and unfortunately, only the very best of their material registers as much as you feel, perhaps, it could. If the buzz around their debut translates into interest from someone who can take them the extra step they need to travel in order to fulfill their potential, we could see great things from this group. If not . . . well, they wouldn’t be the worst group out there with an annoyingly fey vocalist.