It’s been 10 years since Buffalo Tom made its bid for some semblance of mainstream notoriety with Big Red Letter Day. Sadly, the band never became a household name despite earning accolades as a masthead in the early ‘90s’ modern rock movement. Buffalo Tom was an omnipresent constant in Boston, and regardless of what other bands would claim, was the unofficial representation of that city’s sound. The band refined the slacker rock of Dinosaur Jr., had a knack for the Lemonheads’ hooks, and kept a finger on the pulse of Boston’s working class. For those who listened, Buffalo Tom was a deeply personal band that spread universal emotions over tight, livewire choruses. After an impressive run of six records over ten years, Buffalo Tom went on an indefinite hiatus; its uneven swan song (for now, at least), Smitten (1998), documented a tired band in search of a much-needed rest.
Buffalo Tom’s lead singer/guitarist Bill Janovitz has since gone it alone, releasing two folksy and stripped-down solo records: 1997’s Lonesome Billy and 2001’s Up Here. While the records were an admirable departure from Buffalo Tom’s muscular rock, neither put Janovitz under his strongest spotlight: the leader of a visceral rock combo.
Janovitz’s new Fireworks on TV! is a long-awaited and welcome return to the husky rock of his past. Recorded a few years back during the final days of Fort Apache Studios (Boston’s answer to Abbey Road) with backing band Crown Victoria (Phil Aiken on keyboards, Tom Polce on drums, Josh Lattanzi on bass), Fireworks on TV! is not so much a time capsule as it is a warming echo. The album’s set of 15 songs recalls the glory days of Big Red Letter Day, but it never retreads them. Crown Victoria is a band cut from a distinctly different cloth, a little more loose and carefree than Buffalo Tom’s airtight uniformity.
Fireworks on TV! opens with the methodical haze burn-off of “One, Two, Three”, a song that blends the melodic sensibilities of Buffalo Tom with the darker recesses of the Twilight Singers. The song’s story—charting a woman’s mysterious disappearance - easily speaks to the longing ache in Janovitz’s graveled voice: “She probably drinks a glass of beer / A thousand miles away from here / Or maybe she is underneath the sea”. Crown Victoria digs deep into the song’s chorus (what could be referred to as the prototypical “Janovitz chorus”) and harvests it from the roots.
Not surprisingly, Fireworks on TV!‘s best songs are those that crackle and smolder with Janovitz’s peerless energy. “Almost Beating”, with its hammered-on strums, rollicking tempo, and tambourine trills, is an audible telegraph from Janovitz’s salad days. “Sinking” and “Florida” are raging gems, schooled in an exasperating, unrelenting force. The propulsion of “Believe” is invigorating, the band running the impossibly infectious chorus ragged, dragging its simple refrain until entirely spent. “Revealed” is a volatile kiss-off, mixing its indignation in a thick, fiery rock stomp: “Instead you’ll tear apart / The fragments of a diseased heart / And try to pick my brains a bit / But I won’t give you the benefit”. (Lattanazi’s bass has this intriguing moment where it slides from an unexpected note to its intended note; at first it sounds like a mistake, but upon repetition is revealed as something more than that. It’s quite cool to hear.)
The mood is softened a few times, most notably in the acoustic-based title track. Among the chorus’ country harmonies and some sublime imagery (“Out in the halogen / I saw our story end”), Janovitz muses on representations of truth and perception: “All these things are ours to see / They’re like fireworks on TV / They show reality / But not so vividly”. The song is repeated in its electric, “basement” form as the album’s closer, but it’s much more effective as an acoustic strummer and offers a nice offset to its electrified companion tracks.
The album’s minor flaw is its length; 15 songs at a little over an hour stretch good intentions a bit far. But that can’t be harped on for too long, for such a large selection of songs is surely intended as a gift to the fans, who have eagerly awaited a wealth of Janovitz rockers. To those who have sat impatiently, wondering if Janovitz would ever reclaim his rock and roll spirit: rejoice in the staggering vitality of Fireworks on TV!. For those who are new to Janovitz’s talents, here’s as good a place to start as any.