[13 January 2005]
Warner signed Canadian hip-hop artist Buck 65 in 2002, after he had enjoyed several years of relative success on the underground hip-hop circuit—including a run of favored albums, a consistent touring schedule, and close ties with Oakland’s Anticon collective. There was also, presumably, a calculation by Warner that he might mature into a songwriter with the reach and long-term marketability of Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits.
The first part of that calculation was immediately vindicated: Square and Talkin’ Honky Blues, his Warner releases to date, have exhibited a fully-developed story-telling talent. Talkin’ Honky Blues, in particular, picked up more new listeners than it alienated backpackers with its live instruments and folk- and country-influenced range of sounds.
This Right Here Is Buck 65—on the V2 label—seems calculated to address the second part of that calculation: to break Buck 65 to the American market. It is a compilation of several tracks from Talkin’ Honky Blues and Square, a handful of material available only as b-sides and online exclusives, and reworkings of older material in his current style. Although it lacks—narrowly—the thematic coherence that made Talkin’ Honky Blues a masterpiece, this is quite certainly an essential release by an artist that seems likely, if there is any justice at all, to spend much of his career reshaping popular music. He’s just that good.
Buck 65, whose real name is Richard Terfry, hails from rural Nova Scotia. His off-kilter reading of hip-hop tradition has been on display since the early ‘90s, and was made explicit on his first solo LP, Language Arts, released in 1997. Subsequent releases and collaborations (particularly with fellow Canadian Anticon associate Sixtoo) have always foregrounded an essential restlessness, which at least seems borne out by a handful of off-beat biographical details: a flirtation with professional baseball, an appearance on Sesame Street, and a temporary residence in Paris.
That restlessness shouldn’t suggest a diffuse talent, though, or a willingness to flirt with different influences and textures without integrating any of them fully. Terfry’s various story-telling influences—including Waits, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac—have by now been so thoroughly absorbed into a developed and individual style that it is next to impossible to pick them out. “Talking Fishing Blues” is a Guthrie cover, but it’s no more than a tip of the hat: it fits seamlessly amid these tales of drunkenness, wit, escape, loss and self-assured élan.
“Wicked and Weird” openly references Cash, but its gleeful, freewheeling, associative ode to the open road recalls Waits. There is something of the same surreal stream-of-consciousness flow, the same cast of oddball characters drawn into half-chosen, half-forced situations. There’s also some of David Lynch’s talent for subliminally evocative imagery, but even here, at his most surreal, Terfry’s eye for detail—“Cough drops, loose change in the beverage holder”; “5 o’clock shadow, lips like mudflaps / Hands like eagle’s talons, eyes like hub caps”—is precise and accurate in a manner undeniably his own.
There’s a perfect confidence to his writing, a confidence that allows a song as personal as “Roses and Bluejays”—about his relationship with his father since his mother’s death—to be conducted entirely at the level of surface observations. The details themselves, and their juxtaposition, perfectly conjure a sense of drift and directionlessness, and, somehow, a deep-rooted belonging. The image of his father clearing snow with a flamethrower encapsulates a moment of rage, loneliness, of silent futility.
There’s the humor, too: “463” opens with a rant about “the youth of today” that is both brilliant parody and an evocation of the scale and magic of childhood: “When I was a kid… The whole world was made of wood and smelled like gasoline / The days were at least twice as long and the grass was green”.
The highlight is probably “Cries a Girl”, which balances its soft-hearted and wistfully mournful narrative—a girl whose life is ruined by rumors of incest—with the hard-boiled and grandstanding frame of a tall tale.
It would be possible to pick charms endlessly from these songs—and, indeed, from those omitted. None of Talkin’ Honky Blues‘s “Riverbed” series is included here. The older songs are less studded with perfectly-drawn observations and precisely-framed images. But even they exhibit a startling density, from the hilarious braggadocio of “Centaur” and the melancholy “Bachelor of Science”, through the wounded trust of “Pants on Fire”. The changes in arrangement here suit the material: “Pants on Fire” trades the simple, dusty guitar throb of the original for a broader, washier, more diffuse treatment; different rhythmic eddies and undertows surround the lyrics, somehow making a familiar song again treacherous.
Terfry’s voice is the most notable change from the originals: where it was nasal, hurried, and slightly unsure, it is now broad and gruff. The Waits influence is obvious, but it doesn’t sound at all borrowed or unearned: sometimes it is dropped boxlike to hammer out rhymes; sometimes Terfry uncoils—unfurls—it with a great depth of control.
With the addition of guitars, pedal steel, harps, and various other live sounds to his lo-fi turntablism, Terfry has matured from a stark and original producer to a brilliantly evocative arranger. The broader palette serves his taste for kooky and transient Americana, not to mention the rustic and elegiac nostalgia that suits his more involved tales. There are some obviously commercial choices here: “463” ditches the hard-edged harpsichord riffs of the original in favor of a forceful guitar-led arrangement, presumably with an eye on American radio airplay. But the arrangement choices are always appropriate. A dreamy, hazy warmth envelops the loss and human waste of “Cries a Girl”. “Craftsmanship” moves with a brisk, business-like motion through the description of a shoe-shiner’s trade, but when the song’s content becomes more obviously analogous—“It ain’t about the dollar or trying to go fast / Unless you take pride in what you’re doin’, you won’t last”—a simple electric piano figure broadens and slows the song’s momentum. The plucked strings and reverb-drenched guitar that open “Roses and Bluejays” evoke a measured distance between father and son—before organ stabs and clattering snareshots suggest an improvised and comfortable intimacy.
Then there’s the bleary despair of “Out of Focus”, the “Rawhide” echoes that bounce “Bandits” from verse to chorus. When the add-ons and rarities that round out this collection—including hidden track “The Abandoned Cars of Inverness County”—are of this quality, it seems futile to try to pick holes. Terfry shows no sign of slowing down: a sequel to Talkin’ Honky Blues is due this year. His appeal isn’t just in the wedding of hip-hop to the American folk tradition; other artists from Beck to Timbaland have taken respectable shots into that acoustic barrel. Buck 65 is doing something more ambitious: reading a tradition of American storytelling through hip-hop. The expansive, inclusive, digressive American voice that runs through Guthrie and Dylan (and stretches back to Whitman) doesn’t sound out of place for a Canadian like Buck 65, any more than it did for Kerouac. Terfry has some of Mark Twain’s frontier nostalgia (his concert tall tales about Pythagoras’s fear of beanfields suggests a sure grasp of Twain’s sense of humor). Where he takes this ambition next will be fascinating to hear. This release is a pretty good summary of what he’s been up to so far.