[2 September 2008]
If a famed touring band makes a studio album in the forest, does anybody really notice? Upstate New York jam-folk veterans Donna the Buffalo invite such gnomic rhetorical questions. Any approach trajectory to this band tends to come along the road-warrior channel. There seems to be more worth saying about Donna the Buffalo’s biodiesel bus, their self-curated roots festival, or their Deadhead-esque following, dubbed the Herd, than there is to say about the musical output upon which, apparently, this unimpeachable touring reputation is built.
It is perhaps beyond reasonable to expect that a roots band whose appeal is founded on fanbase loyalty and which is entering its second decade might produce music that is exciting and contemporary. On the margins of fashionable indie music, there are hundreds of acts approximately like Donna the Buffalo, carving out aesthetically respectable and commercially viable careers outside of the influence of the hip music media. They don’t get the press that, say, Goldfrapp or Vampire Weekend or Will Oldham get. Perhaps that’s due to relative differences in artistic importance, or because earning your own buzz outside the indie press is even worse than having it manufactured for you by a corporate label, in the view of taste-making music writers. Or perhaps the embrace of the traditional that inevitably underlies genuine roots music is anathema to the trailblazing self-constructions that drive indie rock.
Still, there’s undeniably plenty of integrity and quality to Silverlined, Donna the Buffalo’s seventh record and one of their most vital in recent years. As always, their craft is predicated on the interwoven styles of the lead songwriting duo, Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear. Their songs are alternated with ruthless predictability (the only songs by the same writer/singer that butt against each other are Puryear’s side-bookends “Meant to Be” and “Biggie K”), but the his-turn-her-turn sequential arrangement allows Silverlined to evade any lurking possibility of ennui.
Nevins’ vocals hint at neon-encrusted Nashville but crab-walk imperceptibly to more rustic locales. Her melodies are suspended from familiar hooks and her lyric sheet seems to yellow with age. Lines such as “try to trust in the heart of a faraway man” in “Locket and Key” are drawn like blood from the deep vein of common country themes. But she can allow her voice to flatten out and acquire a mean edge in a break-up song like “Broken Record”, to say nothing of the Cajun-blues swagger she musters in “I Don’t Need a Riddle”.
Puryear, for his part, can also revel in country enunciation, as in “Blue Eyes” or “Biggie K”. But his deadpan quirk in the lyrics of the latter (“Biggie K’s a superstar / makes me glad to be from Mars”) pushes the proceedings in odder directions even more than does the frontier-saloon lead piano or the New Orleans big-band horns. Closing track “Forty Days and Forty Nights” combines even stranger elements: funky guitar, bonfire fiddle, and even more deadpan lyrical wackiness (“Laid around, drinking tea / Waiting for God to tell us who to shoot”).
What does the combination of these two distinct voices on top of a masterful tapestry of roots elements add up to? A good deal of charm, some excellent musical ideas, and a well-earned reputation as one of America’s premier touring roots acts, certainly. Maybe Donna the Buffalo doesn’t accomplish much more than that on Silverlined, or anywhere else, but they strike their preferred targets rather easily, and that has to be appreciated, above all.