New Buffalo: The Las Beautiful Day

[27 March 2006]

By Josh Berquist

Despite a name suggesting otherwise, Broken Social Scene have always shined brightest the bigger a collective convened. From Stars to Feist to Jason Collet or Apollo of Hustle, no individual assortment of members or soloists has attained the same impossibly slipshod majesty of the group in their unwieldy stage-packing profundity.

New Buffalo emerges as an even further removed deviation from Broken Social Scene’s core. Not only is New Buffalo the first artist added to the Arts & Crafts label without any direct affiliation with the Scene itself, they are also the first to emerge outside of the Canadian confines where cross-pollination has proliferated an uncanny assortment of indie upstarts.

Not so accurately labeled as a “they” so much as a “she”, New Buffalo is Sally Seltmann, an Australian sharing the married name of Avalanches’ member Darren Seltmann. After a well-received EP via EMI in 2001, Mrs. Seltmann set about recording a big budget debut before her backers lost their nerve and pulled the plug. That put Sally back into the domestic and aesthetic oasis she staked out with her husband and instilled her with the resolve to go at it on her own within their home studio.

The end result of all this is The Last Beautiful Day, which came out across her homeland in 2004 but didn’t see stateside release until picked up by Arts & Crafts in 2005. The album finds itself solidly at home amidst the numerous other underwhelming efforts circling around and spinning off Broken Social Scene. While The Last Beautiful Day is enjoyable enough, it lacks any intrinsic idiosyncrasy to distinguish it from anything else that is at most merely nice and at worst a tad banal.

As the upfront focus of every track, Seltmann’s performance is somewhat subdued. Never strained and often plain, her voice is far from striking. That can conjure up some endearing albeit limited appeal. Similar singers such as Mirah or Beth Orton are invoked but Seltmann lacks the smoldering intimacy of the former or the assured cool of the later.

Musically the arrangements are uniformly sparse. Mostly comprised of minimal live recordings over layers of indistinguishable samples, these songs stake out no readily discernable identity of their own opting instead for complacent pleasantness. Some tracks take on Stereolabby propulsivity but they can’t quite sustain any momentum. Live drums help advance the movement of certain songs but even then they never travel very far.

Ultimately it all comes together as an unobtrusive stream of pleasantries devoid of any distinct appeal. It’s as nice as an amalgamation of Beth Orton, Mirah, and Stereolab could get but lacks any of the vitality or vigor that keeps those other artists so much more stimulating. The album is a neutered confusion of all these references as exciting as sniffing stale dryer sheets or watching televised golf on mute with a bellyful of Xanax. It’s not necessarily unpleasant, but it certainly isn’t much of a thrill.

It’s arguable that thrill was never an intended sensation from a work that prides itself on homespun intimacy. Still there is a substantial difference between petting a kitten in your lap and staring at one over a camera phone monitor. Both are pleasant enough but one has a much more palpable capacity for tangible enjoyment. The Last Beautiful Day fails to attain that later level of pleasure and only hints at a much more limited source of warmth or comfort.

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