Not too long ago – when explaining the need for self-compiling cds/playlists for those artists who already had a compilation out in the world, I mentioned that compilations are strange thing. That you’re never going to please everybody with a selection (in the linear notes for The Essential, Bruce Springsteen suggests that “one man’s NYC Serenade is another man’s Rosalita”*) and that my choice of what I’d consider essential listening very rarely coincides completely with the ‘official’ compiler’s (usually because they’re doing so with a specific, marketing-dictated aim rather than just cherry picking).
There are some compilations, though, that are as close to perfect and essential as you can get. They do that rare thing of providing as solid, all-encompassing an overview as is possible in a dozen or so tracks in a manner that will provide a great entry-point for the uninitiated and give the already-converted a good career-spanner to listen to when they don’t feel like going through whole-albums. A good track-listing can also allow tracks to breath a little differently, have a better light shone on them than when otherwise buried on an album (see Long Time Comin’ on Springsteen’s Chapter and Verse – of which more to come later).
Now when it comes to recalling bands from Boston, I imagine those that get mentioned would include Aerosmith, The Cars, The J. Giels Band, Pixies, possibly even Dropkick Muphys and, of course Boston. I don’t know how many would pull up the trio of Buffalo Tom but, save for a bit of a break between 2000-2007, they’ve been a stalwart of indie-rock since their first album, the J Mascis produced self-titled effort, dropped in 1988.
After shifting song-writing gears for the 90’s, they became a pretty popular alt-rock band and yet, while Big Red Letter Day even managed to crack the top 20 over here, they never achieved the popularity their songs and music deserved. It is mind-boggling to me, and I’m sure others, that bands like The Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox 20 got gargantuan levels of exposure while how-did-they-miss singles like “Taillights Fade” and “Mineral” remain songs I have to enthuse to people about as they’ve never heard ’em.
Of Buffalo Tom, I’ve read of them being described as “like a bar band fronted by an anxiously melancholic whiskey-fueled Alex Chilton” while even the too-cool-for-this Pitchfork said of them: “solo-ridden guitar-god aspirants Buffalo Tom: 1) named themselves after their drummer and Neil Young’s first band because it’d have been too much trouble to come up with anything really new; 2) played assorted variations on the strummy post-pop that filled collegiate airwaves throughout the 1980s because innovation is overrated; and 3) wrote sharply observed conversational lyrics because it was too hard to be obscure.”
This album came into my hands upon day of release thanks to my hearing “Taillights.. ” on a magazine sampler and seeing (just one of so many) highly-starred reviews against this comp. Having since gone back and accumulated the band’s discography, it’s still Asides From that gets the most plays (I’m genuinely surprised the disc hasn’t given out, the case certainly has). It contains the perfect selection of their finest from the 11-year period represented and the non-chronological sequencing makes this feel more like an album of absolute all-killer-no-filler than a compilation-by-rote. Early-cut “Birdbrain”, for example, is daft but is so full of hook as to be a barn-stormer and here rubs shoulders with the more bluesy-throat of “I’m Allowed”.
What such a track-listing also highlights is that, despite their lack of mainstream or commercial breakthrough, Buffalo Tom remained staggeringly consistent in terms of quality – album closer (and then final single) “Wiser” is one of their finest moments but here sits among plenty of equals – and remained ready and willing to bring it to every session.
While it isn’t going to break any new ground or make anyone wonder “how are they doing that?”, Asides From Buffalo Tom contains 18 very strong songs (even their cover of The Jams’ “Going Underground” is worth a listen) – in a way the fact that I’ve still yet to bump into anyone who shares this knowledge makes em feel just that little more ‘mine’. Still, I’m sharing it here and recommend – given how little it’ll cost – it to all.
After the release of Asides in 2000 (and the quickly-following Besides..), Buffalo Tom took a bit of a break – singer Bill Janovitz dropped another solo album, took up real estate, wrote a couple of books on The Rolling Stones – before getting back together and releasing Three Easy Pieces (2007) and Skins (2011). Both reveal the band remain consistently capable of a great tune and contain tracks that could easily sit alongside those on this best of – particularly You’ll Never Catch Him, Down and Don’t Forget Me (which features co-vocals from Tanya Donelly of another Boston band, Belly). There’s hints/rumour/suggestion of new Buffalo Tom music on the way and it’s something that I’m eagerly anticipating – a now long-term love for a band kicked of and continually fuelled by this compilation.
*or another combination – it, like all of my music collection, is currently sealed up in a box in the ‘spare’ room of my new house.