Although Buffalo Tom began with the stated intention of capturing the din of a “guitar army,” the Amherst, Massachusetts trio later did an about-face to invoke the unplugged sound and fury of a small platoon of folkies. The band’s penchant for melody-laced amps-on-stun racket (and its chummy relationship to Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis) earned a nickname of “Dinosaur Jr Jr.” from smartass rock critics, but that sobriquet does capture the essence of Buffalo Tom’s early records as well as anything. The debut kicks up a satisfying squall as guitarist Bill Janovitz’s earnestly overwrought vocals vie to be heard over the six-string turbulence of songs like “Sunflower Suit” and “500,000 Warnings.” Mascis, who co-produced the album, contributes lead guitar to “Impossible.”
Mascis took the same studio role (sharing credit with Sean Slade and the band) on Birdbrain, which boasts most of Buffalo Tom’s best songs. The exquisite “Enemy” features a dramatic chorus nailed down by a killer riff; “Baby” is an unpretentiously lovely throwaway. The giddy propulsion of “Guy Who Is Me” and “Directive” make the tracks as invigorating as a cold shower. Providing a taste of things to come, the CD closes with two acoustic bonus tracks, “Reason Why” (a song off the first LP) and a cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Heaven.”
Let Me Come Over marks a jarring shift in direction as the boys unplug in a big way (a puzzling move, considering that grunge was at its height at the time of its release). Although the electric “Velvet Roof” is a revved-up delight and the pristine “Mineral” a minor classic, the album’s folk-hearted plangency and heart-on- sleeve lyrics add up to a deeply drippy listening experience. [Big Red Letter Day] continues in the same vein, a shotgun marriage between folk and rock sensibilities that amounts to a brave failure. The plainspoken sincerity of songs like “I’m Allowed” and “Would Not Be Denied” is admirable, but it’s hard to imagine Buffalo Tom getting much wimpier without alienating its core audience.
Produced by John Agnello (Cell, Kerosene, Chainsaw Kittens), Sleepy Eyed restores much of the guitar firepower to the trio’s sound — and not a moment too soon. Simultaneously grungy and clean, anthemic singalongs like “Tangerine” and “It’s You” do a lot to restore Buffalo Tom’s erstwhile status as everyone’s favorite raucously sincere college rockers. A rewarding synthesis of the two approaches.