A NEW LEVEL OF FOCUS But Phantom Buffalo are still enjoyably absurdist.
Sometimes all the cutesy artwork and twee vocals (which I quite like) can obscure the fact that Phantom Buffalo are a kick-ass guitar band, like Built to Spill's little brothers. Especially when they fall out of rotation, playing rarely live and recording a full album in August of 2011 only to release it to the world in the dead winter of 2013.
And so while the brand-new Tadaloora is a joy in its own right, it carries an added kick as a reminder of all the great music Phantom Buffalo have made in the past 15 years. This is now their fourth important full-length effort and easily their best, displaying a new level of focus and precision alongside their trademark absurdist lyrics and winsome alterna-pop.
The album, with a narrative concept that's wholly enough delivered to act as an extra book in Lewis's Chronicles (if ghost-written by Dali), starts with glistening Belle and Sebastian-style trumpet and Western swing for a sub-two-minute "Gilded Gate." Here is the omniscient narrator: "I can show you all around this place/But who am I?/You have not seen my face . . . I'm the cat upon the tall woodpile."
And he's setting ground rules: "Just say please and thank you . . . don't pick the ladyslippers in the woods." There is no question the Buffalo are among the nicest pop rockers you'll ever come across. "Field and Forest" is a single minute of acoustic guitar and "la, la, la" that broadcasts images of pretty girls in white dresses in the middle of fields of wild flowers in the bright August Maine sunshine. It's immaculate.
Other tracks, especially late, get dirtier and sprawl and mesh two or more seemingly separate songs altogether. "Flag City" spends a couple minutes as just fingerstyle acoustic guitar and a closely mic'd Jonny Balzano Brookes; then we get an electric strum that's bellbottoms warm and a strutting electric Tim Burns guitar solo, like Sherriff's badges and moustaches, in the right channel. The repeater on the guitar warbles like a bad trip and the lyrics question your sanity: "I met the eldest goldfish king/His white moustache was curling as he started to sing/I see your teacup sprang a leak/I'd carry it to shore, but I'm just too old and too weak."
Obviously. The jam that follows must just murder in a live setting, with some Hendrix psychedelia fueling the head nod.
"Horse Named Reginald," too, is all spacey Sean Newton bass in the front, charging in with flute blasts and a martial snare, before it opens up into a pure pop 30 seconds in the second half, Balzano Brookes delivering "you can see us only in the summertime" with that lilt he can pull off that just breaks your heart right in two if you're inclined to nostalgia at all (of which I'm certainly guilty).
And just to prove they can still do a knock-out chorus, there is the two-minute "Foghorn," with its verse full of ominous bass drum, like a horde of cuddly orcs are gathering in the tunnels, giving way to an uppercut of major-chord sing-along.