Branching out

Taking flight with Phantom Buffalo
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  August 18, 2010


Did you forget how much you love Phantom Buffalo? I did. And I'm sorry. Caught up in the rapture of new bands and this little roots revival this town is in, it may have slipped my mind that Phantom Buffalo are the whole package: songwriting, performance, smart, fun as all hell, and completely accessible.

Their new record, Cement Postcard with Owl Colours, is a slap in the face for those, like me, who may have forsaken them — with unimpeachably great pop hooks that slam into you after elongated sonic build-ups that rock you to sleep and deliver surreal dreamscapes from which you'll never want to wake. A full-bodied 12 songs, many of which run past five, six, or seven minutes, it even sounds impeccable coming out of the speakers, with engineering from Todd Hutchisen (Baltic Sea, Seekonk) that's as friendly and unassuming as the guys in the band.

And because they recorded this album a while back, it's even comfortably familiar. "Radio Signal" you've heard on Greetings from Area Code 207, Vol. 7, from 2007 (hey — I hear there's another one of those in the works), but it hasn't diminished any. It's got an anthem-rock open, but typically subdued, before Jonathan Balzano-Brookes enters with his clear-voiced falsetto: "Follow the lines behind me/Ancient ruins are made of sound." It's what you might call emblematic of their sound, the song I'd play for other people after saying, "This is Phantom Buffalo."

Similarly, "Greenstar Botanical Airway" manages to be both pop sing-along and indie art-rock, with each version of the chorus having a different arrangement, moving from a piece full of floor tom and cymbals from Jacob Chamberlain and an echoing guitar creating a strobe-like dream state into a full-bodied rock bit, then descending into an instrumental movement with a keyboard that's mixed as though behind the wall of guitar sound, the melody like a bright flame encased in a metallic cage. Finally, Balzano-Brookes's vocals rise up out of the darkness — "the black orchid photographer/you are, the furthest point from the darkest start/you want the black orchid photographer" — repeating around and around, riffing with his vocals in slow motion, a slow-spinning pinwheel of reflected light.

Counterpoint to this kind of sprawling opus is the compact "Ray Bradbury's Bones," with a countrified acoustic guitar and accordion from Phil Willey and then slide guitar, and a very Americana guitar melody. Except that Balzano-Brookes has kind of an anti-twang, winsome where others might be snarling, and his vocals are kind of fuzzed out through the song, like sunlight through a fog.

The band go farther afield from their norm, too, with guitarist Tim Burns contributing three lead-vocal turns, including "Bad Disease," which features a great crunchy guitar line, with crackles and rough spots, and a swell of sound into an orchestral wash that finally breaks into a digital feedback swirl. Burns doesn't come off quite as naturally as Balzano-Brookes, but his warble delivering phrases like "into a zombie flower" is pretty endearing, and Balzano-Brookes carves out notes with pure vocal tones behind him like ringing bells.

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