Mmmm tastes like mid-90’s nostalgia. Goes good with Capri Sun juice packs and flavor ice.
Capri Sun and flavor ice are early 80s for me.
But whatever. This video is great. This song is great. I’m posting it to let you all know that I’m still alive, and I’ll be back soon with a repost of Volume 1, the first appearance of Volume 2 all collected into one place, and hopefully the beginning of Volume 3. Sooner rather than later, and I mean it this time.
I’m disappointed to inform you that the video for “Hellbound” by the Breeders, which I saw on 120 Minutes in the early 90s and therefore know exists, is unavailable on the internet. The closest I can get to a video from Pod, therefore, is this video for “Safari,” the title track from their follow-up EP, and final release to feature Tanya Donelly on guitar. In a way, this is a good thing, because the video for “Safari” is far more interesting than the video for “Hellbound” (scene from the latter in which blood drips onto Kim Deal’s face as she’s singing notwithstanding). For those in the know, “Safari” is an obvious tribute to Black Sabbath’s 1971 video for “Paranoid,” right down to Kim Deal’s brown leather jacket—identical to the one Ozzy’s wearing in the original video. Another fun thing to watch for—Kelley Deal’s almost complete inability to play guitar. At about 59 seconds into the video, there’s a clear shot of her staring vexedly at the neck of her guitar as she concentrates on getting the chord shapes right. I wouldn’t have noticed this, but when the Breeders were interviewed on 120 Minutes in 1993, around the time of Last Splash’s release, the video for “Safari” was played and she and Kim cracked jokes about how Kelley basically couldn’t play the song at the time they filmed the video. In a later interview that I read in some print magazine (Rolling Stone? Ray Gun? Who knows?), Kelley made a comment about playing lead guitar being easy, which Kim responded to by pointing out that she still only knew how to play about 20 songs, all of them by The Breeders. It seems pretty clear that nepotism was a key element in Kelley Deal’s becoming famous, because no one other than her sister would have hired her as a guitarist.
In an unrelated note, I’m almost entirely sure that the drummer you see in this video is not Britt Walford. I’ve seen Slint play, and Walford plays drums in the conventional cross-handed position. The drummer in this video, by contrast, plays open-handed. It could be that this is Jon Mattock, credited with playing drums on the song “Safari,” even though Walford played on the rest of the EP. Or maybe Walford, in his reticence to be officially identified with the Breeders, refused to appear in the video, and was replaced by some generic stand-in. It could be that more thorough Googling would locate the answer for me, but I haven’t found it so far.
You know, I love “Hellbound” and all, but I’m glad I was forced to post this video in its place. “Safari” is one of my top three Breeders songs ever. Its dark, foreboding feel and snarling distorted guitars make it their heaviest song ever, making the Sabbath tribute video doubly apt. And really, who can resist the sight of Kim Deal using syncopated gasps as part of a chorus vocal, and trying not to grin as she does so? This video is awesome. This song is awesome. Everything about this is awesome.
This was the first song by The Breeders that I ever heard. It was played on the local college radio station one afternoon, apparently right as I got home from school, because the first radio tape I had of it started in the middle of the second verse. The thing that stood out to me on first listen was Carrie Bradley’s violin. I loved that sick downward slide from the verses into the choruses, the way every other instrument in the band stopped and, by herself, she played a note that sounded like a record player running down. It went on too long, too—in order to keep on beat, it needed to last four beats, but instead it lasts five, just far enough over the time limit to throw off everyone hearing the song. Now, when I listen to it, I recognize that the way the note slides downward is a key change. The verses are in a slightly higher key than the choruses, and the violin transition may sound sick, but it makes the overall transition from verse to chorus sound better than it otherwise would. But now, I’m a musician, and I can hear stuff like that. When I was 14 and hearing this song for the first time, I was just a wide-eyed teenager with a hand-me-down classical guitar he hadn’t yet learned how to play. I loved how off-kilter the violin made this entire song sound.
It has a lot of other elements to offer, though, which becomes clear on further listenings. During the song’s verses, Kim Deal’s vocal melody, which is chirpy and singsong, is echoed by that of the violin. Deal also picks out a simple one-note rhythm guitar part underneath the violin and her vocals, but both Donelly and Wiggs remain quiet during the verses, leaving Walford’s drumming to carry the rhythm. This emphasizes the strange melody of the verses, and makes the contrast that much greater when Bradley’s violin slides into each chorus, at which time Donelly, Wiggs and Walford kick in with full force, pounding out a lower, heavier chorus. The gap between verses and choruses is filled by Bradley’s violin, but whenever the band transitions between the end of a chorus and the beginning of the next verse, it’s Walford’s drums that bridge the gap. His drums sound excellent on this song, and on Pod as a whole. Part of that is certainly due to the production of Steve Albini, who is known for his excellent drum sound, but it’s also got a lot to do with Walford’s pounding snare sound and precise timekeeping.
In fact, I think a lot of what makes Pod such a distinctive and excellent sounding album has to do with Steve Albini—not so much his production, as what his production symbolizes. At the time Pod was recorded, the Pixies had already followed up Surfer Rosa with Doolittle, on which they’d used Gil Norton as a producer. The material on Doolittle had its quirks, as all Pixies material would, but it also had a slicker, more pop-friendly production style. Albini’s no-frills sound, which made the album sound like you were sitting in the room with the band as they played, harked back to an earlier Pixies sound, with far less conventional rock elements. Pod was a subtle communication from Deal that she’d liked the earlier Pixies style better, that if she were in charge, they’d have continued along those lines.
“When I Was A Painter” most closely resembles Surfer Rosa material in the spatial relationship between instruments. There are almost no points during the song when all five members of the band are playing at the same time. As I’ve mentioned, Donelly and Wiggs don’t play on the verses. Then, once Carrie Bradley’s violin leads the band through the transition from verse to chorus, it drops out to make way for Donelly’s electric guitar. At the end of each chorus, everything drops out, leaving only Walford’s drumming. And at the end of the song, after a brief lead guitar break by Donelly, during which Deal’s rhythm guitar stops, Donelly also stops playing, and the last 30 seconds or so of the song feature only bass and drums, playing through the chorus riff in a heavy, drony loop that bears no resemblance to the singsongy verse with which the song started out. The sound of “When I Was A Painter” is relatively standard alternative rock as it existed at the dawn of the 90s. But in its construction, it more closely resembles dub, or the droning, patchwork instrumentation of mid-70s krautrock. It’s debatable whether the Pixies abandoned this songwriting template too quickly, but the Breeders definitely made good use of it on their own behalf.
Pod was the debut album by The Breeders, released in 1990 by 4AD Records.
Pod was the only Breeders album to feature their original lineup. Though the Breeders have come in later years to be identified with twin sisters Kim and Kelley Deal, Kelley was not an original member of the band. Instead, the band’s original lead guitarist was Tanya Donelly, then a member of Throwing Muses. The lineup was rounded out by violinist Carrie Bradley of Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, bassist Josephine Wiggs of The Perfect Disaster, and drummer Britt Walford of Slint. Their formation was inspired by Kim Deal’s frustration with her limited creative role in The Pixies. “Gigantic,” the only song on debut Pixies full-length Surfer Rosa to be written and sung by Deal, became a college radio hit, frustrating band leader Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black). He decreed that Deal would no longer be allowed to write or sing in The Pixies, and though she co-wrote one song on followup Doolittle, and sang backup on another, for the most part the ban stuck. Deal sought another outlet for her frustrated creativity, and during a Pixies/Throwing Muses tour, she and Donelly decided to form a side project.
Other than Deal and Donelly, though, the early Breeders didn’t have a set lineup to speak of. The demo tape that captured 4AD’s interest featured a bassist named Ray Halliday (who ended up with two co-writing credits on Pod, even though he never played on any official Breeders recordings) and four different drummers. When the time came to record an album, Deal, Donelly, and Bradley met up with Steve Albini in Scotland. While there, they recruited Englishwoman Wiggs as bassist, and Steve Albini suggested his friend Britt Walford as drummer. Walford, then heavily involved with Slint (who would record their seminal album Spiderland six months later), did not want to be officially associated with The Breeders, and was credited on Pod as “Shannon Doughton.” Other aliases he used during his time in the Breeders included “Mike Hunt” and “Roy Orbison.”
For Kim Deal, the Breeders served the purpose of giving her a creative outlet that she was denied in the Pixies. Aside from a cover of John Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” that was different enough from the original to seem more like an original composition than a cover, Deal wrote or co-wrote every song on Pod. The side project was less satisfying for Tanya Donelly, who now had two bands in which she played second fiddle to another songwriter (in Throwing Muses, it was her stepsister, Kristin Hersh, who wrote almost every song). At the end of 1991, after recording a follow-up EP, Safari, Donelly quit both the Breeders and the Throwing Muses to start Belly, a band in which she could finally be the leader. Kelley Deal had replaced Carrie Bradley in the band’s lineup on Safari, leaving them with three guitarists and the ability to soldier on without Donelly. When Britt Walford also quit the band after Safari, not wishing to become a full-fledged touring member of the band, he was replaced by Guided By Voices drummer Jim McPherson, giving the world the lineup of the Breeders that would reach their greatest levels of fame with 1993’s Last Splash. This lineup of the band was pretty great in their own right, but it was noticeably different from the version that recorded Pod. That original lineup is less well-remembered, but certainly deserving of attention. No less an authority than Kurt Cobain is widely quoted as calling Pod one of his favorite albums ever, and listening to it, it’s easy to see why.
Here’s Buffalo Tom’s “Late At Night” being used as background music for a scene in a My So-Called Life episode. The awkwardness and longing, the nervous attempts to pay attention to everything going on in everyone else’s life but have no one notice that you’re doing it, and again, the inarticulate dialogue… all of this feels like high school to me. Of course, while I related to Angela Chase back when I was watching the show, I knew that in reality, I was Brian Krakow, too scared to take any chances on rejection, or do anything that might get me in trouble. I’m still that way, to an uncomfortable extent. And by the way, can we get some love for Ricky Vasquez, who was, to my knowledge, the first gay teen ever portrayed as a sympathetic character on American network television? I guess in that way, My So-Called Life was kind of groundbreaking. But this post is supposed to be about Buffalo Tom. I know. Sorry.
When Buffalo Tom started, they were a Massachusetts power trio on SST Records, and their first album was produced by J Mascis, who also contributed a lead guitar track to one of the songs on the album. All of these factors made the temptation to label them “Dinosaur Jr Jr” irresistible to critics. Even at the time, when Buffalo Tom were not yet in their prime, it was a lazy comparison. Five years later, at the time of Big Red Letter Day, it was clear beyond any doubt that Buffalo Tom had their own sound that wasn’t easily compared to any one band.
“Tree House” is the sort of upbeat anthem that became one of Buffalo Tom’s signature songwriting templates, the other being the slower, more dramatic balladry of which Let Me Come Over’s “Taillights Fade” is the best example. Unlike J Mascis, who enjoyed the contrast created when he crooned softly over blasts of overdriven guitar chaos, Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz didn’t have much interest in in contrasting his melodies with anything. His upbeat songs were driven by fast, jangly strumming that evoked the same pastoral feel of country-influenced groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Uncle Tupelo, but contrasted that feel with melodies firmly based in pop songwriting styles. The influence of country music on Janovitz’s guitar playing is undeniable, but while his occasional solo releases dabble in elements of that genre, no country influences ever make it into Buffalo Tom’s music.
Some of that may be due to Tom Maginnis’s drumming style, which rumbles and percolates, especially in Buffalo Tom’s more upbeat moments, of which “Tree House” is definitely one. Legend has it that when Janovitz, Maginnis, and Colbourn decided to start a band, all three were guitar players, and when they couldn’t find a rhythm section, Colbourn and Maginnis agreed to switch instruments. If the legend is true, this indicates that Maginnis brought a guitar player’s sensibility to his drumming style, and that in turn may explain a sound that I found unique enough to be startling the first time I heard it. Tom Maginnis understands the way rock drumbeats are supposed to work, but it’s clear from the way he plays that he has no patience with such conventions. He keeps both hands busy at all times, hitting the snare not only at the appropriate point in each measure but at other times, tapping it lightly and quickly on offbeats to provide accents. This habit infects the way he plays the rest of his kit as well, inspiring more frequent drum fills than you might expect, as well as moments, especially on the song’s choruses, when he quickly departs from the beat in order to hit his drums in time with Janovitz’s strumming. His playing never sounds busy or overdone. Instead, it’s as if he sees the drums as just as much of a lead instrument as the guitar, and by constructing the parts he plays to fit in more closely with the guitars, he can make up for the hole that might be left in the band’s arrangement by virtue of there only being one guitarist in the band.
Maginnis’s drumming also gives songs like “Tree House” an urgent, breakneck feel, despite the fact that, even at their fastest, Buffalo Tom never gets beyond midtempo. On one level, Buffalo Tom, having come out of the late 80s Massachusetts college rock scene, are on a pretty remote branch of the post-punk family tree. Musically speaking, it’s only Maginnis’s frenetic drumming and Janovitz’s use of guitar distortion—which had become infrequent by this point in their career—that maintains their link with their roots in the post-punk American underground.
The passion that comes through in Janovitz’s vocals and lyrics, though, is another link that can’t be overlooked. While he never sings about political issues or speaks explicitly of rebellion against a mainstream society, it’s clear that the songs he sings and the way he sings them owe debts to heart-on-sleeve punk pioneers like Bob Mould and Paul Westerberg. That connection comes through on “Tree House,” which, like many of the songs on Big Red Letter Day, tells the story of a disintegrating relationship. In fact, the majority of the album has a downbeat feel musically as well as lyrically, as if Janovitz’s lyrical mood bled through into the riffs he was writing. On songs like “I’m Allowed,” “Would Not Be Denied,” and “Anything That Way,” he allowed himself to get down in the dumps about things, to wallow in heartbreak, perhaps in hope of eventually purging it from his system.
On “Tree House,” we find his attitude to be more one of resignation. The lyrics use metaphors related not just to trees but to nature in general to explain feelings of loss and hurt. As the song begins, Janovitz comes upon the object of his affection rooted in one spot. “Looks like you’re here to stay,” he says, then asks “when will you be leaving?” He recognizes that the person with whom he’s communicating has rooted herself in an unhealthy rut, and is trying to urge her to move on. But he knows it won’t work. In the second verse, he speaks of prior struggles to help her move into a healthier place. “I once held onto you so tightly,” he sings, then uses a deft bit of wordplay to express a depressing reality. “You were made of wood, and cried that no one understood, but I had splinters in my fingers.” The point of this couplet is that Janovitz has been there for this person in the past, has made clear that he was trying to understand, and to help her move beyond her own misery. But in the end, by holding on tightly, all he got was pain, and a feeling that his efforts were unappreciated. “Tears were in my eyes,” he sings passionately as the band rolls into the second chorus. “It’s no surprise.” He knew what he was getting into, as we all do when we enter those sorts of situations.
As the second chorus is drawing to an end, Janovitz plays a few lead guitar notes that lead us to expect a guitar solo. Instead, though, the band plows right into a third verse, and the urgency that his built steadily through the song keeps building. “Your mind is like a tree house, and I climb up its shaky ladder,” sings Janovitz. This seems like a metaphoric description of his attempts to save the subject of the song from her misery. But when he gets to the top of the ladder, he gets a shock. “Your bird flies with you, with claws of orange hue, and I watched you flying over my head.” I’m not sure whether the bird is intended to reference a new romantic interest, or merely the fact that the girl he’s singing to has finally freed herself from whatever rut she was in. The important point is that, in the end, she did it without him. This is when Janovitz learns the most valuable lesson to be gained from situations like this: you can’t save someone until they’re ready to be saved. They have to save themselves. All you can do is allow yourself to be pulled down with them, into their misery, which soon becomes your own. And then, when they recover from their problems, they will most likely leave you behind, feeling pain that they themselves no longer feel.
In the final chorus, Janovitz is left behind, standing in the empty tree house, screaming at the sky. “You could not care less, so you got more,” he declares, bitterness and heartbreak bleeding through his voice. “Like driftwood from the shore, you were rotten to the core.” But this kiss-off rings weak and hollow, and we all know that the person it’s intended for won’t hear it. This is the final resignation in a song about trying, failing, and finally giving up on a goal that may not have been a worthy one in the first place. As Janovitz ends the final chorus, spitting out the phrase “Rotten to the core” once again, Tom Maginnis brings his drumbeat down to a quiet tapping, and he and Chris Colbourn slowly raise the volume as Janovitz swipes at his guitar strings before finally being swept away by the buildup of the rhythm section. The three of them slam back into the verse riff and play it over and over as Janovitz howls a single phrase over and over. “Seasons change!” As with most of the other lyrics in this song, this is best understood as a metaphor. It seems to me that what he really means is “people change.” Relationships that we expect to build on and expand over the course of our lives instead disintegrate into arguments and laying of blame. Maybe we’re all better off just admitting that we’ve all got problems—whether they involve an inability to see the concern and support of others, or an unhealthy desire to fix people who really just need to fix themselves—and learning to forgive and move on.
Cassette Monday: Buffalo Tom’s fourth album, Big Red Letter Day, was released in 1993 on Beggars Banquet records.
Buffalo Tom have released seven studio albums over the course of their career, and out of those seven albums, I own multiple copies of three of them. Big Red Letter Day is one of those three, and I only own the cassette because of what happened to my CD copy. You can see it there in the pic along with the cassette, sitting in an empty jewel case (which still contains a backing card for the one-song promotional CD that originally came in it—a promo for Rocket From The Crypt’s “Born In 69” single). When I was much younger than I am today, I still loaned out albums to friends of mine. I’ve since learned my lesson; these days I tell people I will make them a copy of whatever it is they want to borrow, and I do so at my own expense. It’s cheaper than buying a new one, after all. The kid I loaned this CD to told me he’d lost it, and that’s why I bought the cassette. It was a used copy, fortunately, but this was back when used cassettes might still cost $3 to $4, before they became completely devalued due to obsolescence. A few months after buying the cassette to replace the CD, the kid found the CD and gave it back to me—but he hadn’t found the cover, just the disc itself. Surprisingly, I continued to loan stuff out to people for several years after this incident occurred before finally deciding that it just wasn’t worth the cool points.
When I decided to write about Buffalo Tom here, I vacillated back and forth about which album to use. Birdbrain was the one that got me into them, while Let Me Come Over and Sleepy Eyed are probably their best. But I had to go with Big Red Letter Day in the end, because of My So-Called Life. I’m not sure whether the amount of critical discussion that surrounds that show now is just a function of my generation having now reached a Certain Age, or if it really is as groundbreaking and era-defining as it seems to everyone like me who was 18 in August of 1994 when the pilot episode first aired. I’d argue that it is at least somewhat important, capturing the inarticulate stumblings and hormone-fueled awkwardness of teenagers in a way I hadn’t seen before it came along, but when I watch it now, it has its share of cringeworthy moments too.
But the reason I’m talking about it in the context of an article about Buffalo Tom is because they appeared in an episode of the series. I was already a huge fan of theirs by the time they made their network TV debut on My So-Called Life. I was glad to see them getting recognition and hoped it would give their popularity a boost. Instead, I spent the next several years having this conversation:
Me: “Blah blah Buffalo Tom…” Other person: “Wait, that band from My So-Called Life?” Me: “Yeah, that band. I fucking love them.” Other person: “Wow, they’re real? I thought they were made up for the show.” Me: [Inarticulate sounds of frustration]
I’m guessing that despite “Late At Night” being prominently featured in the show, sales of Big Red Letter Day did not get a push. And really, I can kind of understand. “Late At Night” is one of the worst songs on the album. Out of the two or so songs per album that bassist Chris Colbourn would take lead vocals on, I only ever thought that “Darl,” from Let Me Come Over, and “Witches,” a non-LP B-side, ever measured up to the quality level of guitarist/usual vocalist Bill Janovitz’s songs. They should have picked one of the other songs; almost any of them would have been an improvement.
It took me a few months to get a copy of Beaster, even though I wanted one badly. That’s how it was back in high school, you know? Never had any money. Anyway, the first time I heard “JC Auto,” it was when it got played on the local college radio station. I never heard the DJ announce what it was, but I recognized Bob Mould’s voice, of course, so I wrote it down on the dub I made of the radio show as a Husker Du song. I couldn’t imagine that Bob Mould still had this sort of angry fire in him. His vocals sounded harsher and more intense than they had on anything he’d done since New Day Rising. After three progressively more mellow Husker Du albums, two acoustically-inclined solo records, and an extremely melodic Sugar debut, I figured Mould’s yelling days were over. It didn’t bother me to think that; after all, he was getting older, and his newer records were still good. I just didn’t think I’d ever see him do another song like “Real World” or “I Apologize.”
A few bits of ephemera that you may well already know and have just chosen not to mention, but that I can’t be helped but ramble off because I’m an obsessive Bobophile:
My understanding of “born on a holiday” (and, well, the whole Beaster concept) is that Grant Hart’s birthday fell on/around Easter. I’ve always read the subtext of JC Auto as Bob basically saying “go ahead, blame me for the collapse of Husker Du, I’ll be your martyr,” which kind of typifies the sort of passive-aggressive anger Bob so frequently directed Grant’s way in interviews and such.
the lines “Parts Of It Seem Over Now, You Expect A Real Solution” and “People Outside Inside Staying Out for Nothing” are nods to the Workbook track “Poison Years,” which is also quoted melodically over those lines (and which is also, predictably, about Grant).
No, I didn’t know either of those things, that’s really interesting. Thanks.
Also, aren’t you the one who pointed out the “Crystal M-E-T-H” thing from Candy Apple Grey to me? First song “Crystal,” then “Merry Eiffel Tower High”? You’re a pro at catching this stuff, which I would never think to look for.
Here’s PJ Harvey and her band playing “Dress” on The Late Show, which I think is the British program Jools Holland hosts and not the American one with David Letterman. The real reason I’m posting this version instead of the MTV video is because I’ve always thought that this song has more power and intensity live than in the studio version. It’s missing the violin overdub, but the guitars and vocals are a lot harsher, and I think that’s awesome. The section after the song’s final chorus is particularly devastating here.