Phantom Buffalo: Take to the Trees

Being the boss

Another glimpse of the Phantom Buffalo

Talk about long-awaited: The new Phantom Buffalo record was recorded at Thundering Sky, down in South Berwick, over four days in August, 2005. That’s right, 2005 [this likely landed better in late-summer 2008, when it was written].

So why do songs I’ve heard 100 times still seem so brand-new? Perhaps it’s the glimmering, polished sheen that coats each of the tracks on Take to the Trees, an album lovingly released by Nemo Bidstrup’s Time-Lag Records with beautifully fantastical packaging and the barest of liner notes. Phantom Buffalo are the rare band that can seem both lo-fi and perfectly produced at the same time, a result of Jonny Balzano-Brookes’ pure and sometimes child-like soprano and the expert intertwining of the band’s three guitarists, Brookes, Phil Willey, and Tim Burns, with instruments as varied as a Moog organ and an accordion.

They have a near perfect feel for song dynamics, as though their tunes were alive and breathing, moving from the barest whisper to a thrumming growl. Somehow, the chorus to “Be the Boss,” perhaps the band’s most well-known song thanks to its inclusion on Greetings from Area Code 207, Vol. 6, says it all: “Even in our minimized world, we can survive, girl.” They’re like a music box that shatters the windows with sound when you open it.

Phantom Buffalo open their disc with “Dusty Disguise,” single-note surf guitar in the right channel, crunchy chords in the left. Now-departed drummer Joe Domrad has a light touch on the cymbals, and Balzano-Brookes is at his most sing-songy, to provide apt contrast with the chorus: “But if we had a long and slow and painful demise/ I think it would it would be like we were covered in a dusty disguise/ And not at all a pretty one.”

They have a knack for making the maudlin merry, and mid-way through “Disguise” they ramp up into a rave-up, full of harmonica and rock: “I’ve been feeling ill lately/ Have you been feeling ill lately?”

No. Listening to this record is like huffing nitrous. I can’t feel a thing.

“Dynamite Squirrels,” from the Killing’s Not Okay EP, features a crisp three-beat all-stop before a crashing chorus. “Mrs. Connelly,” which has been up on the band’s Myspace page for a while, is utterly plaintive, with yet another great singalong — “You can leave all your numbers behind” — chorus and guitars that charge up and crescendo in the second half. “Five Charming Animals” comes off beautifully odd, auto-biographical, and bombastic.

And then there is “Who Was Your Only Man,” which might not be the best song here, but maybe encapsulates everything this band is capable of. It opens just about cow-punk, carnivalesque, with drums keeping you slightly off balance. The accordion provides a backing wash, while we empathize with Balzano-Brookes: “In the spring/ I’d like a thing/ With a lovely girl/ But I can’t/ And I won’t/ Because I’m lost in the world.” Later Burns (who also sings lead here on the poignant “84 Today”) chimes in with some great call and response in the second verse before the band build through finish into a distortion-filled jam, like the best of Built to Spill.

It’s an epic in 4:23, just as this album has everything you could want in nine songs and 35 minutes. Phantom Buffalo continue to deliver on all of their promise — even if they’re a couple years late in doing so.