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.

Various Artists: Greetings from Area Code 207, Vol. 1

Digging roots

Charlie Gaylord gathers homegrown talent

For Greetings from Area Code 207, a new compilation disc featuring 19 area artists [this originally ran in the fall of 2000], Charlie Gaylord sheepishly admits that there wasn’t exactly an open casting call. “It was a bunch of people that I knew and liked,” he says. “I had a list of people I wanted on it, and after my list there wasn’t any room left, really.”

He also openly admits that he had the idea for the CD well before it became a benefit effort for the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, whose restoration efforts will receive 100 percent of the proceeds from CD sales. “I took the idea from the Homegrown ’CLZ thing,” he says, referring to the run of four CDs featuring local talent released by the now-defunct WCLZ — and no, the all-sports ’CLZ doesn’t count. “They really did a lot for local music. I wanted to keep that tradition going.” So, he pitched the idea of a Homegrown-esque album, with himself as producer, to just about every radio station in town. They all said, “No thanks.”

Then he went to ’MPG, one of the last vestiges of local radio playing local bands. Surely they would be up for the idea. Nah. “They were planning on doing something similar,” says Gaylord, “so they declined.”

However, their loss turned into the St. Lawrence effort’s gain, as St. Lawrence head Deirdre Nice happens to have a show at ’MPG, and “the idea just came up” when Gaylord remembered the successful fundraising effort he participated in with Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers — he plays guitar — at the Portland Yacht Services Building last February. “They helped me out because I didn’t have any money to put into it,” he says, so, paradoxically, those who would eventually benefit started out as benefactors.

But, as it turned out, Gaylord didn’t need much by way of cash. Matt Robbins (King Memphis-track 16) and Pip Walter (The Piners-track 6) donated as much time as anybody needed at their Cape Elizabeth studio, the Track Farm. The bands all donated their songs, and when it came time for mastering the effort, none other than Bob Ludwig and his Gateway mastering took time off from the digital re-mastering of Frampton Comes Alive to polish up the 72 minutes of music Gaylord had put together. So “money wasn’t a real big factor,” he says.

To top things off, the Skinny will be donating their club for the big release party this Saturday that will feature just about every band from the album. Twelve of them, in fact, in an alt-country celebration that will be a blur of 20-minute electric and acoustic sets by Diesel Doug and the Muddy Marsh Ramblers, the Piners and Jerks of Grass, even folksy crooner Carol Noonan, of Knots and Crosses fame.

Of course, if you’re a fan at all of roots music, you won’t care at all about any of that. This is one of the best discs released anywhere, by anybody, this year.

There are some things the discerning fan will recognize. Slaid Cleaves released the opening track, “Last of the V-8s,” on his 1997 Rounder album No Angel Knows, but the choice is a great one, featuring his mellow alto voice, along with Gurf Morlix and Donald Lindley, early Lucinda Williams band members. “Eighteen Wheels of Love” is certainly a Diesel Doug favorite. Included here is a live version, recorded this summer at the Stone Coast Brewery by Lance Vardis’s magic recording truck. And Cindy Bullens’s “Tell Me This Ain’t Love” is a track off her 1993 Blue Lobster CD Action, Action, Action, but, hey, she’s been on the Today show and Conan, so Gaylord was lucky to get anything out of her.

What really stand out, however, are the unreleased gems Gaylord has uncovered. He finally coerced the Jerks into the studio, and with success. Their “Highway Paved with Pain” is resplendent with what makes the Jerks great. Jason Phelps’s high lonesome vocals are backed by solid harmonies, their instruments are apparently played at double-time, and they’re never going to be mistaken for rock stars: They include three tries at getting the song started, and finish up with the phone ringing in the background.

Gaylord has also captured the first Muddy Marsh Ramblers tune, Scott Conley’s wistful “Timberline,” and Jenny Jumpstart’s recording debut, a haunting rendition of Diesel Doug’s “Circles.”

Then there are the coming attractions. The Troubles weigh in with the only pop/rock song on the album, “Get the Money Up,” to be featured on their upcoming Here We Go Again sophomore release. With a mid-’80s Mark Knopfler sensibility, and Joe Brien’s driving vocals, they prove again they’re the best smokey, mean, dirty bar band in town, even if they don’t want to be.

The Piners have some new things in the works as well, with a new album to be released early next year. Word is, “Take the Wheel,” track 6 here, will be the first single. It’s a slow, soulful number, and when guys hear Boo Cowie crooning that she’s “on the prowl for a man who can growl and keep me just a little insane,” they’ll be lining up outside her door.

The album ends with yet another unreleased track, a 1992 demo from Manny Verzosa, “Texas Lasts Forever.” One of the first to pick up the alt-country torch in Portland, Verzosa’s music was saddly never released; he met an untimely end in a tour bus accident with his band the Silos in ’93. It’s a poignant song that drives home the lonesome undercurrent that runs through the entire disc. A fitting close to a memorable album.