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.

Eggbot: Father’s Day

Who’s your daddy?

Eggbot gets paternal, grows up a bit

Eggbot has always delighted in irony. No surprise, then, that one of Portland’s most puerile musicians has now released a disc called Father’s Day [this was Feb. 2007 – nowhere near Father’s Day].

From his stature (his “Eggbot Has a Posse” sticker lists him at 5’ 6”) to his mode of transportation (bike, all the time) to his love of crude humor (his web site features a photo of Eggbot fencing with a dildo), the Farfisa-playing madman is predictable in his unpredictability, like the oldest ever and most grizzled teenager (Danny Partridge, maybe, definitely not Keith).

He is also a treasure of the local scene and entertaining as hell. Luckily, he’s put out albums at a steady enough clip we never forget that.

His latest delivers everything his cult fans love him for: the rolling and vamped out left hand bassline and a hammering right hand busting pop chords on the Farfisa organ, paired with explosions of rock-solid backbeat from Tristan Gallagher on the drums. When Eggbot’s chorus-pedaled and distorted vocals enter, singing absurdities and lilting choruses, it’s like finding a long-lost stuffed animal in the closet. I think of him as a Beatles-loving pink bunny, really.

He’s willing to play it up, too. His opening track, “I’m Dead,” reliably repeats the title roughly 10 times and even features this pair of lines: “I’m the baby in the city … I’m the son you’ll never miss.”

Of course, he’s also “Queen of Nefertiti” and “the son of Alger Hiss,” an old soul that appreciates history. Who else would have dedicated an album to Maynard Ferguson, Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett, and Joseph Hill, four underappreciated musical luminaries who all died in the summer of 2006 and can easily be heard as influences on Eggbot’s style. Ferguson was a jazz trumpet player, and it’s always a little thrill when Eggbot busts out “Hobo Death Camp,” which features a trumpet so distorted it sounds like the tortured screams of some alien life form, and comes to Father’s Day after appearing as “Old Hobo Death Camp” and “New Hobo Death Camp” on 2002’s There’s No Denying the Existence of Eggbot. Here, I love how Jim Begley’s recording has the trumpet shooting between the left and right channels like a rocket through the sky.

Arthur Lee was the frontman of seminal ’60s pop group Love, one of the prime purveyors of the pop that has always been Eggbot’s raison d’etre. He takes the foundation Love and others poured and tweaks it, not to mock it, but rather to show that it is so strong it can withstand any number of deviations outside of mainstream taste. On “Belly Button Window,” we get a wonderfully simple “nah-nah-nah” lead in to the final choruses, but we also get lyrics like, “The mountains tremble/ Black clouds pass/ Jungle parts/ A monkey ass.”

Syd Barrett is Lee’s natural extension, and in many ways the link between Lee’s past and Eggbot’s presence. As a founder of Pink Floyd, he laid the groundwork for the psychedelic 20 seconds of Super Mario Brothers backing music that finishes “Aswaldo” (pronounced very much “ass waldo”). And then there is Joseph Hill, founder of Culture and advocate of the “International Herb.” Eggbot may not worship Haile Selassie, but his albums sure do sound better one spliff later.

You don’t have to be stoned, though, to notice that Eggbot has obtrusively added the electric guitar to his repertoire, and uses it to pay tribute to another hero, Jim Hendrix, with a stirring instrumental, “Hendrix Jazz Jam,” that features a ripping solo right off the bat. Just the fact that there are two instrumentals on the disc shows an appreciation for the likes of Edgar Winters and Gary Glitter.

More importantly, Eggbot is moving his sound forward by looking backward, and that’s a welcome development. Part of Eggbot’s appeal is schtick, and any schtick can get old if you hear it enough times and it doesn’t get any better. Eggbot gets better by showing a little self-awareness and offering up new sophistication — dare I say maturity? — that culminates in the majestic “Heaven and Earth,” what might actually show a sentimental side to our resident court jester. He details a suicide with some note of compassion: “I hear the lights go out/ The angels start to sing/ One shot, there’s no doubt/ It’s the end of everything.”

The song finishes with a big guitar solo accompanied by crashing drums and then the familiar ba ba ba ba-da-da-dahh chorus of “Hey Jude,” maybe the world’s most bittersweet coda. But don’t get used to it. After a minute of silence, Eggbot finishes the album with a toy-sounding organ rip and Gallagher’s circus drumming.

Maybe he’s not quite ready for fatherhood.