Tales of Tadaloora
Phantom Buffalo makes a masterpiece
by Chris Busby
In music criticism, the word “masterpiece” must be used sparingly if it’s to mean anything to a listening public jaded by daily bombardments of hyperbole. Here at The Bollard, our music writers have exercised admirable restraint in this regard. A search for the term in our archive yields a handful of instances over the past seven years when a song was described as a miniature “masterpiece,” but the word has yet to be applied to an entire album by a local band.
Until now. The Portland indie-rock group Phantom Buffalo’s fourth full-length release, Tadaloora, is a masterpiece.
For an album to achieve this level of respect, no song or section of any song can suck, even a little. This disqualifies a multitude of otherwise excellent records, including Phantom Buffalo’s previous releases, like its sprawling debut double-album, ShiShiMuMu, from 2002, when they were known as The Ponys.
Also, the term more readily applies to albums with a coherent aesthetic, theme or story. Thus I would argue, by way of example, that the late Vic Chesnutt’s first five albums are all great, but his sixth, The Salesman and Bernadette, a sonic novel of sorts, is a masterpiece. Likewise, XTC’s Skylarking, which moves from youth to death as it progresses, is a masterpiece, whereas the album that followed, Oranges & Lemons, is merely a fantastic collection of songs.
Tadaloora contains no clunkers. Every one of its 13 tracks is a keeper. And a criticism that could be lodged against its stellar predecessor, 2010’s Cement Postcard With Owl Colours — that the sections of some songs are overlong or repeated one too many times — is not applicable here. Many tracks are made stronger by virtue of verses left unsung and choruses that don’t come back, allowing the composition to wander into more intriguing territory.
Tadaloora is a concept album set in a mythical land that loosely resembles medieval Europe. People and animals mingle as equals. There’s a subtle magic afoot: in the lot where a burned-down house once stood, flowers bloom in the colors of its paint. A winged creature, possibly a frost-breathing dragon, rules the skies, from which a man made of glass descends a staircase with “candlelit railings and steps made of feathers.”
Star-crossed lovers have caused kingdoms to clash and the bride was killed in the crossfire. But that’s considered Tadalooran history, and the album doesn’t follow a straight narrative. Guitarist and lead singer Jonathan Balzano-Brookes, who came up with the concept and lyrics, chose instead to make each song a sketch of Tadaloora’s characters and events.
The album opens with “Gilded Gate,” a lovely, sprightly little song, accented with trumpet by guest Jimmy McGirr, in which a mysterious narrator welcomes you to the realm and gently admonishes you not to “pick the lady slippers in the woods.” Who is our guide? “I’m the wind. I’m the spirit of the secret isle. I’m the cat upon the tall wood pile,” Balzano-Brookes croons in his exquisite falsetto.
This is the first time the band has worked with guest musicians. Their contributions are used judiciously, on just a few tracks. Dave Noyes’ cello thickens the gorgeous melody of “Amateur Florist.” The flute on “Oldest Man” and “Horse Named Reginald,” courtesy of Nicole Rawding, lends those songs an air of Renaissance grace perfectly matched to the material. Similarly, Brian Graham’s baritone sax bits on “Sea Lion Saves Librarian” reinforce the fun of that ditty.
Lighter interludes like “Sea Lion” and the acoustic instrumental “Field and Forest” provide respite between longer pieces of impressive grandeur. “Stark Glass Man” blossoms from a series of plucked notes into a richly textured rocker with a glorious coda. “Oldest Man” morphs seamlessly from jaunty pop to psychedelic rock fueled by Tim Burns’ snarling guitar lines.
The foursome of Burns, Balzano-Brookes, bassist Sean Newton and drummer Joe Domrad frame the prog-folk midsection of “Frost Throat” with a sludgy Sabbath intro and outro louder than anything they’ve recorded for public consumption before. “Flag City” begins as an acoustic ballad, then slips into an electric boogie addled by more sinewy string-bending by Burns.
The verse sections of the last song, “Journey To The Castle Of The Racing Wind,” may have the catchiest hook Phantom Buffalo has ever gifted to the world — and given the catchiness of the rest of their catalogue, that’s saying something. When this song disintegrates into chiming guitar notes and feedback over a scattershot drum solo, then floats away just shy of the seven-minute mark, it’s not unexpected, but certainly not unsatisfying, either. After over 50 minutes of music, the listener is simply amazed.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Phantom Buffalo has made one of the best rock albums any Maine band has ever released. The core members of the group have been playing together longer than pretty much any other rock band in the state. This year will mark their 15th anniversary.
The liner notes of Tadaloora list six band members, including drummer Jacob Chamberlain and multi-instrumentalist Philip Willey. Chamberlain played on Cement Postcard and is currently manning the kit while Domrad follows other pursuits in Hawaii.
Willey has contributed guitar, accordion and keyboards to every other Phantom Buffalo/Ponys release. His involvement with Tadaloora, though not musical, is astounding nonetheless.
Willey’s indie game company, Dirigo Games, made a Tadaloora video game that doubles as a “first person jukebox” to promote the album. In Tadaloora Adventure (which can be played online at dirigogames.com), players wander around the mythical land in search of a crown’s missing gems. Songs from the album play as you enter various parts of the virtual world.
Willey designed the landscape based on Balzano-Brookes’ map and lyrics, with additional input from Burns and Newton, who also contributed artwork. Newton’s paintings hang in a gallery inside the game, and old gig posters are plastered on the walls of other structures. It’s a beautiful place full of canyons and waterfalls, trees and flowers blowing in the wind, a castle atop the moon circling overhead. Like the album, the more time you spend with the game, the more cool things you find. Climb the staircase to the moon and see what happens.
Ponys and Buffalos
Phantom Buffalo owes its existence to two things: the alternative rock revolution of the 1990s, and Maine College of Art.
“It literally started with Sonic Youth,” said Balzano-Brookes, who, like his bandmates, is now in his early 30s. One day in art class, Willey noticed the Sonic Youth patch on Balzano-Brookes’ backpack, and the two struck up a conversation about music. Before long they’d recruited Burns (a fellow MECA student and Willey’s roommate), and Newton, also a MECA student, joined the incipient group. Their friend Nick Polifroni, who worked in the photo department at MECA, was their first drummer.
Polifroni moved back to Michigan early on. His departure is the subject of “Cheer Up My Man,” the last song on ShiShiMuMu — “Cheer up, my man / you know you didn’t break up the band.” Indeed, following a minor shuffling that briefly put Newton behind the drum kit, Domrad entered the picture and The Ponys were born.
The band members had all been “super obsessed” with Nirvana in high school, Balzano-Brookes said, but it wasn’t until they delved into the music that influenced Nirvana and Sonic Youth — The Velvet Underground, early David Bowie, late ’60s Kinks — that their own sound began to emerge.
You can hear the weirdness and whimsy of the Velvets and Bowie on songs from ShiShiMuMu like “Wilamena” and “Cheer Up My Man.” The Sonic Youth and Nirvana influences show up on rockier numbers like “Catfish” and “Wimp Souffle.” But then there’s the trippy pop of perhaps their most famous song, “A Hilly Town,” which sounds like nothing so much as The Ponys themselves.
Another key influence arrived in the form of Nemo Bidstrup. At the time, Bidstrup was “not the kind of person you’d forget,” Balzano-Brookes recalled. “He had a huge beehive of dreadlocks woven up on top of his head.” Bidstrup runs Time-Lag Records, the local label that released ShiShiMuMu in the U.S., and later put out the EP Killing’s Not Okay and the full-length Take to the Trees. He convinced the band to take the unconventional approach of recording directly onto two-inch analog tape, rather than use digital technology, and to release their debut double-album on vinyl.
That process gives the music a “warmer, more natural, organic” sound, said Balzano-Brookes, and the band has employed it ever since. (These days, past albums are also available on CD and as digital downloads from their Bandcamp page; a vinyl edition of Tadaloora is in the works.)
ShiShiMuMu put The Ponys on the map. The double-vinyl album itself is an artifact to behold — Balzano-Brookes, Willey and Burns collaborated on the stunning cover art; Newton has collaborated on other covers. It received a glowing review in Mojo magazine, which noted: “The more you listen, the more beautiful and strange it becomes.”
The band toured the country in 2004, including a set at the high-profile music showcase South by Southwest, in Austin. The album and their showcase appearance captured the attention of Rough Trade Records, the legendary indie label based in London that released early albums by The Smiths and Camper Van Beethoven, and later had success with records by The Strokes and Belle & Sebastian, among many others.
Rough Trade committed to releasing The Ponys’ next album, but just as the band was on the cusp of breaking big, it began to break apart.
One issue was their name. At the Austin showcase, they encountered another band named The Ponys, this one from Chicago. A cease-and-desist letter from the Chicago Ponys’ lawyer followed shortly thereafter. The Portland Ponys had neither the money nor the will for litigation.
But the bigger problem was internal. Personal strife and disagreements over the group’s direction killed the momentum they’d been generating. The guys had been good friends for half a decade at that point, but as Burns said, “we had no idea how to deal with anything negative in our band.”
Rough Trade was releasing ShiShiMuMu in Europe, but the group was in too much disarray to play shows to promote it. They didn’t have a manager, a tour manager, or anyone else outside the group to handle the business end of things. Eventually Rough Trade’s offer just dissolved.
“It was a real struggle for such a long time, a couple years” said Burns.
“That was a learning and growing point,” said Newton. “We learned to let go. Whoever wants to show up, that’s fine. Whoever wants to be involved in a certain project, that’s cool.”
The group gradually got back on its feet — and, after what Newton described as “two weeks of pretty intense brainstorming,” settled on a new name. “We landed on two different words: ‘buffalo’ and ‘phantom,’” Newton recalled. They originally preferred Buffalo Phantom, but an online search turned up a Little League baseball team in upstate New York called the Buffalo Phantoms. Wary of more legal issues — not to mention bat-wielding youngsters, Newton joked — they switched the words around.
The Take to the Trees album of 2007 put songs from their live shows on tape, including such fan favorites as “Be the Boss” and “Mrs. Conalley.” But it wasn’t until later in the decade, when they began working on Cement Postcard, that Phantom Buffalo reached a new peak.
Produced with their friend Todd Hutchisen (The Baltic Sea, Seekonk, etc.), the sessions for that album “felt very natural, very comfortable,” said Newton, who added that the low-key atmosphere was important for the band at that stage. “I feel like it’s our psychedelic album, in a way,” Newton said of Cement Postcard.
In 2011, the band began work on Tadaloora. Unlike previous albums, which contain a few songs primarily written and sung by Burns, the new one is entirely comprised of Balzano-Brookes compositions, though all the band members collaborate on the process of shaping the finished songs and adding their instruments’ parts.
Balzano-Brookes has been writing songs about magical animals and flowers and trees and lands ever since the band began. “I’ve been interested in that kind of thing as far back as I can remember,” he said. Balzano-Brookes dedicated Tadaloora to his two grandmothers, who encouraged his love of fables and magic.
The new album was recorded at Acadia Recording Company, in Portland, in August of 2011. For well over a year after that, the band raised money for its release through Microcultures, a French label that uses a crowd-funding model to help bands release their music. The liner notes of the finished CD contain the names of dozens of contributors who pre-ordered copies to help Tadaloora see the light of day. Including recording, mastering and manufacturing, the album cost about $8,000 to make.
Early reviews in Europe, where Microcultures released Tadaloora last fall, have been positive. The band plans to play shows here and abroad this year in support of the album, and hopes to attract the interest of an indie label in the States to give Tadaloora national distribution, but they still don’t have a manager.
The band members attribute their group’s longevity to the strength of their mutual friendships and the fact they’re still inspired and challenged by the music they make together. Phantom Buffalo deserves fame and fortune, but the lack of those things won’t be the band’s demise. A key to future success, a stateside record deal, “would be great,” Balzano-Brookes said, “but we’ll be alright if it doesn’t happen.”
You can hear Tadaloora in its entirety, as well as all of the band’s previous releases, on phantombuffalo.bandcamp.com. A local CD release show is being planned for February. Check our weekly music listings for updates.