Donna the Buffalo’s Positive Friction

cover art for Positive FrictionChris Woods wrote this review.

At last! The second album from Donna The Buffalo. I have been waiting for this since I heard the first one a couple of years ago. Why is it that second-rate bands can bring out an album each year (or even more frequently) while musical treats like this are two years apart?

I can’t fully explain exactly what I find so refreshing and appealing about their music, but basically there is something in their playing and arrangements, and about their energy and enthusiasm, that I find totally irresistible. No matter what sort of mood I’m in, whenever I play their albums I start tapping my foot, and within minutes I feel my mood improve. People tend to dance rather than walk through the room whenever their albums are playing. Play it when friends visit, and they start tapping their feet.

It’s a rare mix of infectious rhythm and a sureness and lightness of musical touch, combined with arrangements which retain enough familiarity and pop sensibility to be easy to listen to while at the same time being new and original. Cajun music often has a similar combination of rhythm and lightness, but after a while it begins to all sound similar. Donna The Buffalo have a definite Cajun influence and have managed to create the same type of lively and infectious musical atmosphere although with varied arrangements and songs and tunes from quite different rhythmic roots.

Donna The Buffalo is a six-piece band — Jeb Puryear on electric guitar, steel guitar and vocals; Tara Nevins on fiddle, accordion, vocals, rub board and tambourine; Jim Miller on electric guitar, and vocals; Joe Thrift on Lowry organ and synthesizer; Jed Greenberg on bass; and Tom Gilbert on drums. There is plenty of equipment to make a serious noise when required and a range of instruments that provide plenty of scope for instrumental arrangements that vary from gentle and melodic to loud and lively, and all points between. In addition to the wide range of instrumental skills, the band has three good vocalists and at least two first class songwriters! The band’s lineup has not changed over the last two years, and I think the stability shows in the feel of their playing.

The first album was startlingly good for a first album. This one continues the trend. It is actually a little less tight, a little less controlled in some ways, but that is no detriment whatsoever. As soon as you put the album on, you realise that the band really enjoy playing together. They’re all pulling exactly the same way with a musical cohesion and shared enthusiasm that carries across to the listener even on record.

Their music is quirky and fun, and although it’s easy to pick out influences it defies any easy comparisons. In places it’s a downright silly mix of styles and influences (e.g., a reggae blues version of “Man of Constant Sorrow”!). However the result is so effective at all levels. The rhythms are infectious, the playing is superb, the style is refreshingly different and direct, the songs are well crafted and the instrumental parts are well worked out. You can ignore the words and simply dance around to it, you can sing along to it, or you can sit and listen to it; it works just as well. A track may have a reggae bass beat mixed with a Cajun fiddle and country-style guitar over a supercharged Cajun two step rhythm with an organ partly reminiscent of the Doors. The band mix and blend the styles so well it sounds perfectly right.

In a sense, Donna the Buffalo have gone back to the original American styles, added some external world influences like reggae, calypso, South American, (well almost anything really) and melded them into an electric rock sound which has bypassed the narrow stylistic filters of commercial genres such as country, bluegrass, rock, or Cajun. While you can hear all of those influences and more in their music, the result doesn’t fit any of the individual genres.

On my first listening, this second album didn’t have quite the instant impact of the first one, but I think this was simply a typical listener symptom of the “difficult second album” syndrome. The first album from a band with a unique sound is always a novelty; the second time around we know what to expect. If we get what we expect then the novelty factor is removed and if we don’t get what we expect we feel cheated because the band have changed their style. It makes for a difficult situation for any band! In this case the band haven’t changed their style, although the range of influences has expanded this album is instantly recognisable and very consistent. It’s difficult to pick a best track, they all have something different going for them.

The first track, “No Place Like the Right Time,” is probably the easiest track to categorise, being superficially what we over here in the UK would describe as “alternative country.” It’s the only track on the album that allows such easy labeling, although it’s still very enjoyable for those not partial to country music. I don’t know if it’s getting any radio-play in the U.S. from the stations that specialise in that genre, but I hope so.

The second track, “Movin’ On,” is definitely more typical of the band’s stylistic blend. It has a fast foot-tapping Cajun two-step rhythm and an old-timey, slightly “lazy” fiddle part. This is mixed with a “New York” rock-style electric guitar intro that owes more to the Velvet Underground than roots music, plus wailing keyboards and a rock-style backing.

The rest of the album flows on in a similar style of mixed influences. By the third track, “Yonder,” the band are well into their stride. The tracks are well programmed with very short breaks between songs, which allows the album to flow effortlessly. I’m not going to attempt to describe each track as there is a much better alternative to my written description – we’ll get to that in a moment.

The recording quality is very “upfront,” direct and free of studio artifice. When digital recording was in its infancy, there were long debates over the relative merits and demerits of digital (clear but artificial) against analogue (warm but noisy) recording. It doesn’t say how this CD was recorded, but it has the best of both: a very warm, full, direct sound reminiscent of analogue combined with crystal clarity. If such a thing existed as a perfect sound quality live mix, it would sound rather like this. The sleeve notes say it was produced, recorded and mixed by Jeffrey Lesser at Pyramid sound NY. I don’t usually take much notice of recording details nowadays; like many people I take it for granted that CD’s nowadays will have good sound quality. But this is such a first class job that he and the studio deserve an honourable mention.

The alternative to my describing the tracks is for you to take a listen. Donna The Buffalo’s web pages are impressive indeed. Not so much for the information about the band, although there is plenty, but for their, and their record company’s, open-minded attitude to allowing fans to hear their music. On their web site you can find literally hours of live recordings, mostly Real Audio streams. You will also find links to tape-trading pages where live tapes of shows are available.

Please remember that these live shows don’t sound quite like the album. The sound quality using Real Audio is nothing nearly as good, and these are direct live recordings. Inevitably, as with any live show you don’t always get a perfect mix, and as with any band live performances vary. What you do get, which to my mind is more than adequate compensation, are some wonderful extended instrumentals and alternative versions of the songs on the album. Interestingly, it’s often the songs that sound weakest on the albums which provide the best platform for excellent extended instrumental breaks when played live.

I personally love listening to good live recordings. Apart from the obvious, that a live recording with no edits soon sorts out which bands are good and which need a studio to get it right, live recordings have an unmistakable atmosphere. A studio album has to compromise and fit tracks into the playing time in a way that sounds good after repeated playing, so a studio mix tends to condense the music. It’s great being able to listen to both live and studio versions. It’s also clear from the live recordings that the songs on this second album were in the band’s repertoire before the album was recorded. Consequently the material on the album is well tried and tested, without doubt this is one of the reasons why the band sound so together and relaxed on the album.

Positive Friction is an excellent second album from a first class roots rock band, a must have in the music collection of anyone who likes electric Cajun music and electrified roots music. Although they are an American band and they sound American, I find their style fits easily into my collection of UK folk rock material alongside people like Edward II and Oysterband.

(Sugar Hill Records, 2000)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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