Wednesday, June 26, 2013

REVISIT AND REWIND: Grant Lee Buffalo – Mighty Joe Moon (1994)

As a college student in the mid-to-late-90s, I was concerned with authenticity in music (or, more realistically, what I perceived to be authenticity) – folk idioms, rustic lyrics and archaic instrumentation were what I traded in, and my CD collection became overstuffed with albums by such similarly-minded artists as Palace, Richard Buckner, and belatedly but most-importantly Grant Lee Buffalo.  This LA threesome had been on my radar for quite some time, and I had dutifully avoided them like the goddamn plague for reasons that seem idiotic now, and should have then.  I didn’t like singer Grant Lee Phillips haircut and Nehru-looking jacket on the cover of their debut “Fuzzy”, and subconsciously I think I equated what their music must sound like with another god-awful band named Fuzzy that was in rotation on the college radio station where I DJed.   Even praise from R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe (on whom I had what I am fairly certain was a non-sexual man-crush) on the cover couldn’t sway me.   The chip on my shoulder was too big and I was churlish enough to declare that without hearing a note of their music, I HATED GLB! 

Like many poor college students at the time, I was also a member of several mail-order “record clubs”. I would ritually order the several free albums that were offered without ever fulfilling the obligation to buy additional music at full price.  I distinctly remember belonging to BMG Music Club under three different variations of my given name, and for a while it was glorious.  Every once and awhile, however, the system would catch up to me and I would be forced to purchase the CD that was sent, and wouldn’t you know it, I ended up getting stuck with a copy of Grant Lee Buffalo’s sophomore release, “Mighty Joe Moon”.  It sat unopened on the desk in my dorm room for weeks as I was apparently too lazy to repackage it and return it.  One night, after a couple more than a couple “beverages”, I drunkenly ripped open the packaging around the jewel case and threw the CD into my boombox.  The guitars that ushered in opener “Lone Star Song” roared from the speakers and my insides quaked.  The production was molasses thick and Phillips’ voice sounded like Johnny Cash being chased by angry demons, all tuff gnarl and sinew.  Almost immediately, I felt like a chump.   This is what I had railed against???  I loved shit like this!  And the next 12 songs were full of what my 19-year old mind had as the ideal of the authentic: old-timey instrumentation (dobro, pump organ, marimba, mandolin), dusty and lived in production (courtesy of bassist/multi-instrumentalist Paul Kimble, the unsung “hero” of the group), and lyricsthat melded contemporary imagery with what Greil Marcus dubbed “the old, weird America”.  This was music that sounded like what I imagined living like a hobo must feel like – free and unfettered, wistful and melancholy.  The fact that Phillips’ 12-string acoustic was overdriven to the point of feeding back was just the icing on the cake.  And did I mention his voice?  The way it would swoop from his smooth but rumbling lower register into a heartbreaking falsetto was miraculous and perfectly suited to the stormy, sturdy musical foundation that Kimble and drummer Joey Peters created. 

None of this would, matter, however if the songs weren’t any good, and I stand by the assertion that at least half of the tracks on this album are some of the finest songs written in the last 30 years.  First single, “Mockingbirds”, is likely one of the only songs of the alt-rock era that is successfully written in waltz-time, and album centerpiece “Lady Godiva and Me” transforms from a pedal-steel-assisted lament (courtesy of ace session guy Greg Leisz) to a maelstrom of guitar and pounding tom-toms.  The deal-sealer, however, is the one-two gut punch of “Happiness” and “Honey Don’t Think”.  Fitted deep in the album’s tracklist, I cannot think of two more beautiful and heartbreaking musical moments.   The hushed resignation of “Happiness” was perfectly suited to a 19 year old prone to navel gazing and lamenting the loss of girlfriends (real and imagined).  When Phillips croaks, “the difference in the two of us comes down to the way you wrestle with things I just put down”, I can still feel my teenage self break a little.   The sunnier Yang to “Happiness’s” Yin, “Honey Don’t Think” perfectly hedges its desperate longing  to be understood with the far more pragmatic refrain “honey don’t think you’re liable to figure me out”.  We are all puzzles at the age of 19 - to ourselves and our partners - and the 6-minute trip through depression, confusion and yearning that “Happiness/Honey Don’t Think” fostered made perfect emotional sense to me.  It was there as a salve for me many, many times when I was too far into my own head to think clearly and too drunk (on booze, on women, on my own self regret) to focus on anything but the pain.  Powerful stuff.

Ultimately, “Mighty Joe Moon” would open the doors to other bands and musical genres, and I treasure its unwitting (and for a long time, begrudging) place as a Rosetta Stone of sorts for me.   It makes me a little sad that I can never recapture what it felt like that first time I heard Phillips, Kimble and Peters firing on all cylinders, but I look back fondly on every time my teenage heart broke and mended with it as its soundtrack. And that seems appropriate. 

Stray Observations:

As amazing as Phillips songs are (and they are nothing short of amazing), I thought and think that Paul Kimble’s production on the first three Grant Lee Buffalo albums MADE them the truly special pieces of art that they are.  Kimble left after 1996’s “Copperopolis” and his touch was missed on the Buffalo’s final album, “Jubilee”.

For whatever reason, “Mighty Joe Moon” is mixed ridiculously low, meaning you really need to crank it to really bring out some of the layers.  I keep hoping that someone will release it in a new mix that properly allows its force and majesty to be heard properly.

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