Flying underneath the radar suits the veteran alternative-rock outfit Buffalo Tom (photo at right by Liz Linder) just fine.
With the song "Taillights Fade" and the unlikely success of the album that spawned it, Let Me Come Over, the rootsy Boston-area band with ties to the likes of Julianna Hatfield and Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis seemed poised for big things in the '90s with the slickly produced followup, Big Red Letter.
Though the song "Soda Jerk" got some radio and MTV play, it didn't vault the band to superstardom. And that's okay with bassist/vocalist Chris Colbourn.
"We're pretty comfortable as the JV team," said Colbourn. "It's a good place to be. You're the underdog. And people are like ... they give you a shoulder, like a little brother thing. It's very easy to create then. Literally, there's no jets, no Mercedes to buy. You just buy a Jetta or something."
Known for writing pristine pop songs with loads of hooks and wistful, world-weary lyrics, Buffalo Tom has just released its new record, Three Easy Pieces. Teary ballads like "Pendleton" mingle with country-tinged rave-ups like "Bottom of the Rain" on an album that's solid from top to bottom. And it all begins with "Bad Phone Call," the kind of heartfelt, soul-searching cloudbursts of guitar-based pop that's won Buffalo Tom a strong cult following.
But it begs the question: Why isn't Buffalo Tom as big as ... say, the Goo Goo Dolls? They both go about their business pretty much the same, even if the Goo Goo Dolls may have sold their souls to the almighty soundtrack. Colbourn isn't so sure the Goo Goo Dolls deserve to be labeled "sell-outs."
"I don't have the self-confidence or rock-star guy in me to ever think, 'Oh, I should have been it,'" says Colbourn. "Like the Goo Goo Dolls are a good example. We did a little tour with them. I gotta say, they write great songs. People are always critical of them, but you know what, they do what they do. It's like being critical of Elton John. It's like, 'What?' Like he's great. [John Rzeznik) writes these beautiful melodies, and he matches them with his lyrics. It's very heartfelt. There's nothing embarrassing about that. I mean, I might be into something more indie-rock, but that doesn't mean the Goo Goo Dolls necessarily suck. I thought they were really nice people ... they were really reaching out to people. Like when I grew up, I was a big fan of the Stones and the Kinks. They were just pop bands. There's no embarrassment to like really catchy songs. So, I kind of defend the Counting Crows and that kind of thing. I guess it's not at the end of the day in my record collection, and I understand why people say Sonic Youth is cool, but I don't think there's any big difference between high art and low art."
To read more about Buffalo Tom, check out the Aug. 3 edition of Goldmine.