Being in a band is like being married to more than one person simultaneously. And like any married couple, bands have their own special neuroses. The dysfunctions of any given group are compounded by long hours in the hothouse confines of a studio and even longer hours on the road.
Add to that the pressure of sales figures and concert attendance, and it is a wonder that any group manages to stay together.
Buffalo Daughter has been around longer than most bands — and many marriages. After almost ten years together, the trio greet this metaphor with knowing smiles.
“And the albums are our children,” offers the group’s eccentric Moog Yamamoto. “The remixes are the ones we put up for adoption.”
If so, their latest album “I” is the long-awaited baby, the one that required fertility drugs and repeated trips to the clinic to be born. It is their first release since leaving the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label. Created over three years, “I” is also the group’s first release since 1999’s remix album “WXBD” and their first record of new songs since 1998’s “New Rock.”
The group actually recorded enough songs for four albums, nearly 50 in all.
“We got stuck trying to figure out exactly what type of album we were going to make,” says guitarist Sugar Yoshinaga, “what the sequencing would be and the flow. By this year, we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we had to write songs to fit the new concept and re-record some of the old ones, too.”
The record’s difficult labor is apparent. “I” is packed full of musical ideas, but some songs seem like experiments that were not fully developed, directions that were only tentatively explored. It sounds more like a collection of singles than an album. It jumps from the heavy metal inflections of “Earth Punk Rockers” to the faux disco of “Discotheque Paradise” without a unifying concept to hold it together. The group even thought about releasing three different albums or sequences to reflect each member’s individual taste.
“When we listen to the songs, we can hear which member was heavily featured so we can almost predict which songs would fit into an album tailored to each member,” says Yoshinaga.
Yamamoto sees the difference aesthetically. “The songs from 1999, like ‘Earth Punk Rockers’ and ‘Volcanic Girl,’ are sort of ‘play loud’ songs while the newer ones are more ‘listen carefully’ songs. The ones recorded this year have more acoustic instruments, so you have to really pay attention to grasp the whole thing.”
Though “I” probably wouldn’t be mistaken for a Greatest Hits collection, some of the songs are among the band’s best.
“Mirror Ball” is the sort of number that Buffalo Daughter specializes in — all sweetness and light with its female harmonies and gentle melody on the surface, but with a touch of uneasiness lurking in its depths. “Volcanic Girl” could be a Stereolab song. It is pop at its most chaotic, sounding as if it might fall apart at any moment.
A lot of this is now old hat. The flitting between genres, the simultaneous debt to Brian Wilson, German progressive rock and dance music, the funky beats combined with vintage electronics — all of these have become the hallmarks of independent, avant-garde pop.
It is difficult to remember exactly how radical Buffalo Daughter sounded when their first EP, “Shaggy Head Dressers,” was released on the tiny Cardinal label in 1994. (The same year, incidentally, as Beck’s major label debut, “Mellow Gold.”) Before postmodernist pop became a critical buzzword, Buffalo Daughter was already a master of it.
But it wasn’t just their music that set Buffalo Daughter apart. Before Pizzicato Five or Cornelius took on America, Buffalo Daughter eschewed a major label deal in Japan and instead signed with Grand Royal. Then, like their American indie-rock counterparts, they toured in conditions that most Japanese rock bands, used to rather luxurious treatment, only experience while camping.
Months on the road left Buffalo Daughter a performing powerhouse. They continue to be one of Japan’s best live bands, as demonstrated by their recent triumphant appearance at the Electroglide dance event last month.
But the road also left them exhausted with playing, and exhausted with each other.
“We sort of lost ourselves as individuals after touring so much,” says Yumiko Ohno, the group’s bassist and electronics wizard. “And we couldn’t work out a good balance between ourselves as a group.”
The name of the album, “I,” refers to the tension between the individual members of the band and the band as an entity. The cover even lacks the requisite “band photo” and instead features separate photos of each band member.
It is often precisely a group’s friction that leads to its greatness. As each personality rubs against the other, the excesses of each member’s creative ideas are rubbed away and the band gives birth instead to an utterly new hybrid.
“There were new songs that we’d never tried before,” says Ono. “I wasn’t sure when we recorded them, but when we finished they were more liberating than I had expected. They were new discoveries.”
At its best moments, this is precisely what “I” attains. By this measure, “I” is a triumph, a complex, difficult addition to the BD family.
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