Originally known as The Ponys (sic), Portland, Maine four piecePhantom Buffalo have to be one of the best kept secrets of theAmerican alternative music scene. Nearly a decade after recordingdebut album Shishimumu – not released in the UK until 2006 – theyremain resolutely obscure despite receiving rave reviews for boththeir first record and its 2008 follow up Take To The Trees. Nowthey’re back again with album number three, Cement Postcard With OwlColours, and sounding better than ever.
Pitched somewhere between the modern psychedelia of the Elephant 6Recording Company, a US collective including celebrated maverickslike Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, andthe exuberant nu-folk of British groups like Trembling Bells,Phantom Buffalo’s sound for the most part shimmers sweetly but hasenough idiosyncratic touches to provide the occasional surprise too.Driven by the twin guitars and vocals of Jonny Balzano Brooks and TimBurns, Cement Postcard’s songs are lithe and dextrous, built aroundjangling, hypnotic rhythms that gradually embed themselves in thelistener’s consciousness. There are no huge choruses to sing alongto, but as an overall journey the album is a delightfully hazy,blissful experience.
Opening track Listen To The Leaves sees Phantom Buffalo starting asthey mean to go on, with Balzano Brooks’s high pitched voice floatingbeatifically over gently oscillating guitar patterns before segueingalmost imperceptibly into the 6 minute Greenstar Botanical Airwaves.With its subtle shifts in mood and melody and hints of a central,ecological concept, the album’s nearest contemporary appears initiallyto be Olivia Tremor Control’s 1996 cult classic Dusk At Cubist Castle,although Cement Postcards is generally gentler and less indebted togarage rock than the Athens, Georgia group’s magnum opus.
Later on though, we start to see shades of a different hue.Atleesta is a straightforward slice of Byrds-like west coastrock, while Ray Bradbury’s Bones and Radio Signal sounds uncannilylike Fairport Convention, even down to Balzano Brooks’sfalsetto’s eerie echoes of the late Sandy Denny. Then towardsthe end of the album, things start to really weird out; particularlyon the vaudeville nursery rhyme Battle Of The Roses and Frogman, whichswitches tempo unexpectedly half way through from a fairlyconventional indie pop song into a trippy, stoned chant. The repeatedrefrain “if if if if if if if if you want to, want to, want to” backedby a military drum roll and glistening, swirling guitar chords, is amesmeric delight.
Cement Postcards closes with the ethereal Goliath Tales, whichrecalls the epic, dreamlike soundscapes of Beach House’s TeenDream. At nearly an hour long and with almost half the tracks clockingin at over five minutes, Phantom Buffalo have certainly not come upwith a particularly punchy record, but it draws you into its quirkylittle world and holds your attention so well that time almost standsstill.
Released on tiny French label Messie Murders, Cement Postcards isprobably unlikely to gain the audience it deserves, which is a realshame. It effectively mines a rich seam of influences from themid-1960s to the present day and manages to achieve the right balancebetween wide-eyed experimentation and lo-fi accessibility, all ofwhich should combine to give Phantom Buffalo a broader appeal. With alittle help from a few radio play lists they could quite feasiblybecome a more interesting, ambitious Shins, but if it doesn’thappen, they do at least have the consolation of having released oneof the most charming, beguiling albums of 2011 to date.