Phillip: The beautiful thing about writing music reviews is discovering an artist that you never heard of before. Recently, I have received some of the best albums I have listened to this year by the likes of Lil’ Cap’n Travis, Matt Pond PA, Pfeifer Sam, The Roots and now I can add the thoughtful, alternative power pop of Bill Janovitz and Crown Victoria. But who is Bill Janovitz and what is his artistic vision? His artist biography states he was the front man of Buffalo Tom, a band where he “helped create a remarkable body of work.” Well I have heard of Buffalo wings and Buffalo Bill Cody but at the risk of sounding like a dilettante, if Tom were a singing Bison, this information would have escaped me.
Luke: As a member and lead songwriter of seminal ‘90s rockers Buffalo Tom, Bill Janovitz combined the vivid introspection of a singer/songwriter with the visceral immediacy of a garage rocker, resulting in some of the most powerfully emotive rock songs in recent memory. Buffalo Tom’s brief encounter with commercial popularity peaked during grunge’s initial heyday, but while their songs were undeniably striking and forceful, they did so without the focused, laborious angst that trademarked the early Nirvana and Pearl Jam records. Aside from a handful of minor alternative radio hits (including “Sodajerk” and “Taillights Fade,” a song that I have to admit is the saddest, most genuinely desperate piece of pop music I’ve ever heard) they never approached the runaway success of their furious rock brethren, but did cultivate a core group of loyal fans both in their home base of Boston and other locales.
Janovitz and his Buffalo Tom bandmates Tom Maginnis and Chris Colbourn put the band on hiatus following the chilly reception to 1998’s Smitten, affording Janovitz the opportunity to scratch his folk itch, which resulted in two sparse solo records, Lonesome Billy and Up Here. With rumors of a Buffalo Tom revival gestating, Janovitz has returned to his bread and butter, the punchy, affecting rock and roll that marked the heyday of that band. On Fireworks on TV!, a one-off recorded with his crack band of friends and cohorts, Janovitz rediscovers his inner rocker while combining it with a handful of the folksier sensibilities from his solo work. It’s not Buffalo Tom, but it’s a compelling rock and roll experience all on its own.
Fireworks on TV!
Luke:Fireworks on TV! (replete with shamelessly appropriate exclamation point that just makes you think Super Bass-O-Matic 76!) was recorded in three days at the now-defunct Fort Apache Studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Buffalo Tom recorded three of their albums from 1989 to 1992. When one hears Janovitz’s vocals faintly ringing off of the studio walls, one can feel the urgency that drives the record forward, as if the band had only a few minutes to smash out one final take before the studio was bulldozed to make space for a mini-mall. He and his backing group, Crown Victoria – comprised of drummer Tom Polce, who also co-produced the record, bassist Josh Lattanzi, who has also played with Juliana Hatfield, Ben Kweller, and Howie Day, and frequent Buffalo Tom conributor Phil Aiken on keys, who just put out a solo record of his own – did the record live with minimal overdubs, so the on-the-spot energy imbues even the quietest passages. It’s a throwback record in the truest sense of the term, with live band performance and verve taking clear priority over manipulation and production values. Makes one long for the days when ProTools didn’t mean anything.
“One, Two, Three” and “My Radio” blow the gates wide open right from the get-go, the former a midtempo potboiler with Janovitz’s acoustic and electric forming a potent combo, and the latter a snappy, efficacious romp that would have been a prime radio-ready rocker in a pop music universe with any semblance of justice. We’re also treated to two versions of the title track, a deliberate, introspective original and a smoking, no-frills second take that closes the album. Pensive numbers like “Mary Kay”, “I Found Out” and “Whisper To Yourself” are all marked by even the most minor of guitar squalls, though their measured tempos frame the album’s thick slate of rockers, of which “Almost Beating” and “Sinking” are a couple of the most striking.
Phillip: “One, Two, Three” is indeed a very solid opener that has a vibe reminiscent of Graham Parker’s “Discovering Japan” with a touch of the Wallflower’s “Three Marlenas” thrown in. The upbeat energy of the record maintains nicely with “My Radio,” which carries on in the tradition of Parker, Elvis Costello and John Hiatt and features particularly good organ parts played by Phil Aiken (another regular member of the aforementioned band named after the hoofed creature).
The reason I mentioned those other extraordinarily proficient singer/songwriters in the previous paragraph was to foretell the way I feel about “Almost Beating,” a song that is so dang blasted good that it is nearly a perfect power pop track. What do I mean by nearly perfect? Well, the melody is appealing, the energy level of the track sounds live, there are well defined musical parts and the lyrics tell a story without being too arty or pretentious; and did I mention that Bill really sounds like Graham Parker?
Sometimes I have to listen to a song a few times before I get it. However, that certainly was not the case with “Minutes of the Day;” a song that immediately caught my jaded old ears. It is clear that Mister Janowitz understands how to fashion a good song, which by my definition includes writing a strong verse, chorus and bridge part, as well as putting equal effort into crafting well thought out lyrics. A perfect musical example of this is “Believe,” a song that is an ideal combination of chords, riffs, cool poetry and melodic sensibility.
Phillip: This masterful record ends with the title track, yet another tuneful rocker that is driven by crunching guitars and the sturdy rhythm of pounding tom toms. It is so vibrant with energy, that I can almost picture the musicians bouncing along with the track while I am playing it. But don’t take my word for it. I strongly urge you to get this record and find out for yourself why I am excited about Bill Janovitz and Crown Victoria. Their brand fireworks will not leave you feeling burned.
Luke:Fireworks on TV! is an unusual beast in an era where all music has been galvanized, forced to exist under the burden of a necessary genre or binding demographics. It’s the sort of album that those loyal to Buffalo Tom in their original incarnation, a fan base that is for the most part safely into their 30’s by now, can rock out to without pretense or compromise. Most of them have probably gotten their fill of Damien Rice, Norah Jones and REM by listening loyally to their local Triple A station, so they could use a good rocking. Janovitz is a consummate songwriter who is able to capture the true emotive power of rock and roll while keeping it accessible to an appreciative, blue-collar audience. You need no rock and roll pedigree to enjoy the bounty of Fireworks on TV! It’s all there for you. Just throw on the headphones and go. Not to mention it’ll keep the Buffalo Tom acolytes happy until their next record comes around.
(NB: Those curious about the music of Buffalo Tom would probably be best off starting with their retrospective album, A-Sides from Buffalo Tom: 1988-1999, and then moving back to albums such as Let Me Come Over and Big Red Letter Day. After that, you’re on your own. – Luke)
(Q Division Records)
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.