july 2008

Right On Time For the Times

By David McGee


Donna the Buffalo
Sugar Hill Records

Marking its 20th year together, Donna the Buffalo delivers the best of its seven fine albums in Silverlined. Never forsaking its mountain music roots, the quintet brazenly incorporates textures and rhythms from a multiplicity of sources to create a bountiful, captivating landscape that enhances the vibrancy of the baker’s dozen of original songs penned by the redoubtable Tara Nevins (six are hers) and vocalist-guitarist Jeb Puryear. If anyone hasn’t picked up on it before now, Silverlined is an object lesson in the distinctive compositional approaches Nevins and Puryear prefer. Nevins’s songs are conversational and direct: when she asserts, to the swaying, organ-enriched reggae rhythms of the album opener, “Temporary Influence,” “Once a lie becomes the truth/Once the trust makes you a fool/Once your heart breaks in two/Once is enough for you,” it’s pretty obvious we’re in kissoff territory; the folk-rock, Blonde On Blonde-like thrust of “Broken Record”—with David McCracken’s organ and piano underpinning a squalling guitar and stomping drums—mirrors the frustration and impatience Nevins (whose high, soaring alto sounds remarkably like that of Tish Hinojosa) quantifies in a thorough scalding of a thoughtless lover; Puryear, on the other hand, prefers the impressionistic and the oblique in addressing topical concerns about global unrest—“Garden of Eden” seems to exmine unrestrained political, cultural and ecological chaos, with its herky-jerky rhythms and atmospheric tablas (the latter supplied by Deep Singh) deployed to underscore the urgency Puryear describes in a parched, Dylanesque voice; more subversive still is the smooth guitar-and-piano driven “The Call,” a meditation on the fragility of life, from the arthropod level (“Bumblebee struck on the wrong side of the glass/Desperately trying to make a few days last…”) to the homo sapien, bittersweet meditations apparently spurred by the violent death of a father’s son (by beheading “in the town square,” leaving the listener to decide what happened and where) but delivered in a deceptively cool twang that makes the horrors more vivid upon reflection and repeat listenings. Nevins’s song can be immediately felt and empathized with, whereas Puryear’s demand turning off the mind, relaxing and floating downstream, basking in the experience of his cascading images. As the album plays on, its silver lining begins to emerge more overtly, in two Nevins love songs—the bouncy, Cajun-influenced “I Don’t Need a Riddle” and the driving, upbeat “Beauty Within” (an appeal to a paramour to embrace the substance of a soul rather than the shallow, exterior beauty he seems drawn to)—and, at the close, Puryear’s celebratory rocker, “Forty Days and Forty Nights.” Fueled by an electric guitar solo that quotes some Beatles’ licks, a pulsing organ and feisty fiddle soloing from Nevins, the song marks a turning point in history keyed by “four mop tops” and the subsequent life-affirming aftermath of their arrival, when love seemed to be all we needed. Having already dealt with the darkness of more recent times, Puryear offers in this bit of pamphleteering a hopeful coda, perhaps a harbinger of things to come, as he sees it. Sounds like Donna the Buffalo is right on time and right in sync with a fresh spirit threatening to bust loose in the land.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024