The White Buffalo belongs in the landscape and not in captivity. There is a cinematic feel to the band's latest album Shadows, Greys, & Evil Ways that suggests a widescreen format, or the feeling of open desert passing in front of a windshield. I prefer music like this when I drive because it's upbeat enough to keep me awake, and introspective enough to keep me engaged, but slow enough to prevent me from speeding down the highway. Perhaps front man Jake Smith spends a significant amount of time in the car, like most residents of Southern California, which lends itself to things unraveling slowly, and unexpected twists and turns. With its combination of vast landscape and rolling narrative, it's not so difficult to imagine this music being written in the "City of Angels." Shadows, Greys, & Evil Ways would be the perfect companion for that desolate central valley stretch between San Francisco and L.A. Luckily we don't have to make the drive to see the band live, The White Buffalo will be performing at Great American Music Hall on October 18.
The sound is Modern Western music, not Country and Western, but themed on the west. There are rattling things, powerful percussion that makes reference to Native American drumming, whistles, and bluesy guitars. Examples at every turn link The White Buffalo's intonation to recognizable Americana/Roots musicians. The arrangements recall Ray LaMontagne, Iron & Wine, and at just the right moments there are even hints of Two Gallants and Jason Molina. Whether or not these points are influences or coincidences indicates that Smith, who writes the songs, is in good company.
At fourteen songs, Shadows, Greys, & Evil Ways is a long-player about rebellion, love, and redemption, centering on two characters, Joe and Jolene. The narrative begins with the two meeting, chronicling Joe's need to support Jolene, his decision to go off to war, and all the emotional turmoil that comes with each of those markers.
The album isn't grimy, dusty, and scratchy as one might expect a Western record to be. Shadows, Greys, & Evil Ways has a Hollywood polish, but there's more to it than a clean studio recording and good production. When listening to this record it's possible to superimpose the music onto the landscape of one's life like a soundtrack. (The White Buffalo has had seven tracks featured on Sons of Anarchy.) There's something for almost every moment -- soft, loud, rocking, intimate, or soul searching rebellion.
The album's first track, "Shall We Go On," introduces us to Joe and Jolene. "You've only dreamed of love, now it's rushing in like a flood... They got their names tattooed, cursive, sloppy, and crude." Later, in "30 Days Home," Joe is back from war trying to adjust to civilian life a changed man. The record goes on like this, following the arc of Joe's journey through life, with Jolene in more of a supporting role. This "screenplay" is about a broken man who holds onto his love for a woman as if it's the only thing keeping him human. "Don't You Want It" is a disproportionately hopeful song where we get a peek at Joe as an older man, reflecting back on his life. Jake Smith's vocals take on a bit of that shaky twang when he begs, "Don't you want it like I want it?" Colorful but subtle organ parts imbue this tune with an encouraging sound and repetitive guitar chords make it stick.
Jake Smith is a rather imposing figure, stocky with a head full of long curly hair and a pretty impressive beard. When performing live he doesn't hide behind his features but uses them to compel the audience to lean in. With such a heavily narrative album like Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways, it's interesting to contemplate how the individual songs will come across in a live set, which is an entirely different kind of journey.
The White Buffalo plays the Great American Music Hall on Friday, October 18, 2013. For tickets and information, visit slimspresents.com.