There are a lot of bands like Donna the Buffalo out there in America. Cranking up miles on the odometer, appearing at folk festivals hither and yon, over almost a decade of a half Donna the Buffalo have built up a solid repertoire of songs and a fervent fan following (“The Herd”) — sorta like Phish, but not at the stadium-rock level. The six-member band from Trumansburg, New York, probably deserves a whole lot more recognition than they’ve had. On Positive Friction, they offer up more of the feel-good, slightly funkified country-folk-rock that earned them the 1999 Association for Independent Music Award for Best Rock Album.
Without wanting to damn with what seems like faint praise, the music on Positive Friction is, um, comfortable. Most of the tracks sound vaguely familiar, as if you’ve heard them — or something like them — somewhere before. And many of the themes that Donna the Buffalo take on are intimately familiar ones in American roots music: tall grass, getting drunk, the promise of the promised land, life on front porches, being born and raised somewhere that sticks in your soul, sinning, rolling tumbleweeds, getting in trouble, rambling, trains — you get the idea. These are inevitable themes, themes that will probably never be exhausted in country music and which necessarily have to be returned to again and again. What really matters, then, is how they’re approached musically, how these themes are transformed into the emotions and experiences that so naturally go along with them: longing, misunderstanding, the power of love and hope. The understated way that Donna the Buffalo move through these themes makes their songs resonate more powerfully than they might have if they had tried to assault the genre of roots rock that they work within head one.
Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear alternate on vocals more or less from track to track. Nevins’ voice is a thing of beauty: shy, slightly hesitant, yet emotive, it falls in a space triangulated by the voices of Nanci Griffiths, Victoria Williams, and Iris DeMent; Puryear’s voice is classic country: it hints at Gram Parsons and lends a timeless, easy grace to every tracks he sings. The vocal harmonies that appear throughout the album are joyous and unforced, pitched just right to broadcast the emotional flavor of each song. The opening lines of the first track, “There’s No Place Like the Right Time,” lay out sparely and suggestively the direction we’re heading: “Crooked fence, chicken yard / Life can be simple and still be hard.” With the exception of Jeb’s more searching, metaphysical songs, “In Another World” and “Riddle of the Universe,” things don’t deviate too much from the main plan. Positive Friction is smart, infectious music that suggests that Donna the Buffalo should be playing the same size and kind of venues as Griffiths or Alison Krauss. Then again, maybe we should feel lucky to still be able to see them in a club or at a festival: it’s hard not to get the sense from this album that live, they rock.