Named either for a town with which it would seem to have little to do musically but from which they hailed at one point or another, or an animal with which it shares many commonalities, Buffalo is the second full-length from The Midnight Ghost Train. Recorded just days after the Topeka, Kansas, trio got off the road from their 2011 tour with Truckfighters (see here and here) – and mostly recorded live, from the sound of it – Buffalo (released on Karate Body Records) is a half-hour set that commences almost immediately with zero-bullshit American-style stoner blues rock and offers little let-up for the duration. Their 2009 self-titled (review here) was a stylistic jaunt into such territories, and boasted several guest appearances from friends of the band, but Buffalo is more straightforward and outclasses its predecessor on every level in much the same way that album was a step up from earlier 2009’s The Johnny Boy EP (review here). Fronted by gruff-throated guitarist/vocalist Steve Moss, the mission behind Buffalo was clearly to bring the energy and flow of the band’s live set to a recording, and aided by the production of David Barbe (Bob Mould, Drive-by Truckers), they come about as close as one imagines being able to; tracks flow one into the next with ultra-natural smoothness, and there are moments in the album’s core midsection where it seems like Moss, bassist David Kimmell and drummer Brandon Burghart are going to lose control of the jams entirely and the whole record is going to come to a halt, but of course that never happens and The Midnight Ghost Train, however wild or tonally entrenched they might become, never actually lose control here when they don’t want to do so. Buffalo’s eight tracks are memorable individually, but work best taken as a whole – which of course is easy given the fact that the album is only a half-hour long – where the ebbs and flows and Moss’ bluesy growling can be carried across with the full complement of the next shifts about to come.
At their core, The Midnight Ghost Train are a stoner rock band. It’s Moss’ riffing leading the way with thick, rich, gloriously fuzzy tone for the heavy blues rhythms of Kimmell and Burghart, who hold their own behind him even at his most frantic. Vocally, Moss takes on a raving blues persona. Like he’s the one who most took Neil Fallon’s vocals on “I Have the Body of John Wilkes Booth” to heart. His delivery is likewise gruff as “Henry” takes hold following upbeat instrumental opener “A Passing Moment of Madness,” which introduces the band’s penchant for riff-fronted grooves and foreshadows instrumental focus to come. Maybe it’s a style derived from heavier roots, but Moss plays it all bluesy on “Henry,” and his solos are likewise unbridled. Most importantly, he’s well mixed, so as not to be completely dominant or out in front of the guitars, bass and drums when it’s so obviously supposed to be the whole song that’s the focus and not one individual or another. Still, he’s striking as he drives home the rolling groove of “Foxhole,” with Burghart adding tom flourishes behind, and is obviously going to be a central presence throughout Buffalo. The reason it’s not out of balance is because, as I said, he’s well mixed, and also because Kimmell’s bass gives a formidable showing of its own, not to mention Burghart’s deft and varied drumming. I know Moss has been through several lineups of the band at this point, but they sound better here than they ever have, and having seen some of these songs live, “Foxhole” among them, I think they came as close as they could have to honing in on that live feel without actually having Moss walk in the room and start yelling at you.
Burghart acts as the anchor for “Tom’s Trip,” the longest cut on Buffalo at a still-quick 6:55. The song develops gradually and seems like it’s going to launch into another rager à la “Henry,” but The Midnight Ghost Train groove slower and more subdued for the most part, running through a couple laid back – still grooving – verses that shift the considerable momentum the band had built over the preceding three tracks to a different, more complex and melodically engaged direction. The slower tempo allows Moss space to take a solo even further into bluesy territory, and though the song picks up with a noisy wah wash toward the end, the band has already shown they have more going on than stoner riff bludgeonry, however much the ensuing “Spacefaze” might be built on precisely that. Together with “Tom’s Trip,” these two songs make up more than 12 minutes of Buffalo’s 30:10 runtime, which is a substantial portion, but they also account for a good summary of the album’s breadth, which moves from the relatively pastoral sound of the first into the instrumental “Spacefaze,” which is all about the riff and the groove and leaves nothing to the imagination stylistically. It works for its lack of frills, and while the methods are familiar, The Midnight Ghost Train apply them with such energy that one can hardly argue. A cover of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s “Cotton Fields” follows that finds Moss going mostly a cappella, backed only by handclaps and a few stomps. As much as he pulls it off in terms of actual performance, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note a bit of trouble making the leap to having a white guy singing a song about picking cotton in as rough and blues-derived a voice as Moss’ is. The image of the cotton field being so tied into the American slave narrative, and Ledbetter’s own winking inclusion of a line about never making much money picking cotton taken into account, it becomes somewhat problematic on a conceptual level despite, again, being musically fluid. Perhaps these things didn’t occur to the band and perhaps they wouldn’t occur to others listening. Hell, The Beach Boys also did a version of the song in 1970, but I’ll argue that’s no less problematic. The Midnight Ghost Train have a history of infusing gospel and spirituals into their sound – their live version of “John the Revelator” is a thrill – but there’s a fine line they’re walking with “Cotton Fields,” as much as the quiet acoustic guitar that follows the raucousness makes for one of Buffalo’s most charming moments.
The thrust of the first couple tracks returns with “Southern Belle,” which strikes immediately and readily, standing itself out with musical intensity and a violent lyrical narrative. Moss warns he’s “Gonna ring that Southern belle,” and while the tradition of the murder ballad derives as much from the ballad – i.e. the storytelling – end of it as the murder, I guess “Southern Belle” qualifies. The riff and renewal of Buffalo’s earlier force is welcome, as the band had strayed pretty far from it by the time “Cotton Fields” was through, and it’s a concise show of precision in the album’s structuring to go out as they came in. With “Into the Fray,” they do precisely that, taking another short upbeat instrumental and letting it carry them to Buffalo’s finish. Some clever stops work their way quickly in – the tactic showed up earlier on “Spacefaze” – and The Midnight Ghost Train seem to just want to make sure the barn is burning when they leave it. The final stretch of “Into the Fray” is perhaps Buffalo’s most bombastic moment, which is appropriate given the live basis of the record, thinking they’d save the roughest stuff to get the biggest round of applause at the end. And so they do. Admittedly, I’ve been a fan of The Midnight Ghost Train for a few years now, so perhaps I’m biased in this regard, but to my ears it seems like the three-piece have used the years they’ve spent touring since the self-titled was released to distill everything that works best about what they do – I include “Cotton Fields” as a part of that as well – into this record. Given the professional production they were clearly ready for, they were able to take the momentum they had coming right off the road into the studio and make an album that still seems to have fire where its blood should be. I don’t know if it’s going to launch the band to any kind of massive underground prominence or anything, since they seem to be working against any number of trends in terms of their style, but I know Buffalo is a record I’m going to enjoy for a long time to come, and fuck it, that’s what matters. Recommended.
Tags: Kansas, Karate Body Records, The Midnight Ghost Train, Topeka