The Phoenix Foundation are something of an institution in their hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. Regulars of the local music scene since the early ’00s, they’ve gone from strength to strength with each release – Buffalo being their fourth and, in many ways, most accomplished album. Where previous albums covered a range of musical styles from Americana to alternative rock, Buffalo makes an intentional effort to stick to one style and do it well. The mode they’ve opted for is a sunny, keyboard-heavy indie rock sound, perhaps as a deliberate contrast to the notoriously cold and dreary weather of the band’s illustrious hometown.
The opener, “Eventually”, is a good example of The Foundation’s new sound, being one of the slower numbers on the album, but one that serves to set the scene nicely. There’s sort of a sun-drenched theme to the album, reminiscent in some ways of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky; that album too was a deliberate departure from the country-tinged rock that preceded it. “Eventually” is a softly played, almost calypso number — all shimmering guitars and delay-drenched vocals. You can almost hear the sound of waves in the background, especially within the guitar effects that make up the song’s middle eight.
This bright and breezy sound is also nicely demonstrated in the first single and title track, “Buffalo”. A low-key synth and guitar riff open up over a steady beat that deliberately takes its time to unfold; there’s no rushing on Buffalo. By the time Sam Scott’s vocals kick in, the mood is set, and the echo-soaked vocals wash over the laid-back beat. The melody is great, but the lyrics somewhat nonsensical (a criticism of the album throughout, albeit a minor one): “I am the buffalo, through the ocean I do roam/ I am the buffalo, calling home, calling home”. It all comes together, though — a bright, catchy single, worthy of the band’s earlier work and a declaration of their new direction. Probably their catchiest single to date, in fact.
Track three, “Flock of Hearts”, is a soft-rocker that serves to take things down a notch and sports a fine guitar solo that is again very reminiscent of Wilco. The next song, “Pot”, is an anthemic number (as much as that word can be applied to such relaxed pop-rock) and is another fine cut that gets stuck in your head after first listen. Track number five, “Bitte Bitte”, boasts a nice verse melody that actually sounds a lot like Dire Straits(!), before unfolding into a somewhat underwhelming chorus. “Skeleton” offers a little bit of a change-up in tempo — a shuffling and cheerily haunting number that brings to mind some of the more downbeat moments of Blur’s later albums. “Orange & Mango” is just a bit too silly for me — artistically the album’s low point. Fortunately they follow it up with “Bailey’s Beach”, one of Buffalo’s slowest and most stripped back numbers, with sonic accompaniment provided by a simple acoustic guitar and some choral backing vocals way back in the mix… very nice. “Wonton” is another slightly twee number that I could take or leave, while “Golden Ship” closes off the album in a suitably purposeful manner: starting off with airily strummed acoustic guitars before building to distorted guitars and driving basslines, to take the album out on a high note. My favourite track of them all; I’m a sucker for slow yet rewarding builders. They left the best until last.
While the track “Flock Of Hearts” throws a xylophone into the mix, that’s about as far as the instrumental variation goes throughout. That’s not a bad thing. The intentional lack of musical diversity on Buffalo works towards a more focused collection of songs; something I occasionally found lacking on their previous efforts. It works nicely, and the album is awash with beautiful tunes and relaxed melodies, a worthy summer soundtrack. While fellow Kiwis will love the casual references to local landmarks like “Mount Victoria”, in many ways this feels like The Phoenix Foundation’s first truly international album. A collection of summer songs suitable for warmer climes, or if you’re like us New Zealanders, to remind you that they exist.