Donna the Buffalo,
Positive Friction
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

Positive Friction has been my first encounter with the band Donna the Buffalo, and it won't be my last. Their combination of catchy melodies, thought-provoking lyrics and excellent musicianship in a variety of styles has made this an album I've listened to over and over (more for pleasure than in order to write this review), and one I've recommended enthusiastically to all sorts of people, including my teen-aged daughter.

Like Steve Earle, Donna the Buffalo is skilled in an assortment of styles; while Earle keeps them more distinct, Donna the Buffalo melds them into songs so seamlessly that they are not immediately obvious -- but make repeated listenings something of a treasure hunt for the bluegrass, reggae, zydeco and other elements mixed to give their distinctive sounds.

Most of the songs are written by either Tara Nevins or Jeb Puryear, the exception being a cover of the traditional "Man of Constant Sorrow." Their styles are very different, and the rough alternation of their pieces on the album helps its pacing and keeps it exciting throughout. Nevins and Puryear sing their own songs, and their styles and voices match perfectly. And both have mastered songwriting as something more, or different from, poetry set to music; the lyrics cannot be separated from the melodies, instrumentation and singing styles that make the songs whole.

Nevins' songs are melodic, with a strong traditional bluegrass or country folk sound, often over a reggae rhythm. When I first heard the album I fell in love with her clear melodies and organic imagery with its appreciation of life and the natural world. It's not simple music, though. "No Place Like the Right Time," the album's first song, has lyrics with apparent contradictions like "The world's getting bigger as it shrinks in size," with the contradictions only resolved by their context, verbally and musically. It's a love song, but one about love within the context of one's life as a whole. Another favorite is "Front Porch," a musing on a happy and satisfying life -- and one I found myself singing at odd moments. I love the calliope/reggae sound in "I Wish You Love," too. The spare and positive lyrics, flowing melodies, and interesting and effective instrumentation remind me of Mickey Hart's Mystery Box in the very best way.

Puryear's songs are lyrically sophisticated, and it blends well with his zydeco-influenced vocal style. I particularly enjoy the way many are irregular in both rhyme and meter, sometimes veering away from the instrumentation but always returning to it. Sometimes he allows the instruments to take the melody for most of the song, with the vocals acting as a musical accompaniment to the instrumentals while the lyrics do the opposite. It's an intriguing approach I don't think I've heard before, and "Riddle of the Universe" is an amazing song demonstrating it. "Movin' On" is a particularly philosophical take on the theme. I love "Revolution," with its calypso sound and its repeated, hopeful lyrics. And the title track, "Positive Friction," is another amazing song, in which the complex lyrics are delivered in a percussive style adapted from reggae. It's not rap, by any means, but grew from the same reggae roots and shows their influence explicitly.

I've mentioned several songs in particular, and by this do not mean to slight any of the ones I've omitted -- there's not a weak song on the album, and together they make a strong and well-paced CD.

The instrumentation is wonderful. I've already mentioned the reggae and zydeco elements, and the way they reinforce each other. I am also extremely fond of music that combines a strong rhythmic and bass element with fiddle, as many of these songs do.

The album, printed on cardboard with an intrinsic CD holder rather than a jewelbox case, contains the complete lyrics to all the songs. When the lyrics are as well-written and subtle as these, being able to follow along (at least until one memorizes them!) helps one to appreciate the songs, so I was happy they are included. Instrument credits, while not given song by song, are sufficient, as are the other credits.

I strongly recommend this album, especially to people fond of powerful and skillful songwriting, and those interested in the many ways diverse musical elements can be forged into new forms. Perhaps that's too narrow, though. On consideration, I believe I'd recommend this album to almost anyone whose taste in music is not restricted to a narrow style or two, and who likes good music whatever its genre. And I'm hoping to attend one of Donna the Buffalo's live performances soon, and certainly will be getting their other albums!

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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