Album Review: the White Buffalo, ‘Love and the Death of Damnation’
When an artist titles an album Love and the Death of Damnation, it leaves little room to question whether that artist has a flair for the dramatic. Since his first album, 2002's Hogtied Like a Rodeo, L.A.-based singer-songwriter Jake Smith, who records and performs under the name the White Buffalo, has taken some long, hard stares into the stark corners of everyday struggle. Songs about lost love, murder, despair, etc. can take-on comical overtones in the hands of country artists who don't have the presence or sincerity to show us something true about ourselves. Smith's music can be so believable that it hurts. Of course, that's a good thing.
The last White Buffalo full-length – the 2013 concept album Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways, told the story of a returning Iraq veteran whose life is cast adrift on endless currents of alcohol and disconnection. This time around, Smith opts to make each song stand on its own. If you didn't listen carefully enough, the stomping barroom swagger of Smith's new material might lead you to believe that he'd chosen to write upbeat stories. Opener "Dark Days" sounds like what might happen if Ryan Adams and the Gaslight Anthem, while it's easy to picture the tender love song "Go The Distance" as a Tom Petty smash hit in parallel universe.
As he explains in Ernie Ball's 10-part documentary series about the making of this album, Smith favors a very spontaneous writing process. Typically, he doesn't even initially know what his songs are about when he presents song sketches to producer-bassist Bruce Witkin and producer-engineer Ryan Dorn. At that point, Smith isolates lyrical phrases that stand out to him and then builds them into narratives from there. But the songs aren't fully ready by the time, Witkin, Dorn and drummer Matt Lynott begin to record. Their third time working as a team, the foursome leaves ample room for the music to develop during the recording.
Perhaps the openness of Smith's creative process accounts for the grit that permeates Love and the Death of Damnation -- even as Smith focuses more than ever on giving each song a viable chorus (according to Witkin's comments the second Earnie Ball video). When Smith sings "Your love is a motherfuckin' revelation" in his deep, rich voice, or when spins verses about going through a fast food drive-thru with a woman he's in love with, it's easy to picture someone you know saying and doing those things -- even though Smith is, in truth, ever-so-slightly exaggerating the color, tone and hue of the portraits he paints.
And therein lies the clue of an aspiring master songwriter at work: Smith's lines may sound as tossed-off as everyday speech, but closer inspection reveals that he chiseled them with diligence and practice.