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25 Years Ago: Buffalo Tom Take a Step Forward on ‘Let Me Come Over’

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Buffalo Tom‘s first two albums presented a band defiantly out of step with the mainstream — a loudly shambling trio with a penchant for burying bright glimmers of melody under fuzzy piles of guitar skronk. Those rough edges were sanded down a bit on the band’s third effort, revealing maturing songwriting sensibilities that produced an album that served as a cult touchstone for the alt-rock generation.

Released March 10, 1992, Let Me Come Over marked the latest in a series of noticeable evolutions from a band whose young career was defined by rapid artistic growth. Working with Dinosaur Jr. leader J. Mascis behind the boards, the group quickly jumped past the squall of its self-titled 1989 debut, experimenting with a broadening array of chord changes and sonic textures for 1990’s Birdbrain — but those were both just a warmup for Buffalo Tom’s next act, which traded post-punk aggression for a ragged grace that verged on Rolling Stonesy swagger.

Yet even as the band made more room for acoustic guitars and instantly hummable melodies, they weren’t necessarily getting soft. For music lovers who grew up during the early-to-mid-’90s Buzz Bin era, Let Me Come Over is cut from familiar flannel cloth — a set of songs whose sense of melancholy and ennui is offset by pounding drums, walls of feedback, and a tuneful howl. Yet unlike many of the albums identified with the sound that enveloped rock later in the decade, Over was recorded before Nirvana conquered the planet.

In fact, as frontman Bill Janovitz later recalled, the members of Buffalo Tom had a ground-level view of Nirvana’s ascension — and knew they were benefiting from the newly opened doors kicked in during grunge’s meteoric rise.

Nevermind certainly helped usher us out from the dank and dark basements of CBGB, the Rat, and Gabe’s Oasis to slightly bigger and cleaner joints with functional indoor plumbing. It was no longer just about touring 90 percent of the time in Europe. And it extended our lifespan from a forgettable artistic pastime, a post-college lark, to a viable career,” wrote Janovitz. “We were even more direct recipients of Nirvana’s charity. While on tour, we stayed at Krist [Novoselic]’s Seattle house while he himself was on the road. Within a year, we played at the same Reading Festival as them, along with Pavement, Public Enemy, Mudhoney, and some insane list of killer bands.”

Between that happy accident of timing and the tighter songcraft that produced future fan favorites like “Taillights Fade,” Let Me Come Over seemed poised to launch Buffalo Tom into the same sales stratosphere enjoyed by a growing roster of young “alternative” bands, but it never really turned out that way. In spite of largely positive reviews and a handful of high-profile song placements, the band never achieved the mainstream breakthrough they appeared headed for in the early ’90s. In retrospect, they might have been destined to be — as AllMusic later put it — “perennial bridesmaids of the modern rock scene.” Their music didn’t strain for the spotlight; it didn’t feel like it was engineered for mass consumption. Idiosyncratic as it could sometimes be, it felt personal and honest and true.

Buffalo Tom’s failure to reach the multi-platinum ring — and the long hiatus they fell into after releasing 1998’s Smitten — may have felt like an injustice to fans who’d long appreciated the group’s work, but it was also somewhat fitting for musicians who, even in their first flush of mainstream success, kept one wary eye on the exit. As Janovitz told Hot Press the year after Let Me Come Over came out, he wasn’t necessarily eager for Nirvana-level success.

“Hopefully we can save up and buy a house and basically just make another record next year and continue to do what we’re doing. The kind of success I envy is sort of a Tom Waits, Nick Cave, the Fall success,” mused Janovitz. “People who sell consistently every year and play big theatres but don’t necessarily have hit records. A hit record kind of scares me because there’s so much baggage attached to it.”

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