January 26, 2005


REVIEW: of This Right Here Is Buck 65 (Robert Wheaton, PopMatters)

Warner signed Canadian hip-hop artist Buck 65 in 2002, after he had enjoyed several years of relative success on the underground hip-hop circuit -- including a run of favored albums, a consistent touring schedule, and close ties with Oakland's Anticon collective. There was also, presumably, a calculation by Warner that he might mature into a songwriter with the reach and long-term marketability of Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits.

The first part of that calculation was immediately vindicated: Square and Talkin' Honky Blues, his Warner releases to date, have exhibited a fully-developed story-telling talent. Talkin' Honky Blues, in particular, picked up more new listeners than it alienated backpackers with its live instruments and folk- and country-influenced range of sounds.

This Right Here Is Buck 65 -- on the V2 label -- seems calculated to address the second part of that calculation: to break Buck 65 to the American market. It is a compilation of several tracks from Talkin' Honky Blues and Square, a handful of material available only as b-sides and online exclusives, and reworkings of older material in his current style. Although it lacks -- narrowly -- the thematic coherence that made Talkin' Honky Blues a masterpiece, this is quite certainly an essential release by an artist that seems likely, if there is any justice at all, to spend much of his career reshaping popular music. He's just that good.

Buck 65, whose real name is Richard Terfry, hails from rural Nova Scotia. His off-kilter reading of hip-hop tradition has been on display since the early '90s, and was made explicit on his first solo LP, Language Arts, released in 1997. Subsequent releases and collaborations (particularly with fellow Canadian Anticon associate Sixtoo) have always foregrounded an essential restlessness, which at least seems borne out by a handful of off-beat biographical details: a flirtation with professional baseball, an appearance on Sesame Street, and a temporary residence in Paris.

That restlessness shouldn't suggest a diffuse talent, though, or a willingness to flirt with different influences and textures without integrating any of them fully. Terfry's various story-telling influences -- including Waits, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac -- have by now been so thoroughly absorbed into a developed and individual style that it is next to impossible to pick them out. "Talking Fishing Blues" is a Guthrie cover, but it's no more than a tip of the hat: it fits seamlessly amid these tales of drunkenness, wit, escape, loss and self-assured élan.

"Wicked and Weird" openly references Cash, but its gleeful, freewheeling, associative ode to the open road recalls Waits. There is something of the same surreal stream-of-consciousness flow, the same cast of oddball characters drawn into half-chosen, half-forced situations. There's also some of David Lynch's talent for subliminally evocative imagery, but even here, at his most surreal, Terfry's eye for detail -- "Cough drops, loose change in the beverage holder"; "5 o'clock shadow, lips like mudflaps / Hands like eagle's talons, eyes like hub caps" -- is precise and accurate in a manner undeniably his own.

There's a perfect confidence to his writing, a confidence that allows a song as personal as "Roses and Bluejays" -- about his relationship with his father since his mother's death -- to be conducted entirely at the level of surface observations. The details themselves, and their juxtaposition, perfectly conjure a sense of drift and directionlessness, and, somehow, a deep-rooted belonging. The image of his father clearing snow with a flamethrower encapsulates a moment of rage, loneliness, of silent futility.

There's the humor, too: "463" opens with a rant about "the youth of today" that is both brilliant parody and an evocation of the scale and magic of childhood: "When I was a kid... The whole world was made of wood and smelled like gasoline / The days were at least twice as long and the grass was green".

Wicked and Weird is a terrific tune, but who was gonna pay $24 for it on Talkin' Honky Blues?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 26, 2005 9:20 PM

OK, what's the FIRST good thing about Canada? Hockey, beer, Dudley Do-Right, the pianist Oscar Peterson maybe?

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at January 26, 2005 11:29 PM

Mark Steyn
David Warren
Robert Fulford
Steve Martinovich
Peter Burnet
curling on tv

Posted by: oj at January 27, 2005 7:15 AM

The different colored money and the lower drinking age--it was 18 in Ontario when Michigan raised its to 21 just B4 my 18th birthday. Hockey too (and beer).

Posted by: Dave W. at January 28, 2005 12:37 AM