By 1993 grunge had reached its omnipresent, powerful, destructive peak. The huge success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden allowed a superfluity of menial chancers toting flannel shirts and pawnshop guitars to sneak in via the back door, and also paved the way for more established but non-related American alt rockers like Jane’s Addiction or the Red Hot Chili Peppers to get on MTV and become radio friendly unit shifters.
This interest in American non-mainstream guitar music shone a welcome spotlight on many of its previously under-the-radar practitioners; bands such as Sebadoh, Pavement and Guided By Voices suddenly attracted the attention of keen eared radio programmers and eager A&R executives where they may previously have been ignored. Included in this group were Californian trio Grant Lee Buffalo, who on the 23rd February 1993 released into the world a strange, alluring, literate album named ‘Fuzzy’.
‘Fuzzy’ however owes more to Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash than it does to what was once termed college rock. The brushed snares and strummed acoustic guitars that open the album conjure a claustrophobic scene that glows with a warm, dimmed light. Frontman and songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips paints vivid scenes set in interstate diners, or sticky Louisiana nights, imbued with the magical darkness of despair, Kerouac’s majestic night. He shifts effortlessly from tenderness to brutality, often from verse to verse as he dons the colourful clothes of the characters he creates; the fear of the white trash criminal on the run, or the perverted cop spying on a strip search.
Recorded in a century old San Francisco steel foundry, the wide open acoustics of the brick room enabled the three piece to capture a dynamic, explosive soundscape. Musically the album rarely strays from the ancient and effective cowboy chord sequences of country music. Embellished by ghostly saloon piano and twangy, picked electric bass, the gentle acoustic guitar frequently bursts into a howling cacophony as Phillips hits the distortion pedal and launches the songs into the upper atmosphere, before crashing back to earth, sometimes within the space of just a few bars.
Philips spins rich yarns across the eleven tracks. ‘Soft Wolf Tread’ is an unsettling and apprehensive American Gothic retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale. On ‘America Snoring’ Phillips sneers at the apathy and globalisation of early ‘90s US whilst panicking senators mobilise the National Guard. On the piano-led ‘Dixie Drug Store’ he stops off in muggy New Orleans and encounters a playful, spectral whore.
Grant Lee Buffalo were a formidable live act; bassist Paul Kimber hitting the strings of his Fender Precision bass with tremendous force, whilst Phillips employed the unusual tactic of fiercely overdriving his acoustic twelve string guitar, which provided a unique tonality to the guitar sound. ‘Fuzzy’ was met with rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and even briefly snuck into the UK Top 75 following an appearance by the band on BBC’s ‘Later with Jools Holland’ that spring. Michael Stipe famously declared the album “the best of the year, hands down” which gained press coverage and led to Grant Lee Buffalo opening for R.E.M., as well as tours with Sugar, The Cranberries, and The Smashing Pumpkins.
Despite its inherently americana core, ‘Fuzzy’ sought to be a diverse record, loaded with the ideas of discovery and subtlety whilst stating something that was unique amongst the political, social and cultural upheaval of the time. ‘Fuzzy’ walked the wire between acknowledging dusty, cobweb covered American history whilst embracing the zeitgeist; this alchemy creating something compelling and timeless.