Monday, March 24, 2014

In Defense Of: Banana Wind, Jimmy Buffett

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Stephen Selman, a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and non-margarita-drinker based in Brooklyn. 

The hour is approximately 1 a.m., and I’m rounding the final corner of an interminably long walk through the deep darkness of suburban Mansfield, Massachusetts. My destination: the commuter rail station for the last train back to Boston. The whistle screams at my soul as I catch sight of the train pulling away from the depot — my last chance to get home for another six and a half hours.

The night that ensues makes the top five list for the worst of my life. I’m denied a hotel room for not yet being 21, and none of the dozens of my compatriots present will sign for me, though I have cash in hand. I walk the streets aimlessly, hiding out in a CVS for an hour until I’m finally thrown out. I try to sleep on the platform under some free local newspapers (which is remarkably good insulation should you ever find yourself in need). It’s cold. I struggle to describe the intense darkness of this town. I write a few limericks and poems on the newspapers I shiver beneath.

I don’t find relief until just before dawn, when some extremely kind Honeydew Donuts employees take me in and give me all the donut holes and coffee I can take. Why did I go there, and why did I put myself in that position? Readers, I went to Mansfield, Massachusetts, to see a Jimmy Buffett concert.

Strike up the white boy reggae band. “The guy that does that Margaritaville song and the one about cheeseburgers?” Yes, that guy. Yes, I waded alone into a sea of middle-aged dads behaving badly in the tamest fashion. I did it mostly for nostalgic reasons. I did it because I listened to a certain Jimmy Buffett album every day for at least a month while I helped my father remodel my brother’s bedroom when I was eleven years old. I did it for Banana Wind.

Banana Wind, Jimmy Buffett’s 21st studio album, is unlike any other record of his I’ve heard. It's a fine example of a deeper musicianship with which Mr. Buffett is rarely credited. There are dark undertones to the album and an overall cohesion that belies his reputation as a mindless beach rocker or one-hit wonder.

“Only Time Will Tell,” the opening track, gives a little taste of everything I find intriguing about the album with some angsty social commentary to boot. “Are we destined to be ruled by a bunch of old white men / Who compare the world to football and are programmed to defend?” The year is 1996.

Buffett is well known for eye-rolling lyrics and trust me, this album is no exception. “I’d like to think I’ll make it to 2001. Will the party be at my house? God I wonder who will come?” Ouch. They’re everywhere. You should ignore them.

Track two really brings the steel drums into play, courtesy of Robert Greenidge, a steel drum champion from Trinidad who recorded with John Lennon and Harry Nilsson and toured with Taj Mahal for five years. “Jamaica Mistaica” opens with a unique and haunting soundscape of delayed mandolin and steel drum. The song tells the story of a harrowing incident in Jamaica when Buffett, Chris Blackwell of Island Records, and U2’s Bono (of all people) were fired at by the Jamaican police in Buffett’s seaplane — mistaken for drug runners. This is my favorite song of the album for its moody feel, snarky attitude, interesting backstory, and a tasty acoustic solo from Mac McAnally. Listen to Jim Mayer’s bass line for thirty seconds or so, and you’ll start noticing a lot of other great moments from these musicians throughout the album.

Yes, I waded alone into a sea of middle aged dads behaving badly in the tamest fashion. I did it mostly for nostalgic reasons. I did it because I listened to a certain Jimmy Buffett album every day for at least a month while I helped my father remodel my brother’s bedroom when I was eleven years old. I did it for Banana Wind.

“Schoolboy Heart” worried me as I thought about writing this article. I remember it being utterly cheesy, and I was pleasantly surprised on my first listen in many years. Jim Mayer to the rescue again on the bass, but the songcraft rules here. The B section starting at 0:45 is an intricate addition to what might have remained a sing-song filler. There’s an almost dizzying series of chord changes here, completely smoothed over by the melody. It isn’t overreaching — it’s only there to serve the lyrical content, and it does the job well.

Track four is an exceedingly rare JB instrumental — the title track “Banana Wind.” Not much to say about this track, only that these are clearly tight musicians, and Buffett has a nice arrangement here that, in my opinion, more than holds its own against any easy-listening instrumental jam I’ve come across (if that’s your sort of thing).

“Holiday” brings us to more of a Buffett standard cruiser designed for car trips to the beach and the company picnic. Check out the back-to-back trumpet and steel drum solos at 2:44 though.

At the halfway point we reach “Bob Robert’s Society Band.” Right off the bat, I dig the quick jab at “the sugar barons screwing up the 'Glades.” There’s a few examples of Jimmy diving into the big band sound (he’s got a version of “Slow Boat To China” floating around out there). However, on this album I feel like it actually serves a purpose. It breaks the flow and sets us up for a dive back into the slightly darker and headier (I use the term lightly) back half of the record. There’s some aggro-Jim on the way and a couple of ballads — “Roberts” being wisely placed to take a breath.

“Overkill” kicks off with another shadowy steel drum riff, this time paired with saxophone. We’ve got a catchy headscratcher of a lyric here, rhyming “overkill” with “megalo-modern problematic ill.” Wow! And, oh dear, there’s a rap breakdown. And you know what? He actually gets away with it. In a moment of blue collar rage, he spits a little knowledge about execs “getting paid for fucking off in the South of France” over a bed of creepy background vocals. It’s over before you know it, and it doesn’t come across as trying to ape a style or sound “modern.” But take that section out of the song, and it just doesn’t have the same impact.

This is key to my master argument. There’s a self-awareness to Mr. Buffett that most people, I suggest, don’t recognize. He knows when he’s going a little too far, and he gives you a break at just the right moment. In that respect, he shines on Banana Wind. He curated the right group of musicians and wrote an album with a clear and effective arc, and even a few transcendent moments.

“Desdemona’s Building a Rocket Ship” is another creeper à la “Jamaica.” Check out the hard-panned tremolo mandolins in the intro. Like similar tracks on Banana Wind, this is hardly the boozehound Buffett we know so well. I’ll admit I’m not sure what he’s reaching for here, but it’s weird and I’m down with that. I apologize for the alto sax solo, though. I’m sorry about that.

We’ve got two more cruisers going into the home stretch with "Mental Floss" and "Cultural Infidel." "Mental Floss" keeps up the snark and swagger of some of the earlier numbers, and "Cultural Infidel" has some playful heart. It’s pretty corny but again, he kind of saves it with the breakdown at 1:58.

This takes us to the album’s conclusion — a pair of ballads and a fun relic of the '90s, the hidden track. “Happily Ever After” is a perfectly sweet and innocent ballad. Enough said — the melody on the chorus is great.

I have nothing ill to say of “False Echoes (Havana 1921).” It’s a heartbreakingly direct song about his father’s descent into Alzheimer’s. Your sympathy for the author notwithstanding, it would be so easy to fall flat on your face trying to write this. Pick any number of faux-heartfelt modern country tales of addiction, death, war, or whatever and compare them to this piece of poetry. Having James Taylor sing an airtight harmony with you doesn’t hurt either.

There’s one final flourish with the secret track, a cover of Stephen Stills' “Treetop Flyer.” A perfect choice, it ties into “Jamaica Mistaica,” provides a little comic relief in the intro to soften the blow of “False Echoes,” and gives the session players one last chance to stretch out a bit. Ending with the ballad would’ve made sense, but tacking this cover on to the end was a more mature choice. It brings us full circle — a macro expression of the album’s constituent parts.

Deride the man all you want, I don’t blame you. There’s all too much to be embarrassed about should you start digging into the catalog. But Jimmy Buffett isn't careless. He understands his songs and his place, and there’s plenty of evidence in support of that. I put it to you reader, that if you begin to view Mr. Buffett through the calm of the Banana Wind, you just might find yourself sleeping under newspapers in a desolate train station far from home — at peace with your decisions.

— Stephen Craig Selman