A Power Greater Than Themselves

This is when Buchanan could become mega, but first they get to turn their lives over to the music industry

Photo by Tenaya HillsThis is it.

This is the moment for any band that's been suffering its way through years of artistic indecencies—beer-soaked clubs, shifty promoters, tone-deaf sound guys, piss-reeking tour vans, blowing-smoke-up-the-ass record-label execs.

This is the moment when the expectations of your fan base—building with tectonic inevitability—are finally satisfied. When you finally have an answer for the strangers who come up to you at shows and incredulously ask why you're not signed yet. When all the hard work is supposed to pay off, even though half the band is living off MasterCard withdrawals and the other half can't qualify for credit. When you think that maybe, finally, you've "made it" and can breathe for a while.

But this is really just the start of a whole new kind of nervous. Truth is Buchanan haven't done anything yet. It's two weeks before the Feb. 24 release of their first proper label album, All Understood, and the band—guitarist Ty Stewart, drummer Chris Powell, bassist Todd Sanders and front man Jay Buchanan (the singer/songwriter, naturally)—have stumbled into the dark cave that is the Gypsy Lounge, one of their many home-away-from-home clubs. And they're beat, having just driven back from a quickie San Francisco sojourn, where they played four songs to a bunch of radio people who may or may not decide to add them to their playlists.

In an hourlong chat, they shift between cocky confidence and near panic. They know their music's great and that if enough people hear it, there's no reason they couldn't be mega by this time next year. But this is also when they have to turn their lives and art over to people they barely know—people they've entrusted with promotion, press, marketing, booking and distribution, work Buchanan used to do themselves. All the band can really do now is concentrate on playing music and hope that All Understood actually shows up in the CD bins on Feb. 24.

"We definitely have the prerelease jitters on this thing because we've all worked so fucking hard," says Jay. "But I've learned from the past about letting ambition control my expectations. We'll play it smart and see what happens, but we have to look at things as realistically as possible."

Part of playing it smart is knowing the chances of a new band succeeding on a national level are positively microscopic, particularly in this era of record-industry layoffs and lowest-common-denominator radio stations. Buchanan have already weathered pangs of uncertainty with their label, Ultimatum. All Understood was supposed to have been released a year ago, but Ultimatum was in the middle of changing distributors, so instead of just dropping the record into a black hole and watching it disappear, they opted to wait until they could give it proper support.

The band spent the time touring and tweaking.

"We hit new cities, made new friends," Jay says. "Plus, we were able to go back in the studio and re-track a few things."

The version of All Understood that would have come out was . . . nice. Fine, with Jay's deeply personal, relationship-centered lyrics (sung in his sweet, high, slightly eerie lilt that recalls Buckleys both Tim and Jeff) in songs such as "Steal Your Kisses" and "Three Times Coleen" standing out from just about everything else in the aural atmosphere. There were the songs familiar to anyone who'd caught Jay solo or with the band at the Gypsy Lounge or Linda's Doll Hut or many a Tuesday night at the Hub Cafť or famously busking in front of doughnut shops after plugging his amp into the electrical outlets normally reserved for the kiddie rides—"Satan Is a Woman" and "How Crazy I Am" and "The Sun Burns My Eyes." Good songs, good album—just not a great one.

And that's because version 1.0 of the album didn't have "If You Leave," probably Jay's most popular song, a harrowing tale of spousal abuse that starts off feeling like a charming love sonnet ("So we're married now, you can be my wife/And I'll love you, girl, for the rest of your life") before turning black and vicious ("We can have our fun, for the rest of your life/But don't you ever think you can leave me behind/I'll kill you if you leave"). Before, "If You Leave" had more of a folkie-driven acoustic bent to it; the new version is an absolute Zeppelin take, the music as raucous and threatening as the lyrics—a sonic punch that beefs up the whole album. The band also re-recorded three other songs—"Plans," "Reborn" and the angry anti-war rant "American Son" (which was also freshly injected with some searing guitar licks)—turning All Understood from what had been a pretty good folk/pop record into a monstrous rock & roll one, with a few quieter moments fluttering about.

Great tunes, but even as Buchanan get ready for a year's worth of playing them for crowds of people who've never heard them before, they're also sort of done with them. A lot of songs on All Understood are considerably old. Some first turned up on Violence, a self-released album recorded in 1999. Some are even older.

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