We are constantly in search of new music that will satisfy us, because what satisfies us changes, day by day. Long periods of love for one style or artist give way to successive obsessions, curiosities and epiphanies. The next fix can be sought out in the bottomless record bin of the past, or on the new release shelf. There is, of course, always something new, something to look forward to, even if, especially if, we don’t know what it is we are looking for. When you hear it, you know. I felt this the first time I heard New Buffalo, the chosen moniker of Melbourne’s Sally Seltmann, and again when I heard her latest record, Somewhere, Anywhere. The music she makes, at its best, communicates something genuine and timeless, something unburdened by affectation or fickle, momentary confessional. Situations and images are brought to mind, which delineate not so much definite experiences, as the way a moment fits into the greater context of a life.
Last Beautiful Day, the first New Buffalo album, was released in Australia in 2004, and in North America by Arts & Crafts a year later. Blending organic instrumentation and jazzy textures with warm electronic pulses, it cast itself in an irresistible of melancholy made over. The standout track was “I’ve Got You and You’ve Got Me,” a composition which wraps Seltmann’s wistful melodies in a haze of minimalist electronics, strings and soulful saxophone lines—it even warranted a symphonic remix by Broken Social Scene. The crux of Seltmann’s work to this point is expressed epigrammatically in a couplet from the song: “What happens when I say/ this may be the last beautiful day.” She has an admirable ability to convey joy, not in conflict with, but predicated on fragility, on the ephemeral ground upon which she stands.
“Cheer Me Up Thank You,” the opening track on Somewhere, Anywhere, picks up where Last Beautiful Day left off. It conjures a bucolic scene that renders each and every despondent voice, actual or imagined, mute. The simplicity of her past work is magnified, every element chiseled into sharp relief. Beginning with a wave of ethereal harmony, it steps forward slightly, carefully, borne by softly strummed guitar, fingers audible on the fretboard, before rising to a cascade of blissful pop, intimate and otherworldly. It sets the framework for the album to come— though nothing reaches its unassailable beauty, beauty without frivolity. Gone for the most part, surely to the chagrin of some, are the jazzy interludes and playful genre bending of Last Beautiful Day. Somewhere, Anywhere is, instead, dominated by Seltmann’s piano playing, her sense for crafting kinked, catchy pop songs, and finally, by her ability to breathe life into nearly every word that she sings.
Seltmann is like Chan Marshall and Leslie Feist (for whom she originally penned the immaculate “1 2 3 4”) in her ability to engage by the sheer magnetism of her delivery. Unlike Marshall, she is not a chronicler of degradation, of the dark recesses of human experience—the places where one goes that make redemption a necessity. It is out of her range. What she excels in is walking the line between exuberance and misery, between faith and disbelief in their most simple conflict: the day-to-day struggle to imbue life with sufficient meaning. She is best at her most reticent. The less she says straightforwardly, the more she says, obliquely. Her meaning is conveyed in the half-lit corners where music meets words, where they exist in endless dialogue, like two star struck lovers who have just found one another. Neither is enough without the other. When the songs turn out too literal, when this meeting fails to take place, as happens on tracks like “Versary” and “Stay With Us,” mediocrity slips in.
But while it may bog down occasionally, on Somewhere, Anywhere, the moments of sublimity far outweigh the lesser ones. Take the images Seltmann piles up in “It’s True”: from “I got myself into this mess/ I chose to wear this stupid dress/ my memory’s no good for me/ there’s one place where I want to be,” in the first verse, to “One million people with one idea/ to get the hell right out of here/ you’ve packed your car/ you’ve packed your brain/ with things to lose/and things to gain,” in the second. Ostensibly, couched in the language and demeanor of a love song, “It’s True” goes somewhere else as well. It imagines a community confused, longing for a place to go, uncertain as to where that is, but somehow dead certain that it exists. After the chorus there is a long swelling, static-drenched buildup, full of wonder and awkwardness, disillusion and incorruptible hope—it is one of the most persistently alluring moments on the album. It gets to the place that Seltmann is, and to the places where she is going.
Skimming the song titles of Somewhere, Anywhere, one comes to “I’m the Drunk, and You’re the Star.” It is the kind of title that holds the attention, that promises something withheld; it reads like an ornate gateway, unguarded, through which one will certainly be drawn. As it opens somberly, cinematically, Seltmann’s voice is as soulful and weary as it gets, reciting a litany of what “it all comes down” to. There are two passages in the song—one indecipherable, the other plain and luminous as daylight—which, taken together, seem to express everything which is wondrous and laudable about her work.
You cried your eyes out when I was gone
You want the truth, well here you are
I’m the drunk and you’re the star
You cried your eyes out when I was gone
So much happiness in longing for what you love
Longing for what you were
And what you will be