Despite the somewhat ubiquitous handle — does a White Buffalo roam the musical plain or simply serve as some sort of monumental figurehead worthy of high praise? — Jake Smith has used his alias to purvey some exceptional alt country offerings over the course of the past dozen years. Although his initial independent releases gathered little notice, Smith has made a name for himself and White Buffalo since he signed to an actual label via the Unison Music Group, developing a burgeoning reputation as one who ought to be watched. An unlikely association with the television show “Sons of Anarchy” has brought him additional notoriety, so much so that White Buffalo’s music is now regularly featured on the program and readily available on the various “Sons” soundtrack.
All in all, not bad for a guy that bills himself as a bison.
That brings us to his current release, and the album that seems all but certain to provide Smith’s big breakthrough, a veritable buffalo stampede, if you will. It’s got all the elements required to affirm White Buffalo’s rugged and rootsy pedigree, a perfect mix of remorse and rebellion. The chaotic, carousing “Dark Days,” “Modern Times” and “Chico” are churned from the perspective of the perpetual outsider, never content with society’s take on the status quo. Foreboding ballads like “I Got You,” “Where Is Your Savior” and “Last Call to Heaven” in particular prove less rambunctious, but no less desultory in their weary reflection and nihilistic point of view.
Indeed, as rowdy as White Buffalo is so often prone to be, the music is far more cerebral than celebratory. There’s a sense of foreboding that pervades the majority of these tracks, an unsettled feeling of discontent that adds to the sense of bleak despair. And while that may be part and parcel of Smith’s rebellious nature, he often takes on other personas to convey his darker designs. Indeed the two songs that provide the most distinct narratives, specifically,“Chico” and “Rocky,” each bring a storyline that’s as powerful as they are personal. That said, White Buffalo isn’t shy about sharing his sentiments. The profanity-laced ramble “Go the Distance” fairly flaunts that don’t give a damn attitude, and when he tells his mate, “You’re not just my woman, you’re a piece of ass,” every temporal notion of love and romance is tossed aside in favor of excess and indulgence.
It’s ironic then that the final song of the set, “Come on Love, Come On In,” should end the album of a note of such steadfast determination. “Another day’s lost, another day begins,” Smith sings, giving voice to both futility and optimism. Cast in a soulful setting and an arrangement that rises triumphantly with gospel-like exuberance, it suggests that for all his underlying misery and despair, our hero isn’t licked yet. Quite to the contrary in fact. Despite its cynicism and measure of defeat, Love and the Death of Damnation offers hope that defiance can ultimately triumph, and that there’s no need to acquiesce in order to simply to survive. In that respect, White Buffalo wins our respect, and ultimately our indulgence.