In 1999, Buchanan scraped together his meager resources to create his self-released solo album, Violence. He was able to persuade two musicians he admired, bassist Todd Sanders (from popular Long Beach-based Ruby Diver) and drummer Chris Powell (who’d performed with Jay in a series of Inland Empire blues bands) to play on the album.
In 2000, Buchanan came across guitarist Ty Stewart, a skilled player who shared Jay’s thirst for action. Before long the two were grabbing acoustic guitars and amps and performing their guerrilla sets all over Orange County, selling copies of Violence to bystanders between tunes. Adding Sanders and Powell into the mix, the nascent band began to gig and quickly generated a rabid following throughout Southern California.
Despite their growing popularity, Buchanan remained below the radar of the major-label A&R department, but they were unfazed. “At that point,” says Sanders, “we realized that the only thing we could be sure of was ourselves. We figured we’d put out our own record and gain fans on our own.”
Buchanan started cutting tracks for a projected album, but before they could get to such key songs as “Satan Is a Woman,” “Reborn,” “Three Times Coleen,” and “The Sun Burns My Eyes,” opportunity knocked, as Ultimatum’s Jason Ziemianski spotted the band and brought them to the label. Before the ink was dry on the contract, Buchanan was in the studio with veteran producer Don Gehman (R.E.M., John Cougar Mellencamp, Tracy Chapman), who immediately embraced the material.
On the resulting All Understood, Gehman builds the tracks on the foundation of Sanders’ muscular but melodic bass lines and Powell’s emphatic drumming. Amid these distinctively spring-loaded grooves, Buchanan and Stewart squeeze out sparks on their twin Gibson 335’s, the tonalities hinting at everything from “Solisbury Hill” and “The Sweetest Taboo” to “Midnight Rider” and “Strawberry Letter #23,” just as Jay’s vocal timbre at times recalls Bryan Ferry, David Byrne, Jeff Buckley and even Tracy Chapman.
Jay’s vocal heroes include Bobby McFerrin for his virtuosity; Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and Otis Redding for their emotiveness. “You put Otis on and you can’t be in a bad mood,” he says, “even if you’re heartbroken, which there’s usually no cure for.” Buchanan has fully assimilated these disparate influences on the way to forging a resonant vocal style that pumps fearlessness and acute sensitivity in equal measure through his flexible, sonorous tenor.
The band’s shimmering, crisply patterned arrangements stand in stark contrast to Buchanan’s dark narratives, with their sharply drawn, frequently disturbing images of people who are losing control or already out of control, revealing the extent to which driven people will go.
When asked to what extent these songs, with their twisted and desperate characters, are autobiographical, Buchanan pauses, then replies: “I try to keep it elusive. Sure, some of it is autobiographical, but in a metaphorical sense. Hopefully, it’s something that you come back and listen to in a different frame of mind, and it’ll mean something different to you.”
Buchanan are restless souls who have found strength in vulnerability, and All Understood is a breathtaking collision of clarity and mystery, the cerebral and the sensual, the elevated and the profane. At its core, the album is a document of desire in its myriad forms … It leaves a deep impression. And even more striking, the intricate studio work of All Understood comes alive when the band is on the road, where they’ve basically lived for the past few years, honing their skills; the live show has become irresistible. These are not the songs of sleepy coffee houses. This is the potent stuff of back houses, porches and bar room struggles and celebrations. And it seems it’s the energy of the band’s live show that drives listeners to a frenzied loyalty. “Your music hauntingly soothes me … or does it soothingly haunt me?,” quotes one fan from the band’s online forum.
In the words of infamously picky OC Weekly music editor Rich Kane, “[This band] is becoming like a bad, bad habit - hear them, and you’ll want to feel that good for the rest of your life.”