Album Review: Bill Janovitz, “Walt Whitman Mall”
In 1962, the first shopping mall on Long Island opened up in Huntington Station. Because it’s located practically across the street from the birthplace of Walt Whitman, it was named in his honor. After all, what better way to celebrate the most famous person to emerge from your hometown than name a mall after him? Similarly, in New Jersey, where Whitman spent the last years of his life, there is a Walt Whitman rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Although Bill Janovitz, frontman for Buffalo Tom, has long been associated with Boston, he grew up in the mall’s shadow before his family moved to the Boston area when he was about 16. That suburban upbringing forms the bulk of his new album, which is called, naturally, Walt Whitman Mall, and already shaping up to be one of my favorite albums of 2013.
The album started out as A Long Island Of The Mind, with him releasing the demos on his website to gauge audience reaction. The response was so positive that he decided to build upon them and release it as a full-fledged an album. By the time he began the PledgeMusic campaign for the project, he removed one song (“Funeral of the Legs”) and replaced it with a newly recorded version of “Long Island,” which originally appeared on his 2001 album, Up Here. He also changed the title.
“In a way, the hometown I had to leave got trapped in amber of nostalgia,” he wrote in his blog post introducing it last year. “Some of these songs come from there, the place, that recent time, the past times, and even now. Some of them have more autobiography than others. Some are pure fiction. Some of the subjects are people in their 40s, real or imagined, some on Long Island, some here in Massachusetts. Most have to do with the push-and-pull of the past and present.”
I spent the first 18 years of my life in a town called Bellmore, which is on the South Shore of Long Island, about 20 miles away from Huntington. And Janovitz is only three years older than I am, so I was able to recognize a lot in the songs (maybe that’s why I felt such a strong connection to Buffalo Tom during their heyday). But even on those songs where specific points on the Island are referenced, he takes out just enough so that those who didn’t grow up there will be able to relate, so that the specific locations give the album a sense of place and an intimacy.
Still it’s all there: the summer nights spent driving around with friends that always seem to wind up on the beach (“Best Route”), the crush who probably never got out and is now taking her kids to the same parks where the two of you used to hang out (“Hecksher Park”), and the cruddy bars by the train station where guys stop off for a drink and dream of a Mad Man-esque dalliance with the only attractive woman in the joint before going home to their families (“Prettiest”).
Unlike Arcade Fire, he’s not looking to make a grand statement about the ambivalences of the suburbs, nor is he mocking them, like Fountains of Wayne. Instead he accepts the reality of what it was like to grow up there. Sure, it’s boring, potentially soul-crushing (to the point where, in the title track, a neighbor dying in Hawaii seems more romantic than working at Sears), and the focal point is a shopping center named after one of the defining American literary voices. But it wasn’t a bad way to go, and it all came with the endless optimism that comes from growing up comfortably middle-class and being told you can be anything if you put your mind to it.
Janovitz plays all the instruments except drums on nearly every song. Only the opening cut, “Long Island,” features a full band, which has background vocals by the “Lawnguyland Kwaya,” a group that includes his two children and those who contributed $150 to the project. The video is embedded below.