“Drum machines are a 50-year-old technology. If the blues hadn’t been hijacked and trapped in amber, I think they naturally would’ve been incorporated.”
That’s Milwaukee musician Carl Nichols—a.k.a. Buffalo Nichols—speaking about something he knows a thing or two about: the blues. From his days as one half of Milwaukee’s Nickel&Rose to his time spent in Austin during the 2021 release of his solo debut on Fat Possum Records, Nichols has celebrated, reclaimed, and modernized the genre. “When you pick up a guitar, the first thing you’re gonna play is the blues,” he says. “And when you pick up an 808, you’re gonna start doing trap beats.”
Nichols’ “hijacked and trapped in amber” comment is key to understanding the artistic impulse behind the excellent new The Fatalist, out today on Fat Possum. And yet it only goes halfway: there’s no gimmicky instrumentation or bonkers Q-Tip feature here, and those trap beats appear only judiciously on tracks like “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond,” “The Long Journey Home,” and “The Fatalist Blues.” Instead, Nichols’ beautifully rendered and piercing modern blues keeps one foot in tradition and the other in the concerns and trauma of the 21st century. Listen to it here:
“There’s a reason why I’m sleeping on the cold, cold ground. What do you think it is?” Nichols rhetorically asks in his Leonard Cohen growl on opener “Cold Black Stare.” “The man in the shadows with the cold black stare, he’s taking all the warmth and leaving nothing for you.” Later, on “Love Is All,” Nichols turns his attention inward. “The rules they have been written, but they’re hard to understand,” he sings. “I’ve seen much bad behavior in the canon of good men.” And speaking of bad behavior, “The Difference” is a modern breakup song that’s alternately lovely, self-critical, and downright nasty. What else can you say about a finger-picked acoustic song that ends with “Both of us are bleeding and the pain is mine to bear / And we’re both weak but I at least am somewhat self-aware”?
Along with further cementing Nichols’ status as a national artist, The Fatalist serves as a welcome-home party. Nichols recently returned to his hometown after a few years spent in Austin. “Being back in Milwaukee reminded me of why I started making music in the first place. It got me away from the ‘industry-town’ mentality,” he says in a press release. “There’s definitely a certain work ethic that comes from being in a city like Milwaukee. There are no clear paths to success and not many examples of ‘making it,’ so people end up creating their own path and developing a broad skill set to sustain a career as an artist.”
Buffalo Nichols is currently on tour. His next Milwaukee show is Friday, November 10, at Turner Hall Ballroom.