The story of Buzz Zeemer is really two stories, each straight out of the standard rock ‘n’ roll manual. First, there was Flight of Mavis, a three-piece band from the Replacements school of melodic, attitudinal rock. Distinguished by Frank Brown’s cut-above songwriting and warm, personable singing voice, Mavis seemed in flight toward great things in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
The highlight and lowlight were one and the same: a six-week tour opening for the Reivers. “We were exhausted,” Brown said. “We were gone for six weeks and we each came home with $50 in our pockets. I mean, it was a great experience. It was fun. But 50 bucks?”
A lot more than 50 bucks was riding on the second story, whose star was a promising rocker named Tommy Conwell. Signed to a big bonus and hyped to the hilt by Columbia Records, Conwell and his band, the Young Rumblers, were all set to be stars. Surprise, surprise: It didn’t quite happen.
The stories collided in the mid-1990s. Brown broke up Mavis around the same time that Conwell got his degree in education and became the hippest second-grade teacher in North America. Eventually, the two started playing together in a new band, Buzz Zeemer (whose lineup also included other former Mavis members). Their debut disc, Plaything, came out in 1995.
Looking back, Brown can’t say whether it was a mistake to break up Flight of Mavis. Any momentum they’d built up seemed to disappear with the name change, but Brown’s view is that there wasn’t much there to begin with. “We had momentum when the first Buzz Zeemer came out; that was like another round of attention,” Brown said. “But I think you only get a certain amount. You have certain periods, and that really goes with any band.”
Buzz Zeemer’s new record, Delusions Of Grandeur, is a subversively brilliant pop-rock record on Philly’s Record Cellar label. Brown, 34, is a master of the three-minute pop song, a quality craftsman along the lines of Jack Logan or Tommy Keene. Brown’s innate gift for melody is surpassed by spare lyrics that reveal layers of meaning and emotion not apparent on first listen. “Red Balloon”, from the new album, is a straightforward tale of a kid being goaded to spend more money by the barker at a midway water-gun game. But when Brown lets loose with “Nothing is free, nothing comes easy,” you realize the barker is every slick A&R guy and the kid is every wide-eyed musician who ever stepped up to take a shot at the grand prize.
“I love pop songs,” Brown said. “You get to a point where you invested so much time listening to rock music, it doesn’t do you any good. You can’t make any money from it, but you have all this worthless knowledge.”
Again and again on Delusions, Brown establishes the foundation with a catchy verse and memorable chorus, and then Conwell steps up and elevates the song to another level with a virtuosic solo or two. That might sound formulaic, but the whole thing is carried off with a joy bordering on goofiness. You can’t help smiling along.
“Tommy’s great,” Brown said. “My feelings about getting anywhere [with the band]…I mean, I don’t think about it. But just the idea of playing with Tom, that’s half of what keeps you going. I’d write a song and I always had this hole left for Tom. It’s so hilarious to be able to write something you’re happy about and then have Tommy put the icing on. Anything you imagine, he can play.”
There is a definite connection between the relaxed brilliance of the tunes and the life stages of the band members. Brown has a 1-year-old son and is working on getting his degree. Conwell is teaching. The pressure is off.
“You still hope,” Brown said, “but everyone has so much going on in their lives. It’s so different from eight or 10 years ago. That’s a whole different world. There’s nothing you can do to make yourselves bigger. You can’t just go, ‘We’re big.’ Because we just can’t take it seriously enough to believe it.”