Sunday, June 12, 2011

Black Swans, Don’t Blame the Stars

have been nights, admit it, when
you’ve thought you heard your name in the air,
your name being sung, a recognition
that you’re a part of the star-resplendent sky
and the musty vapors of earth – they
know who you are, you owe them for this special focus.”
-Albert Goldbarth, “Voices”

This is a record I had to have so badly I bought the MP3s on Amazon even though we’d already preordered the vinyl (should be here any day, but the turntable isn’t working).

The Black Swans are one of the few Columbus bands – at least who put out more than one record – who’ve never made a bad album.  From the lovely sparseness of Who Will Walk in the Darkness in 2004 (and their live shows even earlier) through compilation tracks, another two albums and an EP, up to the new record, every song feels like  it needed to come out of singer-songwriter Jerry Decicca’s voice.  Beyond that, every song (with few enough exceptions I can count them on one hand and have fingers left over) was exactly what I needed to hear when it came out and is still what I need to hear. 

Change! and Darkness were a cartography of every shadow-niche and scar on a specific human heart.  Sex Brain was a look at the id without lapsing into rock cliché.  Words Are Stupid, besides being a great record full of great songs, feels like an exorcism, “here’s what we’re doing with what you left us, friend;” it feels like it’s at a right angle from the rest of the catalogue.

Don’t Blame the Stars, released last Tuesday, was the last Black Swans record recorded while Noel Sayre – the only other permanent member alongside Decicca since the band’s founding in 1999 – was still alive, and even if it didn’t have that weight on it, it’d still be one of the best records anyone’s going to put out in this year or most years.  This is Decicca’s, as a songwriter, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, his Blonde on Blonde, his For the Roses.  Not just a breakthrough in the quality of the songs though there are melodies on here you’ll be humming for days, but also a record that’s about the world more than the writer.  That moment when the perfectly-crafted self-portraits crack open and become universal but also when all the influences are in service to what’s being said, not defining what’s going to be said or how. 

The way silence and space are used on Don’t Blame the Stars includes similar high-wire tension to the earlier records, most noticeably on “Boo Hoo” which feels like a summing up of the previous albums and a thesis statement for the new one, all vibrato and delicacy and moving from “When the world is upside down / And you get buggered by a clown…” to “There’s no way of telling / The world is crying, or if it’s yelling / So raise up your arms / And dance with me”; and “My Brother” where the voice is accompanied only by a fingerpicked acoustic, bass, and a string quartet (and not incidentally, the most beautiful vocal) with pauses between lines especially on the chorus that, as someone said about Count Basie, “You could shave between the beats.”

“Joe Tex”, the tribute to the great R&B singer of the same name, manages to pull off a tribute song that sounds like the subject but doesn’t feel like an ape, with the perfect interplay of Sayre’s violin and Jon Beard’s organ while the chopping guitar leads and guides the groove.  Again, space is key, even on a concise 4 minute song, as in the line break inserted into the middle of Tex’s line “The love you save / Might be your own” and that little pause before the last of the chorus, “The fields we plow are gray.”  “Blue Bayou” also addresses the joyful possibility of music – roots music in a couple of senses, as Prince and Gregory Isaacs get name checked in something that could drift into cheese but it never does.  The violin is particularly strong on this, these minimal cells of melody that rise up and change just before the listener gets a grip on them then showing up again, like memory, like chiaroscuro around the soul vocal and guitar. 

There was a Borges essay where he talked about making abstract details specific, that “a rose red city half as old as time” is so much stronger than “old as time”, and Decicca’s lyrics get that.  Any clichéd sentiment is punctured and subtly reshaped with concrete detail, as on the gorgeous title track where, after setting up the theme with “With the good comes the bad”, etc, he addresses it, “Listen, my friend / My former girlfriend” and that jolts the listener awake.  “So, so tired / I’ve got rocks in my head” on “Mean Medicine” gets that juice from immediately followed by “I never exercise / I just pace in my bed”. 

This has been a spring/summer full of records that show great Columbus bands in a new light or at least a clearer light – Times New Viking, Psychedelic Horseshit, Blueprint – and so far this is the best of the lot.  A record for a  long drunken night after the party’s split and a walk on a sunny day and I bet it’ll be a record when the leaves are down or the first snow’s making the air wet.


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