Thursday, January 3, 2008

Pitchfork reviews The Black Swans' "Change!"

huge thanks to Stephen M. Deusner and the entire Pitchfork staff!

The Black Swans
[La Société Expéditionnaire; 2007]

Rating: 7.9

There's something disquieting at the bottom of the Black Swans' songs, something half-shaped and half-seen, like a body in a lake. The surface of the music is usually calm and familiar, but something disturbing appears briefly in the crest of each wave of violin or guitar. On the emphatically titled Change!, their second full-length and first for La Société Expéditionnaire, that something might be dread, or fear, or some secret intelligence about which the band write and play but can never disclose. It's the same something that haunted their debut, Who Will Walk in the Darkness with You?, and their follow-up EP, Sex Brain. Paradoxically, Change! doesn't actually change any of their mysterious intent, but amplifies it.

Crisper and more pared down than their previous releases, albeit with slightly less variation among the songs, Change! sounds luminously cinematic, like Pinetop Seven or the soundtrack work of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, yet twilit songs like "Hope Island", "Purple Heart", and even the silvertoned instrumental "Blue Moon #9" use these familiar sounds for foreign ends-- they're not simply dark, but cleverly dreadful, as if the Black Swans are smuggling something sinister inside the lyrics and chords. Jerry DeCicca's voice still sounds hollowed at its core, deep yet light, with that eerie vibrato that draws comparisons to Stuart Staples of Tindersticks, but with a country bent instead of soul. His and Christopher Forbes' deep Americana guitars still walk in the darkness with Noel Sayres' scratchily emotive violin, the head to the latter's heart. Bassist Canaan Faulkner and drummer Keith Hanlon know to hang back, recognizing that rhythm on these songs must be subliminal at best. Even when the melodies verge on lovely, which they do on every song, they still sound uneasy. The Black Swans may be trafficking in a kind of atmospheric indie folk-rock, but Change! actually plays like a sort of blues, full of thoroughly digested worry and world-weariness: "There's a dark cloud hanging over," DeCicca sings on "Shake", "and trouble on my mind."

It's not that the Black Swans inhabit a strange world, but that they depict the real world from such a strange perspective. These songs portray crossroads, where weird metamorphoses are taking place, as DeCicca describes changing from one self into another. "This is my new face," he sings on opener "New Face", "I wear it for you." Or consider the grim physicality of "Coats", sung over a rising and falling guitar melody: "My skin is paint, watch it flake/ Pick up the brush, fix the mistake." So that album title turns out to be a dire exclamation, like yelling Help! or Watch out!, and Change! eventually reveals itself to be a break-up album, where the end of a relationship necessitates traumatic transformation. As DeCicca sings on the title track, "All that's left is change." Period.

-Stephen M. Deusner, January 03, 2008

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