In 2008, the Black Swans lost founding member and violinist Noel Sayre when he died in a swimming accident. The band isn’t so much haunted by this loss as informed by it. The group was in the middle of making their last record, Don’t Blame the Stars, when Sayre passed away, and the band took a break from the record as part of the grieving process. In the end, when they finished it, that record became a farewell to their friend and final chance for us to hear Sayre’s vital string work that was so key a part of the band’s sound.
If that album was a forced, painful goodbye, Occasion for Song is the true document of grief. It may not be cathartic, necessarily, but it documents the grieving process with subtlety and depth and it pays tribute to Sayre himself. In fact, the most striking thing about Occasion for Song is how you don’t hear Sayre’s violin at all, and there’s no replacement for him. The band’s already spare, dusty compositions feel all the more bare here, almost as if a part is missing, and if the songs themselves aren’t always sad, that loss hangs over the recording, the lack of strings it’s most deeply emotional move.
That said, it is not an album that find the Black Swans in stasis. Occasion for Song is a further distillation of the firmly country sounds of Don’t Blame the Stars, and it finds them at their most focused and spare and strong musically. The dry plink of the banjo plays nicely against echoing guitars on “Basket of Light”, acting as long shadow to the soft-spoken voice of singer of Jerry DiCicca. “Bound to Be” puts the acoustic instruments up front, with some harmonica filling out the infinite space around them. “Somewhere Else” pulls the same trick, but this time with the leanest of electric guitar work. In fact, all over Occasion for Song, Chris Forbes’s electric guitar work is revelatory, more suggestive and elusive than fully formed and physical. He both shapes these songs and gives them a wide-open, borderless quality.
That openness makes the entire record a quiet, continuous roll of sound, the kind of campfire vigil you’d play when you didn’t want to wake nearby neighbors. The organ and full-strummed acoustic of “Daily Affirmation” is as loud as they get, and everything else here is delivered in a whisper. But that’s not because everything moment is crushingly sad. There is the fascinating “Portsmouth, Ohio”, named after the location of Sayre’s accident. It’s verses are factual reports of the incident, just the facts, and the effect is chilling, especially with the disbelief in the chorus, when DiCicca sings “nobody’s supposed to die, three days’ before the 4th of July,” and in tribute he can think of little else but “he played a mean violin.”
That sort of disbelief and honest lack of articulation in the face of loss isn’t the only shade the Black Swans work with here. Opener “Basket of Light” is, as the title implies, a hopeful first step in the record, and it turns away from sadness to wry humor on “Fickle and Faded” while “Mask From Memory” is a more macabre turn that finds DiCicca constructing a mask of his late friend’s face.
Occasion for Song is remarkable in that it digs into all these different permutations of grief, from the sad to the funny to the strange, and in that way feels like a full statement, a completely realized letter to their lost friend and bandmate. It may be a bit too quiet for its own good at times—the soft voices and spare instruments curling in on themselves after a while, rather than reaching out—but still in all the space around that quiet you’ll miss Sayre’s violin, you’ll feel like it should be there, you’ll wonder where it went.
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