You know when you take a college literature class? And there’s that guy? That one guy who at first impresses you. He’s smart (probably smarter than you), adding comments to the professor’s lecture that you take down in your notebook. The first month of the semester goes by and you start to really dislike him. He can still impress you with his intellect, but it’s become overkill. He can’t utter a statement without referencing something obscure that he’s read. He incorporates dramatic pauses into his speech, right before he chooses the perfect four-syllable word. On good days, you want to take him aside and tell him he doesn’t have to try so hard to impress. On bad days, you’d like to break into his apartment and catch him doing something simply human, like eating too many cupcakes or laughing through an entire episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.
Black Mountain, the band, is the musical equivalent of this guy. Their self-titled CD sounds like it was an attempt at something especially grandiose. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. More bands out there should give off the appearance of having a vision of some sort or another, instead of a collection of songs designed to be “cool”. But it goes awry for Black Mountain, devolving into a collection of musical segments that prove that the members have really important record collections and strong political views. The crucial thing that is missing is internal inspiration.
Each of these nine songs, in some form or another, shows promise. The opener, “Modern Music”, starts as a cross between Railroad Jerk and Shudder to Think. The lyrics are clever, poking fun at the music industry. Then, less than a minute into it, the music draws back (drums all over the place, horns blaring indiscriminately) and Stephen McBean lets loose his over-the-top whisper. This voice, obviously an important instrument in the group, fills the spaces with self-important drama. It’s too precious at times and just plain used in the wrong way. No matter how many times I listened to this and worked on just accepting his voice, which is often great, it would switch to the theatrical, and I wouldn’t care again. You can just picture Mr. McBean onstage, arms outstretched in his best Jesus pose. But the vocal theatrics are only part of the problem. The music is another area of bombast. Songs start and stop in a way that feels like a rusty carnival ride. There are soulful beginnings, metal-sludge middles, and Phil Spector-ish melodies, but the parts never equal a whole. It’s like a college-rock version of rap meets metal; there’s a select group who think it’s a good idea, and not too many of them care much about music. This band obviously cares a great deal about music. But it’s got to be more than playing different versions of a favorite outside piece, tying it together, and calling it a song. It’s got to be more than technique and talented musicians.
Here’s the thing: I get the sense that Black Mountain could be great. Stephen McBean does nothing if not ooze seriousness and brains on this record. He just needs to rely on his instincts more, instead of his influences. He’s got a fantastic vocal counterpart in Amber Webber, who should be heard by the masses. The lyrics verge on the poetic. The production is dead on. All we need is for this guy to stop raising his hand in class every damn minute and wow us with an eloquent, moving speech at the end of the semester. A little subtlety and withholding can go a very long way.