It's tough to hear McBean in Black Mountain over all that axe-ripping, but on Outside Love he puts himself a little further out there, giving us a new picture of him as not just a riff-master, but also a solid songwriter.
Pitting Stephen McBean's two bands, Pink Mountaintops and Black Mountain, against each other, it's apparent that the latter is his foundation and the former its smaller offshoot. Not only does it fit the images, with one merely a fraction of the other, but it also falls in line with critical response. Sure, both bands are oft-praised, but Black Mountain gets far more attention than Pink Mountaintops.
Still, you could argue that, in terms of sound, the roles are flipped. Pink Mountaintops, especially with their new album, Outside Love, sound like the foundation for McBean's musical vision. He lays down subtle but immovable layers of sound that certainly worked as support beams in Black Mountain's In the Future, if not in all their songs. Pink Mountaintops lay McBean's love of spacey atmosphere bare, and don't bury it under his massive rock riffs. It still sounds, even this far into the life of Pink Mountaintops, like a risky move, since McBean's reputation is closely tied to his guitar work. But Outside Love is too solid to be dismissed as the work of a lesser side project.
These songs are hazy and glacially paced, often soaked in echoing distortion and the stretched delivery of McBean's vocals. Without the immediacy of his rock heroics, these songs are forced to succeed on the strength of their subtle melodies, and quite often they do. "Axis: Thrones of Love" pulses over McBean's distant, crunchy chords, and McBean and backing vocalists sound like a heartbroken choir as they belt out the question "How deep is your love?" over and over again. Strings lilt their way through the track as it grows and lifts all the way through. It achieves a tension, in spite of its slack delivery, in swelling by such small degrees that you don't notice how much it's grown until the song ends, leaving you hanging onto the edge of that choir's collective voice.
Outside Love works best when McBean's band sounds like a loose collective. The verses of a song like "Vampire" make the album almost sound like a McBean solo affair. But with his acoustic guitar and fragile groan bolstered by heavy strings, he's once again joined in the chorus by a flood of other vocals, and even if the emotional rise seems obvious, it is no less affecting. The same is true of the excellent "And I Thank You", the album's longest song. There's another heady mix of keys and guitars and strings, mixed here with mandolin and pedal steel that realize the country sound some of the other songs here merely hint at. As the rambling romantic, which McBean is all over this record, he can carry these songs on his own, but it is once again the way the whole band comes together to sing that makes the song burst fully to life. You would think that trick would get old, but as a group they hit a number of different sounds. They sound exhausted but hopeful on "And I Thank You", pining and restless on "Axis: Thrones of Love," and ghostly and broken on the title track.
McBean and company do risk sounding melodramatic on these big, built-up songs, but surprisingly the album stumbles more when it tightens things up. The crunchy bounce of "Execution" feels slight next to the expanse of songs like "And I Thank You". And "Holiday" is a well-meaning ditty where McBean claims that "Everyone I love deserves a holiday", but it doesn't expand into something greater the way other tracks do. Perhaps what holds these songs back is that they tighten without upping the urgency. The melodies are still pulled on and feel, in these more compact songs, slack where they shimmered in the bigger, more ambitious numbers.
But Outside Love does make its point. McBean ain't all about the big guitars. He's a man of space and atmosphere, first and foremost. And none of his bands, the Black Mountain rock juggernaut included, would work without his ability to layer sounds into a beautiful swelling sound. He may sound a little doe-eyed and overly romantic on this album, but it's a nice, and much more personal, shift from the fire and brimstone and grand statements of Axis of Evol. It's always hard to see McBean through all that hair, and it's tough to hear him in Black Mountain over all that axe-ripping, but on Outside Love he puts himself a little further out there, giving us a new picture of him as not just a riff-master, but also a solid songwriter.