Fans of the Black Heart Procession's usually downtempo, understated explorations of heartache and loss might stumble over Amore Del Tropico's first song, "Tropics of Love". A jaunty bossanova that sounds like it jumped right out of The Pink Panther's boho middle, "Tropics of Love" is a departure for a band that is doing its best to drive the last nail into conventional alternative rock's coffin. And if you know anything about the guys in the band, that would make perfect sense to you.
Pall Jenkins' other band, the amazing Three Mile Pilot, descended on the grunge phenomenon like an avenging angel with the release of 1992's Na Vucca Do Lupo and especially 1995's Chief Assassin to the Sinister, two albums that avoided that genre's reliance on guitar pyrotechnics by nearly eschewing the insturment altogether. It was an interesting experiment: although it lacked six-string guitar, Lupo was nevertheless filled to the brim with screaming passion. And Chief Assassin, the band's finest album (and Pall's favorite), reincorporated the instrument but mostly for atmospherics, using it sparingly to hammer its points and songs, such as the unforgettable "Inner Bishop", home. Plus, Zach Smith's mind-boggling bass work (which can also be found on his other project, Pinback) more than made up for the gaping void left behind by the band's refusal to capitulate to musical convention.
Although it's easier to find a fan of Carrot Top's movies than it is to find even an insider who can name all of Three Mile Pilot's albums (to say nothing about being able to find them in music stores), the band should not be forgotten or underestimated. Which is where the Black Heart Procession, who've now lapped Three Mile Pilot in the number of original releases, comes in. So since Pall -- as well as ex-Pilot and current Black Heart instrumentalist, Toby Nathaniel -- has insisted that the Procession is not a side project, I find it comforting to think of the band (as well as Zach's Pinback) as an extension of Three Mile's experimental spirit, components of a greater project maximizing the talents of all three San Diego musicians. Like a fan at a Black Heart show last Halloween told me, "You can take the Pixies out of Frank Black and Kim Deal, but you can't take either of them out of the Pixies. Same thing here."
In that sense, Black Heart's work stands alone as some of the more emotive (chamber) pop music laid down in recent years, and that's in the multiple sense of the term. Pall's lyrics have always taken heartbreak as their point of departure. In fact, he continually conflates the words "heart" and "crime" in his songs, and Amore Del Tropico continues that trend. With songs that sample his own personal lexicon of love -- using terms like "love", "crime", "stay", "broken", "road", "cry" and "disappeared" -- Amore Del Tropico is a jilted linguist's journey into his own heart of darkness.
Sure enough, most of its songs stick to the tried-and-true mellow musical structures Black Heart Procession has more or less made its totemic signature. Think Chris Isaak circa David Lynch's Wild at Heart phase, add some eerie instrumentation and you're there. "Broken World" is an ethereal floater featuring morose guitar plucking and a protagonist lamenting that feeling we all get when we find out from our lover that we are simply no longer useful. "Why I Stay" is a similarly lilting toe-tapper that lightly phrases its argument for why love just can never seem to get its shit together enough to work -- "And so the game is plagued / With the rituals we've made / I know we won't ever learn / The things they'll never change / This is why I stay but this is why I must go".
The album's most evocative dirge, "A Sign on the Road", is a convenient bookend to Black Heart's last album's best song, "The Sinking Road", and is similarly shot through with Nathaniel's creepy organs, seductive percussion and Pall's lyrical melancholia ("Did you not hear? / Nobody's comin' home"), as well as some poignant lap-steel guitar and atmospheric cello. It's a haunting tune, the kind some Black Heart Procession die-hards will turn to when the experimental nature of "Tropics of Love" -- or the upbeat rockers, like "Only One Way" or "Did You Wonder" -- rub them the wrong way.
But those fans would only be getting Amore Del Tropico's superficial gifts, and maybe missing the bigger picture, which is this: like Tom Waits' underrated Frank's Wild Years or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Black Heart's latest is a concept album about someone driven to violence by his inability to belong or fit in. The disc features an insert poster foregrounding its protagonist, armed with a magnifying glass in front of his left eye, towering over his dead lover; there is even talk of an DVD verson of Amore's doomed narrative in the works. Taken as a concept, Black Heart's disc is -- ironically enough -- a lot of fun to listen to. What starts out as sometimes commonplace lyrics -- "This is you, and this me / No one understands" -- ends up as graphic shots of the narrator's fractured, fragmenting interior. This additional contextual dimension is Amore Del Tropico's coolest attribute (next to the angelic, staccato backing vocals on "A Cry For Love", that is).
So if you're a doomed romantic looking for mellow waters to wallow in as you consider how to pull yourself out of your malaise, the guys in Black Heart Procession will take good care of you. Because even though their thematics can seem heavy-handed at times, there is enough of a self-consciousness about them to suggest that they're having as much fun as trouble with their doomed love lives. It's not like they really want to die, or kill anyone for that matter: they're just comfortable exploring the black hearts that beat beneath our chests as we keep playing the games lovers play. Even if they'll end, as This Mortal Coil once said, in tears.