The Black Heart Procession + Solbakken: In the Fishtank
If you're anything like me, you could be at work, rotting listlessly within the confines of a smelly, windowless cubicle, eyes half-shut, eating ramen, yearning forlornly for the trappings of a more fulfilling existence punctuated by a heavier dose of that undisputed holy trinity of happiness: good grub, true love, and -- most importantly -- classy rock and roll. Sure, we're young, and only time will tell what honeyed nectarines of juicy promise the craggy tree of life might lob before we get sent up, but for now, just sit back in your adjustable office chair and dream.
You're in a good band, not a huge arena band with an army of roadies and a long, shimmering line of tedious groupies trying to get backstage, but a small, cool one beloved by a loyal and rabid fan-base. Shortly after breezing through Munich, Copenhagen, and fair Helsinki on your European tour, you receive a letter, written in adorably awkward English, from a Dutch label inviting you and your musical comrades to come spend two gloriously free days getting magnificently stoned and laying down studio jams to solidify your cred. "For goodness sake, man," you cry, seizing the wheel with renewed vigor and jauntily smacking your balding, alcoholic drummer across the back of his head. "Turn this stinking bus around! We did it, you idiots! We're in the fishtank!"
Of course, you'd be enthralled, but I imagine the ethos of an In the Fishtank session might be woefully inappropriate for some bands conceivably tapped by the fine folks at Konkurrent. For example, it's pretty funny to imagine the infamously cranky audiophiles in Shellac cheerfully relinquishing control of the decks for a chance to improvise a few grating drum freak-outs. By the same token, any band of dyed-in-the-wool perfectionists determined to make every studio outing a record of their best performances of finely honed compositions would probably be better off taking a pass. This series doesn't generally produce great albums or even very many great songs. Most listeners are aware that it isn't supposed to. Given the constrictive dearth of studio time and the wildly varying speeds at which bands can churn out a set of songs, the final tracks on such a session understandably cannot help but take on a flawed, rough-hewn finish.
Thus, what's reliably remarkable about this series is that the pay-off is in the process: each installment depicts how a particular band, regardless of whether or not the musicians are expert improvisers, puts together a song, and, as a neat side-effect, just as eloquently highlights the band's limitations, yielding bright dividends for the listener nearly as much preoccupied with those short-comings, endearing or otherwise. Also, when a good group gets ambitious with this formula and tries to stretch their sound a bit too far, the messy product can, in turn, put their largest talents in deeper relief.
Still, whether you love them or hate them, the Black Heart Procession are quite comfortable mining a narrow swath of musical terrain. Their strengths are not intangible; they clearly reside in the mournful vocal hooks and loping dirges built from big drums and bombastic ivories-driven instrumental swells. Their recipe rarely changes dramatically from one album to another, but when everything smokes, the sound is huge, seductive, and infinitely more compelling than that of most bands trying to rope off a corner of the spooky post-rock circuit. At their laziest, or in the case of those on this album, least realized, Black Heart Procession songs can come off as ready-made hip-hop samples. That's still not so bad considering what a blunt-drunk RZA might do with those bone-rattling piano progressions and a musical saw.
For starters, there's "Voiture En Rouge", the brie-and-bordeaux-infused album opener. Subtract guest Rachael Rose's turn on lead vocals (a bit reminiscent of Ezter Balint's scorched mangling of Serge Gainsbourg's "Un Poison Violent, C'est Ca L'amour") and soak that skeletal frame in a suitably ominous three-note bass-line. Now, imagine Pall's contrived-though-cozy chorus soaring over spitfire back-and-forth between 50 Cent and a thoroughly sodden Old Dirty Bastard circa 1994, and you've got yourself a moody club banger fit to bridge a generational divide.
For another flash of excellence, check out "Dog Song", on which our pal Pall lends a surprisingly effective Palace Brothers flourish to what would otherwise be a drab backing track worthy of less accomplished musicians. Likewise, the repetitive guitar chimes livening up the wonderfully named "Nervous Persian" could be the work of Solbakken, the obscure Dutch collaborators whose contributions across the board prove subtle at best.
On the whole, this isn't a superlative album. Even if you think the Black Heart Procession hung the moon, you'll be at least a little disappointed, especially if you comb the tracks for hints of the fine-tuned tension and grandiose melancholia that mark their full-length releases. This 11th volume of the series stacks up well enough against prior installments, but the waltzing gloom-rockers from San Diego are not wonderfully suited to the task. The review improves when you abandon your normal criteria and ignore the slapdash song structures, vocal shortcomings, and general lack of cohesion, and instead think about how a fine band -- huddled in a chilly, elegantly-appointed studio, jamming night and day, cooing through guitar amps, and frantically trying to get the best ideas on tape before time runs out -- might make an unexceptional record that's still a testament to the viability of the form.