Some kind of riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma is going on here. Whatever is wrong with this picture seems "wrong" on so many levels (except perhaps the most important one).
Take the band. The Black Heart Procession really ought not to confound anyone who believes that the band name on the sleeve in any way reflects the music to be found within. Neither should they surprise someone familiar with their past work. So far, so good. For, this music certainly has its arcs of darkness, its sudden glimpses of heart, and its processional qualities. But, then, this particular release is so unheralded as to be virtually invisible. For a critically well-received experimental rock band with four previous full lengths to their name (the imaginatively titled 1, 2, and Three, plus last year's Amore del Tropico), it's almost bewildering how little buzz or fanfare there has been for Hearts and Tanks. Even the press pack, in its relative sparsity, neglects to pin down whether this is a full length album or an EP (alright, there's common sense, but still . . .). Previous label Touch and Go seems to be a part of their history, now, while current UK label ShingleStreet is conspicuous by its absence on the world weary interweb. In other words: too little information. We reviewers crave it, you know, sad as that may be.
All of which makes contextualizing decidedly difficult. And yet, on that one important level -- the music itself, of course -- it doesn't at all. A micro niche of dark chamber rock dovetailed with a kind of rural gothic sensibility - and predicated on overt references to quivering hearts and quailing emotions, not to mention liberal allusions to water (a la Pinback, who happen to share a genealogical and geographical branch with BHP: respectively, Three Mile Pilot and San Diego) -- comprises the phantom-chilled natural amphitheatre within which their music has always droned, floated, sashayed and mewled. So, in this sense, Hearts and Tanks doesn't stray too far from the perimeter. Marginally less informed by the vagaries of the human heart this time around, and more coloured by events in post 9/11 America, the four songs here refer back to the less polished textures of their first three albums while simultaneously incorporating both forward-looking electronic touches and a similar willingness to branch out sonically as demonstrated by their previous album. Replacing a few of those liberal allusions to water are, um, some liberal allusions to war instead. Well, hey, Hearts and Tanks, right?
This short story begins with a bait and switch. Opening instrumental "Radio" lopes along portentously, a lazy groove under alarum synth yowls. Its brevity (2:30) is somehow disconcerting, a barely glimpsed forest trail leading who knows where - left dark, untrodden, unexplored. Another superficially affable beat, this time a kind of skewed waltz, drags (the far more realised track) "The News" along, while a woman's dessert-rich voice recites a lengthy sampled monologue in Spanish, occasionally accompanied by distance-evoking Morricone guitar figures, until eventually only the voice remains, speaking of "America" and "Africa" in a resigned, bewildered, lonesome loop. Somehow, this song feels like a lament without resorting to any of the standard musical cues. By comparison, "Weakness" is more overt, with its subdued yowls, howls, susurrant delayed clicks and buzzes, droning melodion (?), gentle picked strings (dulcimer? I'm guessing again) and dismaying sepulchral pace. Like moths following funeral lanterns, fragmentary lyrical wisps drift and circle weakly in the wake of the song's heavy limbed progress, tiny defeated (and defeatist) mantras: "These things won't change"; "They never come back"; "There are no rewards". No alarms, no surprises here -- just remember that band name. But then, as they opened, so they close: ambivalently, enigmatically. "Following", although not exactly joyful, is something of a toe-tapper. Studiedly lo-fi (you can hear echoey studio banter at the beginning, someone saying that the mics are on), this cross between a honky-tonk singalong and a drunken sea shanty sways on shaky legs above an accordion lilt and swoons to the spooky cadences of a bowed saw before finally collapsing amid fading piano chords and a brief coda of what sounds like exotic bird calls.
It's unclear how these disparate songs mesh together musically. Perhaps they are not meant to. Thematically, at least, the so-called "War on Terror" is clearly the impetus. Regardless, here are some interesting touchpoints for the band to explore on future full lengths. Interestingly, the Black Heart Procession have arrived at the same odd, distracted, broody collage of glitchy electronica and morose indie rock as someone like (say) Matt Elliott, despite diametrically distinct starting points. It is very rewarding music if you can stomach some of its bleaker moments.
Oh, and finally, the power of e-mail. A quick query sent UK-wards in the specific direction of ShingleStreet Records elicited some useful information, mere moments before I submitted this review. So, quickly:
- Yes, this is officially an EP (and at 16:33 minutes and four songs, I really ought to have figured that out for myself).
- No, the band's relationship with Touch and Go is not history: their deal enables them to release smaller projects elsewhere.
- ShingleStreet should have greater web presence within two months. They're working on it. They have released records by Freescha, My Morning Jacket, the Walkmen, and Enon, among others.
A tad less mysterious, perhaps, but ultimately not too shabby all around.