Blood Group are a much-hyped duo from Staten Island, New York, featuring a couple of youngsters named James Jackson Toth and Miss Jessica B. Volunteers is their first full-length album, following their 2001 debut EP Everything Forgotten Gathers at the Ceiling. Not lacking in modesty, the band have proclaimed Volunteers “the record of the year” (that year being 2002; this one’s been out for awhile), and while I wouldn’t go that far, I do agree that it is a well-conceived and well-executed record, which as a whole exceeds the sum of its well-crafted parts.
Volunteers is a moody and atmospheric record, one which, like so many trip hoppy/ambient albums, sounds like the soundtrack to something dark — whether that be a Roman Polanski movie, a television drama featuring vampires, or a commercial for an obscenely expensive automobile. Most of the album’s tracks proceed at a very deliberate pace. The musical lines are very simple — sustained chords on the keyboard, spare and slow drum and bass patterns, gentle melodies and harmonies built on a few major and minor chords. Best of all, Blood Group really understand the importance of dynamics, of silences that preface claps of thunder, of whispers that slowly build to something more or trail off completely.
Jessica B. takes the vocal lead on many of the album’s tracks, while Toth provides much of the musical accompaniment. B.’s voice has a forlorn, resigned quality that lends the songs depth and sadness as well as beauty. “The Long and Short of It” starts Volunteers off, and sets the tone for the album: lonely, delicate, punctuated with semi-orchestral interludes that resolve back to nothingness. “Cardinal’s Farm” is one of my favorites, its sing-songy lyric and spacey musical lines (that eventually cede to a brief spell of chaotic John Zorn-y sax) giving the impression of being recorded during a moon landing. “Black Box Room” is a little too ethereal for my taste (and for the rest of the album for that matter), but it is pretty and well-executed.
Toth’s vocals have a somewhat different, though no less evocative, vibe. “Pagans” has a minimalist tone that comes off as creepy and menacing (and that’s even before you get to the song’s disturbing refrain of “You’ll be knifed and stabbed”.). The album’s last track, “Escapists”, starts out sounding like a refugee from a sad indie rock boy album (think Will Oldham or Smog), but then progresses to male/female vocals in unison and a brightly brassy beautifully-layered synth composition. The songs where B. and Toth trade off on vocals are the most fully realized in terms of tone and execution. “Blue Moon” has a bluesy quality to it, despite the echo-y, water torture accompaniment, until B. comes in all hushed and sweet. “Longblondehair”, with its male/female back and forth over spacey swirling keyboards and a subtle bass groove, is perhaps the single best track Volunteers has to offer. The matter-of-factness of the duetting on the song’s closing refrain of “There’s blood . . . in her long . . . blonde hair” is just plain chilling. (I’m sensing a mini-theme here, what with the cold-blooded violence and death and all.)
Additional musical and production help is provided on Volunteers by “The Family Blood”, a supporting cast which includes producer/engineer NASA of the innovative Def Jux label. NASA programmed three tracks on Volunteers, including “King of France”, an irresistible drum-heavy loop intercut with magisterial keyboards. The more forceful and rhythm-oriented NASA tracks contrast rather sharply with the deliberate pace of what surrounds them, but somehow manage not to break the album’s overall somber mood.
All in all, Volunteers is an excellent effort, ideal for setting the mood at your next candlelight dinner with a creature of the night or as inspiration for plotting out a modern-day film noir. You may want to keep those sharp objects locked up, though.