Jun 13, 2007, 07:34
OXBOW The Narcotic Story CD
If you're already familiar with Oxbow, you might be expecting the San Francisco quartet's latest salvo The Narcotic Story to make its predecessor, 2002's whirlwind of insanity and unbreakable codes An Evil Heat, sound like Now & Then by The Carpenters. And while it does make An Evil Heat resemble something closer to the total what-the-fuckness of Scott Walker's The Drift, it would be safe to say that in a sense The Narcotic Story is the summation of the madness, drama, intoxication, contamination, shit, piss, and semen that is Oxbow in a nutshell.
Over their nearly 20 year career, the band has been laying out the clues that this is where they would arrive at some point, combining the most brutal, emotional, and excruciating elements of rock, blues, jazz, metal, and avant garde into a wholly original sound. The music itself is rather hard to describe, but figure a mentally imbalanced Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds augmented by The Kronos Quartet as overtaken by The Jesus Lizard led by Caspar Brotzman drenched in the brown acid from Woodstock and you've got a partial idea. Add to the mix frontman Eugene Robinson, who makes Iggy Pop look like Ronald McDonald, and you're getting closer.
The very sound of The Narcotic Story alone is extremely frightening: in the hands of producer/engineer Joe Chicarelli (American Music Club/Frank Zappa/Pat Benatar), Oxbow land in the sinister grey abyss that lies somewhere between the off-white sheen of Lou Reed's Berlin and the jet-black tones of the UK mono mix of The Beatles' Revolver. Despite this, however, The Narcotic Story is perhaps more "accessible" than any previous Oxbow record by presenting a seemingly softer, kinder, and gentler Oxbow despite the darkness lurking underneath. The castrato/Khmer Rouge torture test scream that Robinson has often employed in the past is barely present. Guitarist Niko Wenner has cut back on the divergent time signatures and atonal clusters that frame much of their earlier work, and Dan Adams' bass has never been this warm or clear. There are gorgeous string interludes and even some chirping birds too.
Despite the uneasy feelings, though, there is some sinfully enjoyable music present. Robinson actually sings, croons even on the brilliantly scenic "She's A Find." Johnny Ray he is not, but he comes damn close to Frank Sinatra at Capitol Records in the early 1950's, Nelson Riddle-like string arrangement and all, evoking images of Hollywood and Vine and In The Wee Small Hours. "Frank's Frolic" is perhaps the ultimate summation of a 21st Century meltdown, opening with the line "when it rains, it fuckin' pours" and twisting and churning itself from there into shards of metal, glass, wild clarinet and malaise. "Frankly Frank" could even be a hit single, granted in another time, place, or dimension, with its slow burn ascensions and cascades sounding like The Move circa "Brontosaurus" gone straight to hell.
However, The Narcotic Story does not suffer under the weight of its titular subject matter unlike, say, Bummed by The Happy Mondays, which is literally the sound of the dragon being chased. The Narcotic Story is more like a series of snapshots, scenarios, and situations as viewed simultaneously from afar but also right in the pit with all of the action, seeing but not participating, like getting up close and personal to what was squirming inside the box in the sideshow scene in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. There is hope to be found within the darkness of this album, but one must be patient and wait for it.
Despite its cunning nature, The Narcotic Story will probably not make Oxbow a household name or even garner a guest appearance on Oprah, but it will undoubtedly manage to leave more than a few bodies in its wake. None of that greasy kids stuff, this is most certainly music for adultsâ€¦meaning that if you're 24 years of age and your mother still makes your bed, you will definitely want to stay the fuck away. [Hydra Head]