There comes a time in many avant-gardists’ careers wherein they will assume a more orthodox approach to their craft. Although plenty of experimental artists throughout music history have released conventional albums that were received very well, by both critics and fans, there nevertheless exists a stigma surrounding more mainstream releases from avant-garde musicians, and not necessarily always for good reason. Whilst many would look at, say, Captain Beefheart’s two albums from 1974, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams, as a sacrifice of the appetite for unhindered artistry and eccentricity that made his output up until that point so ground-breaking, I’m personally more of the opinion that these two releases are by no means bad albums if looked at without the usual visors that one would be wearing when going into a project from someone as freakish and forward-thinking as Captain Beefheart. Other artists may try and strike a semblance of equilibrium by integrating some of their usual idiosyncrasies into a generally more palatable presentation, with the latest release from Xiu Xiu, FORGET, standing as a prime example of this from this year. Although Thin Black Duke, the newest record from experimental outfit Oxbow, incorporates bits and pieces from the group’s previous infusions of blues, noise, rock, jazz, metal and classical music, these stylistic origins are worked so seamlessly into an orchestral pop paradigm that the end product is more accessible than what perhaps anyone could have ever expected from the same band that released the fittingly-titled Fuck Fest and whose frontman wrote a book on how to beat people up. Given that Thin Black Duke is somewhat of a homecoming for Oxbow, being their first full-length studio release in a decade, the prospect of some sort of artistic reinvention was hardly out of the question. Then again, most people would have speculated that such a renovation of their stylings would come in the form of further forays into their influences from contemporary classical, musique concrète or free jazz, not a head-first dive into the world of chamber pop, with the ravishing, symphonic timbre to boot. Whilst the appeal of much of Oxbow’s past material has been its abrasiveness, its causticity and its aggression, Thin Black Duke strikes some truly beautiful moments at times, even if there remains somewhat of an outré tone to vocalist Eugene S. Robinson’s performances, albeit nothing close to the agonising wails brandished across the group’s early output. Undoubtedly, the extent to which Oxbow reshape themselves for the purposes of penning a record that, by their standards, is impressively refined shows a side to the band’s versatility that was previously unknown, but there are nevertheless a few places wherein the material presented on Think Black Duke suffers, typically as a result of occasionally unanimated songwriting that doesn’t quite play into the heightened sophistication of the album, which is compounded by its rather brief, eight-track runtime. Oddly enough, this more often than not applies to the moments wherein the experimental rock outfit is more willing to channel its former self in the stylistic tone of the music, as many of the more luxuriously symphonic songs across the course of the tracklisting match their instrumental indulgence with some fittingly fastidious compositional prowess. Although Thin Black Duke may suffer on the songwriting front at times, Oxbow’s ability to adapt and accommodate for this newfound, elegant, orchestral disposition is truly astonishing at the best of times, adding to their legacy of constantly throwing sucker punches at their fanbase.
For the most part, the point of counterbalance between the more polished and graceful resonance of Thin Black Duke and Oxbow’s usual freakishness arises from the tonal juxtaposition of the chamber pop and art rock instrumentation against Robinson’s exceptionally expressive vocal performances. Whilst not constantly howling and hollering as if in severe physical or mental pain like on Oxbow’s earlier material, the frontman’s voice nevertheless contorts into an eclectic array of deliveries, ranging from the impassioned and almost sensual inflection employed at the very beginning of the record on Cold & Well-Lit Place to the animalistic growls and grumbles of A Gentleman’s Gentleman. Quite often, it is the potency with which these two confrontational aspects of the album come together that can make or break certain songs, but when played to its best effect, the result is some of the most vibrant and gripping compositions of Oxbow’s career. The aforementioned Cold & Well-Lit Place is a fine example of how this dichotomy can be used to craft a sense of urgency and intensity amidst the record’s more palatable timbre. With crunchy guitar licks and whistling, of all things, weaving between the pirouettes of lavish string and horn arrangements, whilst the bass and drums hold down the fort with a steady, punctuated groove, Robinson takes full opportunity of the dynamic range allowed by the piece’s vast instrumental scope. The cracked whispers utilised during the song’s more subdued sections translate a palpable sense of pain, whilst unsettling the listener at the same, not wanting to let their guard down and lean in too close to hear Robinson’s anguished murmurs in case he should suddenly snap and bite their ear off. And snap he does, with the frontman’s audible agony turning to anger, as he begins to abandon all form and logic during his bitter snarls atop the track’s more propulsive passages. Robinson’s protean vocal performance across Ecce Homo is particularly powerful, with the austere dirge of the marching drums supporting some sombre guitar and piano melodies, over which the singer shakes off any chains of convention as to allow his schizophrenic caterwauls to take complete control, almost as if he is possessed and writhing in pain.
Other points across the album witness Robinson utilise vocal styles that are more distinctly cohesive with the overall tone of the song, but are no less effective as a result. As an example, the weathered huskiness of his inflection during his spoken-word delivery across Letter of Note plays directly into the tension of the track’s trudging tempo and the drama of its gritty guitar accents, as is the case with The Upper and its backdrop of Americana-esque piano phrases and outbreaks of searing, blues-driven guitar incidentals. This being said, it’s also during instances such as these wherein Oxbow seem to use the riveting, dramatic intensity of a song as a crutch to compensate for a lack of clear compositional direction or purpose. For the amount of almost theatrical tension that is evident throughout both Letter of Note and The Upper, it would seem as if both of these cuts could have toyed with the emotional urgency at play here for a much more substantial effect. Likewise, a track such as A Gentleman’s Gentleman stands out as not taking full of advantage of Robinson’s strikingly skittish and primal vocal delivery, with the instrumental that accompanies it assuming a rather rudimentary rock groove that, unfortunately, doesn’t capitalise on the countless possibilities presented when fathoming an accompaniment to such a beastly performance from the group’s frontman, whether it were to attempt to match his lecherous violence with a similarly aggressive instrumental or juxtapose it with a more graceful and poised quality. Whilst Oxbow’s exploration of new, more conventional and decadent territory on Thin Black Duke crafts an impressively vigorous and forceful sound that balances Robinson’s biting ferocity with the heavenly refinement of the instrumentation, it nevertheless seems as if the band merely scratched the surface across much of the album, which doesn’t allude to the same experimental breadth that has made their past material so compelling.
Perhaps the most frustrating, or at least disappointing, aspect of Thin Black Duke is that there is so much to say about Oxbow’s stylistic reinvention and the album’s luscious instrumentation, whilst the songwriting doesn’t capture the imagination in quite the same way. Thin Black Duke undoubtedly makes for an arresting listening experience, with the symphonic arrangements pairing beautifully with the dirt of Niko Wenner’s guitar, which is only accentuated by the impressive dynamic range of the production, and with Robinson’s vocals being so stirring in their quicksilver nature to completely stun the listener at times. It’s a shame, therefore, that some of these compositions don’t quite provide the most complementary vessels to retain interest in the record’s enticing sound, instead striking points of uncontrolled confusion that evokes more of a sense of aimlessness or artistic stagnation than thrilling experimentation. Despite this, however, the jagged beauty of Thin Black Duke only works to fortify Oxbow’s capabilities of creating compelling chemistry between two worlds that should likely never have met.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10