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The Black Swans Balance Old And New

The violin comes swooping over a subtle bed of blues guitar, in an ice-clear line that would fit equally well in a folk tune or a 20th-century classical piece. Over the shuffle of drums, a voice emerges like a drift of smoke, weaving into evanescent shapes and swirls, tracing fading verses in the air. "Black Swan Blues," by the Ohio-based folk-blues artists the Black Swans, envelops the listener in sound that is at once familiar and strange, comforting and disquieting.

Jerry DeSicca, the band's singer and main songwriter, says that maintaining the balance between historically rooted sound and innovation is his main challenge. An admirer of folk and blues innovators from Tony Ferry to Woody Guthrie to Fred Neil, as well as contemporary artists including the Schramms and Richard Buckner, DeSicca says that museum-quality reproductions of early music don't interest him. "The more contemporary stuff that I like is anachronistic... kind of like having a foot in the past and taking a few steps ahead," he explained. "People like Richard Buckner and Hugh Garner, these are the people that people are going to be talking about, who are really making exciting music. People like David Blue or Eric Anderson from the 1960s are those people, too. They were very much like kind of living this life, and they had a vision and they were rooted in the past, and they wanted to see how they could differ."

Formed in 1999 around a core duo of DeSicca and violinist Noel Sayre, the Black Swans released their first album, Who Will Walk in the Darkness With You?, in late 2004 on Nashville-based Delmore Recording Society. Its long gestation — some of the tracks were written as early as 2000 and recording started in 2002 — was the result of a series of financial and life challenges.

Sayre moved to West Virginia (where he now plays in the Huntington Symphony Orchestra), to deal with family issues, while the drummer, Jovan Karcic, relocated to California. Yet despite its sporadic and stressful creation, the album has a timeless quality, as the players interact in thoughtful, unhurried and deeply musical ways that cede the spotlight now to violin, now to guitar, now to voice.

Much of the album's texture comes from Sayre's violin playing, which draws equally from Appalachian folk, blues and classical styles. "I like a lot of violin players that I consider sort of fiddle players, and I like a lot of classical players, but Noel combines the two, and he has a really unique voice," DeSicca said. After meeting in the mid-1990s, the two briefly played together before DeSicca moved to California. Yet even during times when they were not musical partners, DeSicca found that his work cried out for Sayre's input.

"In the songs I was writing after I moved, there always seemed to be this space for Noel's violin, because he has this melodic sense that traditional country players don't have," DeSicca said. "I think there's something much more Appalachian about what he does, combined with a classical feel."

The songs on Who Will Walk also benefit from oblique, very literary lyrics, which DeSicca says are inspired more by contemporary poets than other songwriters. "I think that if you listen to most songs, you're dealing with the fake structure of songs, not just the verse/chorus verse/chorus structure, but the idea that every song has to have a narrative or an answer or a feeling," he said. "Poetry is not as immediate, and doesn't try as hard to be immediate in explaining what it's about. Those kinds of shades of grey and that sort of depth are a lot more interesting to me."

DeSicca's lyrics are written, typically, in simple, ordinary words, around a strong, central metaphor whose meaning changes from verse to verse. For instance, in the title track the meaning of "Who Will Walk in the Darkness With You?" shifts subtly as the song develops, starting as a reassuring description of companionship and ending as a darker, more frightening image of moving forward alone toward old age and death. "I'm not big on plot, but I do think there has to be ... maybe not movement or action, but something, at least spiritual or cognitive development," DeSicca said. "I think it would be really interesting, too, in reverse, if the song started out really heavy and then you got to the end and you thought, well, maybe it's OK to walk in the darkness by yourself. But that's not me, you know? I think the idea is that the more you think about life alone, and the more you think about what it would be like to do that, the less appealing it is."

In a similar way, the song "Rocks in My Shoes" employs a single image, the weight of stones, to symbolize first the anchoring power of love and later, the more destructive weight of the same love. DeSicca says the image came to him while listening to Skip Spence's "Weighted Down," with the stones taking on both positive and negative implications. "There's an overall feeling of something that can hold you in place, but can also take you farther and farther down," he said. "The rocks become heavier as the song goes on."

Who Will Walk in the Darkness With You? has a very immediate, unforced and natural sound, which DeSicca says is partly due to the skills of Steve Hoffman, who mastered the album. "I'm not an audiophile by any means, but I'm a very finicky person. So I don't like the way a lot of records sound, and I think a lot of that has to do with the mastering. I feel like they're really pumped up and compressed, because they want it to sound good in a big room and people want it to sound good over their computer speakers," he explained.

Hoffman, who has remastered classic albums by artists including Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell and Buddy Holly, is known for his "breath of life," an emphasis on the mid-range in recording and a lack of compression. DeSicca says he was first attracted to Hoffman's mastering philosophy, without really knowing it, when he listened to Buddy Holly's "Everyday."

"The song has this great glockenspiel type of sound, and I've always loved how it came out," DeSicca said. "I do a little glockenspiel part in the beginning of 'Blue Sky,' and when I got the Black Swans CD back, it was like, oh, that sounds just like the CD I love. It was really great and really exciting to put all this work into something that I cared so much about, and to send it to this stranger in Los Angeles and have him care about it."

Since Who Will Walk in the Darkness With You? came out, DeSicca has been writing new songs for the album's follow-up, playing a handful of shows and writing fiction, including a children's book based on one of his day jobs. When not playing music, it turns out, DeSicca entertains young children with his balloon-man persona Dr. Silverfoot, a fixture at preschool birthday parties in the Dayton, Ohio area. "It's actually a really great gig. It's really fun. And I was looking for something that would allow me to float a little bit more and work when I want to work," he said.

The Black Swans are currently gearing up for a tour of nine Southern cities in January, followed by a seven-stop excursion to Oregon, Washington and Northern California in February. In one likely highlight, the Black Swans will open for folk legend Michael Hurley at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle on February 6. For complete dates, check the band's Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Tuesday, January 25, 2005]

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