by Michael Goldberg
Monday, October 28, 2002
The Downbeat Sound
The Black Heart Procession and Amalgamated Sons of Rest explore the sound of heartache
London To get to the coolest record store in London's trendy central Covent Garden area, you enter a skate clothing store, head to the rear and down some stairs. There, in the basement, is Rough Trade Records, one of the stores owned by legendary indie record label Rough Trade. As one might expect, it's filled with loads of indie albums and singles. A lot of recordings are filed by label, rather than artist.
And what were the clerks playing when I descended the staircase in mid-October? Was it the AC/DC-by-way-of-the-Ramones garage-y '70s hard rock of The Datsuns from Cambridge, New Zealand? Nope. How about the Doors-influenced psychedelic rock of The Corals from Liverpool? Naturally they weren't playing the bombastic Zeppelin-esque debut longplayer by The Music, from Leeds, England.
While all of the above are making their mark in the UK, where New York's The Strokes are still as close to God as a band can be, what was playing on the Rough Trade soundsystem while I was in the store was the music of two U.S.A.-based combos: the Black Heart Procession's latest, Amore del Tropico, and the self-titled debut from Amalgamated Sons of Rest, an indie supergroup featuring Songs: Ohia's Jason Molina, Palace's Will Oldham and Appendix Out's Alasdair Roberts.
Both albums contain songs and sounds of heartbreak and loss. They provide perfect mood music for walking the streets of overcast London. Amore del Tropico, the fourth album from the Black Heart Procession, is a 15-song rumination on "The End of Love," which is the title of the extremely brief instrumental album opener. "Was it here where we left our hearts/ In the tropics of love?" wonders vocalist Pall Jenkins (credited in the liner notes as Paulo Zappoli) in the album's first proper song, "Tropics of Love."
From there it's all downhill. "I know you are through with me," he sings during "Broken World." "I know that you want to get rid of me/ I know that you have a plan for me/ I know that you want to torture me."
The sound of the Black Heart Procession Tobias Nathaniel (piano, guitar, bass, organ, optigan, percussion), Joe Plummer (drums, xylophone, percussion) and Jenkins (guitar, synth, organ, percussion, saw and vocals) is that of a film noir soundtrack as played by a Gypsy rock band. Violin and cello from guest musicians Matt Resovich, Charles Curtis and Joyce Rooks, and Jenkins' mysterioso Duane Eddy-style guitar, evoke the dark black-and-white images of Orson Welles' "The Third Man."
One of the highlights here is "A Cry for Love." After a dramatic minor-key intro, Jenkins sings the word "love," stretching it across more than two bars. "Love isn't supposed to be this way," he continues, later adding, "Love will sting and love will burn/ Love will steal all you've learned/ Yes it will but not our love." But of course, after nine previous songs about love gone wrong, you don't believe him.
Amalgamated Songs of Rest sounds like a ghost, or a figure walking in the shadows. It unfolds at a languid pace, so slow it's almost static. When I first heard it playing in the Rough Trade store, I thought of Richard Thompson. That is, Richard Thompson on Valium. The songs on the EP sound like traditional British folk ballads, though with the exception of the opener, "Maa Bonny Lad," they're mostly written by Molina, Oldham or Roberts.
Instrumentation is simple. A couple of guitars, very lo-fi pecussion, occasional piano. What dominates are the sad, at times rueful vocals of the three young men. Usually they sing alone, but there are transcendent moments when they sing together. Either way, the mood is dour, forlorn, lonesome. The album's cover is of a whale's mouth with a small boat between its teeth, the boat's passengers falling overboard or already being swallowed by the sea. Is a lack of love akin to a living death? Both of these depressing yet mesmerizing albums seem to make that case.