Black Before Red
Belgrave to King’s Circle
his debut starts handsomely enough, with the thunder of a new National track, but those alien-friend grays and taupes soon dissolve, having been far prettier than the crisp sparkle of brass united with male contralto that comes to replace them. Leave the whole brass-voice duality to Sufjan Stevens (and when I say leave, I mean leave it). Black Before Red’s opener, “Underneath Gold,” is fine, but speaks to a larger issue on the Austin quartet’s first full-length: songs that start great, of trembling bass, or piano, in the case of “Matagorda,” but buckle at the knees when encountered with the blissful whine of the lead singer. The murky complexities reel and recede; stock indie fare forces itself stolidly in their place.
It’s a constant battle between bright allures and subtle tones, and too often the band resorts to the blinding tricks of drum thump and whingy croon, a déjà vu of a trillion other contemporaries. Treble and bass vie for the dominant atmosphere, borrowing the warm, dark tonalities of early Beatles for the enjoyable bass line descents and pretty vocals of “Goddess in Trauma.” The sunny vocals are warm, familiar, and kiddish, and like the music, they are most like Matt Pond, minus the cello. Maracas and acoustic guitars aren’t really able to charm on “Bossa Nova #7” because the tempo dozes in purgatory. People in their cars driving through the South might enjoy such a song—the drums and handclaps are a kind of automobile of repressed emotional urgency; shy guys lettings loose. But I don’t drive.
If you are still pining—or have ever pined—for scenes of Marissa Cooper and Ryan Atwood making out in the poolhouse, the British singer Aqualung, or both, “Finding Peace in the City” is BBR’s answer, a twittering love-fest of warm acoustics and simplistic piano bit-parts that still manage to be charming. It’s a rare, lovely pop moment squeezed between fits of chugging guitars and barely-there cymbals, where the band’s “band’s band” designation becomes awfully apparent (though adoptive “Portland’s band,” is more apt, as sonically these guys share space with BOAT and the Shaky Hands). This is beer-quenching sentimentality from your would-be boyfriends––if you want one.
“Spilt Milk Mistake” is likely the strongest track, something forgivably over-earnest with its shift to minor key, the folk-inspired distant clap of the shimmying drums, and the vocal’s ability to carry the narrative by nixing the ahhs and oohs that many of the other songs insist on—as filler, little more. And while “Halliberlin Petroleum” explores electronics, this, too, is incidental filler. Thankfully there are more additions to the instrumental mix on this track—more power to the drums, a little more dripping synth, powerful electric guitar pulses, all in an energetically political package. These two dramatic postscripts save the album from being a series of spotty lullabies. On further listen, some of the material is memorable, and a smaller sum is exalted into the category of pretty and potential-wielding.