The Narcotic Story
o communicate a love for something defined by its grotesquery can be difficult if not impossible. You can pontificate all day long on the extremes where terror and epiphany swallow each other and still leave most people shrugging. Oxbow have never been an easy band to defend, even to noiseniks or headbangers. They have always been simply too weird and too ugly, lacking the sense of poise that graced the best Swans recordings. Singer Eugene Robinson’s egomaniacal caterwauls about aberrant sexual practices tended to subvert the slinkiness of the band’s strangled blues. Fortunately, Oxbow’s latest opus has more to offer than mere depravity. For the kick-off album in a planned trilogy, the band enlisted the multiple Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, and the result is their most accessible album to date. Grandiose, sordid, and utterly compelling, The Narcotic Story finds Oxbow approaching their creative zenith.
This is a scene they have set before: humid rhythms, crusty distortion, and sweaty existentialism. But since An Evil Heat, which leaned too heavily on pregnant pauses as a compositional tool, a newfound sense of artistry has crept in, giving riffs and ambience a needed balance. Replacing the cheap thrills of shock and sludge is a menagerie of new instruments. It’s a surprising and welcome addition to Oxbow’s repertoire—violins and cellos now sigh and moan alongside piano and organ. They create a mood of fevered passion buttressing the album when the easy route would be squall. The eight-minute “She’s A Find” inhabits a woozy state closer to Spiritualized (say what?) or Doves (hush up!) than Neurosis, as drums and bass are elegantly interwoven with fluttering strings. In fact, there are so many moments of unexpected tenderness they almost rehabilitate the entire anarcho-primitivist vibe.
But this is Oxbow we’re talking about: Tyler Durden in band-form. For all the gold ingots buried in the mud, there’s still plenty of mud. Robinson remains fixated on obscene topics, but adds dimensions of concrete detail that highlight the surrealism of sex, violence, and drug-use rituals. Robinson’s transgressive lyrics and idiosyncratic vocal mannerisms (which generally sound like Pere Ubu’s David Thomas losing a balls-kicking competition) often leads to the band’s music getting unfairly overlooked. With a “Down a Stair Backward” the group’s heightened grasp of dynamics makes for a career highlight. The song opens on a bed of Hitchcock-ian strings whose melody gets taken over by the guitars vicious mewl, only to collapse in exhaustion at the song’s bridge. As with many of the tracks, they’ve achieved unity between sound, song construction, and performance.
Thanks to all the honeyed polyphony, Oxbow no longer wear their lineage on their sleeve. They might even spawn a new scene of junkyard Goths eager to lap the crotch of the sublime. On display in The Narcotic Story is a comprehensive psychological cross-section. Similar to Michael Gira’s transition from insanely loud to menacingly quiet, the expanded range lends their sound a new profundity marked by pain, complexity, mutation, and volume.
Reviewed by: Charles Robbins
Reviewed on: 2007-08-20