3 out of 5
Label: Hydra Head
Produced by: Joel Jaffe, Manuel Liebeskind, Niko Wenner
I swear that I have no inherent problem with art-rock. There’s plenty of the stuff in my collection that’d likely make a fair share of people roll their eyes, but I guess my totally subjective take is that I prefer art-rock that is, somehow, not excessively self-aware. I think there’s some irony in that, but nonetheless, that’s how it sits in my mind, and once something crosses some who-knows-where-it-lies line into being a bit too forward in its art rockiness, well, I have a hard time getting into it.
Oxbow will always be a pretty good definition of that line-crossing, to me, because in its disparate parts – impassioned vocal delivery, metal riffing, deconstructed song structures, excellent lyrics – I’m down, but when you put it together, I just feel like I’m “hearing” a college essay on thinkin’ man’s hardcore music.
Songs For The French is half studio tracks, half live tracks, and I appreciate the group’s consistency across the two sides: things start out in a way more palatable to my ear, Eugene S. Robinson singing in a talk / growl capacity while his bandmates lay down some pretty substantial grooves, and then segue into more abstracted stuff, winding up with shrieks and yowls and stop-start pacing. I mention the excellent lyrics, and that’s certainly still on display: Robinson has (from all I’ve read of his works) always straddled the line between contemplative and visceral stuff, better than almost any hardcore lyricist out there, and the songs’ words here are undeniably as passionate as ever. But it’s the delivery that catches me, with the weirdness when Robinson gets going seeming to put-on – self-aware – and the band no longer rocking but calculating. It doesn’t appeal.
But I can listen to it, especially when the recordings, even on the live side, are as rootsy as they are on Songs For The French, giving the tunes an organic bit of bite that helps to let the (as I hear it) play acting easier to set aside, and the sequencing, as mentioned, at least eases one into the stuff of which I’m not as much of a fan.