July 1997 – album reviews – Barry Black’s ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ (“playing off an all-American goofiness against a frowning European sternness”)

29 Jul
Barry Black: 'Tragic Animal Stories'

Barry Black: ‘Tragic Animal Stories’

When he’s not fronting the infamously shambolic noise merchants Archers of Loaf, Eric Bachmann is apparently found holed up in the practise rooms at North Carolina School of the Arts claiming he’s actually someone else. If ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ is anything to go by he is, in fact, several other people. But if they all want to call themselves “Barry Black” to save time, that’s fine by me. Hi, Barry. What’s in that box you’re clutching, then?

Originally just a collection of soundboard experiments – the sort of thing that’s invariably going to sprout up if you leave a couple of musicians in a room with a new toy – Barry Black has evolved into an after-hours mess-about-with-intent which has previously been graced by such wilful eccentrics as Ben Folds (another guy who thinks he’s three different people) or the Clodfelter brothers from Geezer Lake. For this second album, though, Eric Bachman’s instrumentation and samples are augmented by the enthusiastic mess of Chris Waibach’s drums and tuned percussion, and by Sebadoh producer Bob Weston’s guitar, trumpet and engineering.

Half of ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ is shambling takes on dark loungecore soundtrack cheese, with the other half a collection of sound-puzzles that seem to have been extracted from the gaps between instruments. Eric’s music leans as precariously like a tumbledown shack – as ramshackle and oddly comforting as the spattered bloops of Morse code keyboard that usher in and wave out the album – and floats in a kind of fluid dusky haze, in which movement in any direction is possible as long as you’re not hung up about how fast you get there.

It doesn’t take long for the cheerful schizophrenia of ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ to make itself felt. The Horrible Truth About Plankton goes from being hypnotic and enwebbed in the suffocating, shuddering dust of an organ straight out of a Czech horror film to being relieved by falling-apart slacker-jazz drums and sweet shambling melodies carried on Waibach’s cheerful vibes, and ends up as easy listening on a slight O.D of random tranquillisers. Chimps sounds like Startled Insects in gigglesome mood: mechanical pings and stringy high life guitar jostling with a cabaret wind band (brass and kazoo) and pushing it into ‘Threepenny Opera’ land, complete with wild skinny tremors of Jamie Muir-style xylophone.

The lovely, brave little tune of Slow Loris Lament clambers out of a shambling toybox orchestration, like a lo-fi Rick Wakeman among the Playpeople. A stylophone plays a fanfare over a radio whine. There are barking noises, ticklish steel drums and a bassoon. Don’t waste any time waiting for a hot guitar solo: Slash couldn’t make the session (and there’s a rumour that they’ve still got Joe Satriani locked up in a cupboard off the control room from the time when they opted to wipe off his lines in favour of a triangle track).

As expected, there’s a definite fuck-around element to all this, but thankfully without that wacky “nothing’s serious” sloppy buffoonery that hangs around many lo-fi groups like the gang joker’s B.O. It sounds as if Eric’s involved in a more serious game of his own, playing off an all-American goofiness against a frowning European sternness, arty soundtrack pretensions against musical jokes, flake against pose.

Duelling Elephants comes out like a darker sketch from ‘Carnival of the Animals’ that refused to take itself too seriously, and made a beeline for a cartoon Munich beerhall, dragging the remains of its menace behind it. The oompah bassline and trembling treble of the piano, mingled with close brass and bassoons has the sadistic comedy of Nickelodeon animation, but it also ripples as ominously as disturbed water. Drowning Spider emerges through an antique shellac crackle: walloped piano like Fats Waller having a nervous breakdown and careening off the edge of the recording reel. Iditarod Sleigh Dogs – a scratched rhythm from detuned banjos and tinkly, twitchy, plonky kiddie piano lines – sounds like Eric composed it with his head on upside-down. Cute.

Even with the playfulness, ‘Tragic Animal Stories’ always has its serious side. On When Sharks Smell Blood, dazed front-crawl piano swims and sways to shore, while rakes of ravenous solo and duo cellos wind around it and a deathly creak (a leaning rocking chair? a wind swing door? a murderer’s step on the verandah?) infiltrates the background. For the big picture, there’s the David Torn spaghetti western of Derelict Vultures, starting life with a harsh guitar scratch and limping Morricone melodies from a splitting, tortured, midrange electric guitar and a filtered swoosh of background, until harsh Russian horns take over the melody and pull it off the badlands onto the steppes.

Tropical Fish Revival sounds like Death approaching a lean-to in a Kingston shantytown. Eric’s mournful, indistinguishable sung words (his only vocal performance on the whole album) flutter above his clang of funereal piano, a shabby, heavy-footed drum loop and a fluting, buzzy keyboard flutter. A shimmer of vibrating steel pan reverbs off into the distance, and the light fades with it.

Snail Trail of Tears closes the album with the lullaby sound of a music-box vibraphone and an overdriven guitar drone melody like a stretchy harmonium. It sounds like Pram or Labradford revamping King Crimson‘s Starless on a heavy summer evening. The bass grumbles like a cello. An out-of-phase air extractor noise adds a layer of feathery sound like a heavenly choir, and then it drops away into those Morse bloops again. Over and out.

Small music from another place. I want to go there.

Barry Black: ‘Tragic Animal Stories’
Alias Records, A122 (0 93716 01222 1)
CD/vinyl album
29th July 1997
Get it from: Alias Records
Barry Black (Eric Bachmann) online:
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