Oxbow‘s always been more infamous than famous. That’s arguably because they’ve never been anywhere close to famous, but their non-musical aspects, history and biography are near-legendary in their outlandish obscurity. The Bay Area group’s guitarist Niko Wenner has worked with a wide range of bands with seemingly little in common, from Justin Broadrick’s industrial jazz outfit God to power pop janglers Jellyfish. Meanwhile, vocalist Eugene S. Robinson has published his share of writing outside of the band, including Fight, his memoir informed by a career as an amateur fighter, professional bouncer and former bodybuilder. He also starred in Bill Cosby’s ill-fated flop, Leonard Part 6. It’s curious facts like these that sustain the minor legend of Oxbow, in spite of the fact that the group hasn’t released any new music in 10 years. As a Wikipedia entry, Oxbow is a fascinating cast of characters, but as long-awaited new album Thin Black Duke serves to remind, they’re even more impressive as a noise-slinging rock band.
And yet, as a noise-slinging rock band, they operate much like one would expect a group of people fronted by a well-traveled pugilist might. Their music sounds is conflict caught on tape, the document of a real-time struggle scored by urgent art-rock and post-hardcore arrangements. As with past albums Fuckfest, The Narcotic Story and An Evil Heat, Robinson’s role in the band is less as bandleader than wildcard. He’s a vocalist in opposition—a man with a powerful presence who uses it as much to subvert the song as he does to advance it. His delivery in “A Gentleman’s Gentleman,” which in other aspects is relatively straightforward, is messy, snarling and indecipherable. He ostensibly repeats the phrases “And when the Duke talks, he sounds like a mime/With his hands doing all the talking,” but one would be hard-pressed to make sense of it. It’s a chaotic verbal eruption, a stream-of-consciousness mumble at maximum volume.
Thin Black Duke is, while unpredictable and complicated, some distance from the more unhinged experimentation of the band’s past. Leadoff track “Cold And Well-Lit Place,” for instance, sounds less like peak-era Amphetamine Reptile label bands than it does recent Afghan Whigs, interrupted occasionally by the string climax from The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” The majestic “Other People” stacks breathtaking layers of strings and horns over the group’s noir blues, making for something unexpectedly beautiful amid their more cacophonous rock numbers. And “Host” is Oxbow at their most approachable and ass-kicking, carrying shades of The Jesus Lizard and Shellac in its sinister groove. Given the decade-long wait that it took for the album to get here, Thin Black Duke is a strong example of how to make a comeback as a band for whom expectations have always been a fool’s errand. They’re still twisted in their own strange way, but it’s a twisted that feels more aesthetically approachable.