In these times of desperation and the uncertainty of complete safety, the frightened masses turn to evil in hopes of singling out the blackening sphere that eclipses their good times. If that’s too abstract for you than you’re quite astute in your observations as evil is really just an abstract concept when you think about it. It’s a stupid word used as an excuse to do unfathomable things like start wars, have kids and allow celebrities to express themselves like actual human beings. However flakey the ugly spirit may be, the premonitions of bleakness that accompany Oxbow where ever their sound takes them are very real and very unnerving. Though they’ve been a band for nearly two decades, it hardly seems that the bile has settled and gone stale. Five years after the release of An Evil Heat, civilization’s worst life coach ever and his merry band of math rock geeks have taken a break from writing books, side projects and performing unplugged to threaten audiences more effectively as a lethal collective.
All of the elements that make Oxbow loved, pondered over and hated are here. Like a David Lynch film, the foursome takes the listener through a potent show of skillfully rendered beauty, grisly hellishness and shameless flexing of the avant-garde imagination from both sides. My intuition detects that these guys could care less about me, but sonically, the members of Oxbow are my kind of people. I have always enjoyed saying and doing the opposite of what everyone else says or does and in Oxbow’s case, this is no different. While it’s all the rage to be as heavy as lead and chugga-chugging like rusty machinery, The Narcotic Story retains all the grisliness any modern hardcore or metal act could possibly offer—maybe more actually—but at the same time it’s sparse and almost tuneful. In the past Oxbow was an epileptic Shellac, an introverted Jesus Lizard. Much of the noise and the minimalism remains, but with the same person who produced The Shins, The Raconteurs and currently Giant Drag at the helm, some polishing is to be expected.
The Narcotic Story plays like a post-modernist blues record. The music is complex and unpredictable at times but the direct emotional rawness of the most acid-tongued bluesmen is intact and very plainly laid bare like a dumped corpse on a dirt road. It’s hushed and thin but can fill the biggest space with claustrophobic dread in no time. The musicians of Oxbow have created a man-made airborne virus of paranoia and neuroses. “The Geometry of Business” starts off with a spare, repetitive guitar. A piano chimes in the background as Robinson’s voice does its thing. Oxbow hit their stride right off and they hardly falter. It’s as if each song was conceived with a fluid, beautiful melody but not given any structure to control itself or remain stable or consistent, kind of like most humans.
To just get it out of the way, the vocals are what any well-schooled admirer of the band would expect: indecipherable. It can be strongly assumed that Eugene Robinson’s anguished junk withdrawal vocals narrate something pretty dastardly. The titles could easily name noir short stories or David Mamet plays. Given the title of the album it can also be said that, whether or not there are actual words that flow from within Robinson’s curmudgeonly grumbles, this is indeed a record of addiction and withdrawal, of course this would also go against the grain of well-established musical trends as it tells a decidedly unglamorous story of narcotics and whatever else Robinson’s characters go through.
The Oxbow challenge has never been more daunting. I’m not a reliable judge as to what will or will not be considered masterful after the fact, but Oxbow’s advancement of the weird certainly gives them justification for consideration among the masses to be a part of the same canon that honors Big Black, Swans, Lydia Lunch, etc. etc. Hell, maybe even parents can be convinced to like it. If taken literally, The Narcotic Story teaches an important moral that you too can be come a raving, beefy lunatic who puts irritating audience members in sleeper holds if you pound the pills. Or don’t—whichever is worse.
The Jesus Lizard – Goat
Pissed Jeans – Hope For Men
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica