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Oxbow - Love That's Last

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Artist: Oxbow

Album: Love That's Last

Label: Hydra Head

Review date: May. 18, 2006

There are scant few acts working within the rock idiom that offer music that's so conspicuously devoid of that fundamental gregarious component of rock music: a rhythm to which the kids may move. It defies logic in some extreme cases, but it's true; people have actually been spotted dancing at Air Conditioning and Wolf Eyes shows, fer crissake. And even if the lyrical matter is as bleak as it gets, there's always that solid familiarity of the 4/4 groove to pull things back from the edge of the abyss.

Oxbow isn't typically and exclusively one of those bands, but the uninitiated wouldn't know better from Love That's Last, whose tracks often withhold that rhythmic comfort blanket from the listening audience in favor of creepy-crawling psychodramas in miniature. On the CD/DVD set, which comprises a number of tracks culled from compilation appearances, live cuts, and their own back catalog, San Francisco's Oxbow showcase their aplomb at churning the time-tested rock and roll vocal/guitar/bass/drums formula into a noxious blend of Birthday Party/Beefheartian discord and Swans nihilism. It's difficult, then, to understand how this collection would attract any new fans, given the uncompromising obtuseness of most all of this material. Nonetheless, a gold star is due to Hydra Head for thrusting any commercial considerations directly into the sewer and soldiering on with a project befitting a band that's labored in obscurity for nearly 20 years.

Perhaps Love That's Last - as well as the band's relentless artistic solipsism - is best summed up by vocalist Eugene Robinson himself on the DVD portion of the release, Christian Anthony's Music for Adults: A Film About a Band Called Oxbow.

"What it started out as and what it continued as was a desire to create a record that was wholly us (…) absent notions about careers making music, the closest thing to a musical diary of who we are at the time," says Robinson. "That people want to buy it and listen to it is purely incidental. (It's) not music that was intended to 'rock the party.' I don't really care if people like it or not. I like it."

And indeed, not terribly much of Love That's Last "rocks." At front and center throughout are Robinson's Yow-meets-Diamanda vocals, from infantile screeches to drunken mutters and everything in between. Suffice it to say that the African-American vocalist's oft-used falsetto is quite unlike Pharrell's. The rest of the group (oddly, everyone is uncredited in the liner notes) summons up a strange and monstrous amalgam of sparse near-ambience, lopsided grooves, and in-the-red noise freakouts, while keeping somewhat of a grasp on their most menacing interpretation of blues. That's what gets first billing on the lead-off track, Willie Dixon's "Insane Asylum" (titled "Insylum" here), taken from the band's Serenade in Red album, pairing Robinson with chanteuse par excess Marianne Faithfull. A more abrasive duet there never was. From there, the gloves come off and the knuckle-dusters slide on for the album's noisier cuts, including "Glimmer Bird," anchored by a droning filth riff and stuttering rhythm, with hoarse vocals hooted and barked desperately. Angry, dissonant clusters of sustained guitar notes blare atop "Yoke's" vague R&B shuffle. Likewise, "Pretty Bird" is a stumbling near-dub, peppered with lazy swaths of slide guitar and vocals alternately hysterical and inaudible.

No less disturbing, "Is that what Sleep Looks Like" and "The Valley" are otherwise melodic - even pleasant - guitar pieces. Oxbow offers the 1990 track "Bomb" as chamber music for a murder-suicide, with the atonal a la Penderecki squalls of a string quartet augmenting some alarmingly jazzy guitar fingerpicking. The effect is disorienting as a radio tuned between stations. Only the Albini-recorded "Sunday" (from 1993's Let Me Be A Woman) really hints at the band's capability for crafting "typical" rock music. Its big Bonzo drumming and "Kashmir"-eqsue guitar riff creates just sufficient tension for Robinson's nervous breakdown.

Music for Adults captures the band on a European tour, refreshingly sans any "Behind the Music" drama. The group simply grinds on and on determinably while no one seems to listen - "their loss" is the implied sentiment. Prolonged static shots of the very real doldrums of independent touring are intercut with performance footage and matter-of-fact interviews with band and associates. Notably, the band explains their justification for "selling out" if given the opportunity, and Robinson shows how to smuggle a pool ball and sock on to an airplane. If the band is all lovable art-underdog offstage, riffing about how great it'll be playing to 10 people all sitting at the bar, Oxbow onstage is presented as a cacophonous, crashing blues-rock outfit. And more than a few scenes are revelatory of their audience-as-adversary/tool/participant credo (also explained via interview). Like a figure in some kind of a living Georges Batailles diorama, Robinson assails with violence and sexuality as well as his voice. He (routinely) disrobes minutes into a set, makes like he's jacking off in Scottish guy's face, administers a sleeper-hold to another audience member. "Did that hurt? ... It's an Oxbow show! That's what happens!" he beams at yet another recovering choking victim. To be fair, Anthony includes testimony from a woman who writes the band off as "on a massive ego trip." Quoth the set's liner notes: "The raw, denuded ego is a horrible thing to behold…"

To the brave soul who doesn't dismiss it immediately, there remains a healthy sense of challenge about Oxbow. In the same way that a secret society that has codified its own beliefs into weird ritual inspires intrigue from the outsider, so does Oxbow - even down to the puzzling lyrics and liner notes, their allusions to Genet and German fairytales and literary, track-by-track annotations. Even the appearance of subversion makes it that much more exciting.

By Adam MacGregor

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