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The Black Swans - Change!

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Artist: The Black Swans

Album: Change!

Label: La Société Expéditionnaire

Review date: Nov. 6, 2007

In late 2004, the Black Swans released one of the best, most overlooked new folk records of the psych-folk revival, the darkly beautiful Who Will Walk in the Darkness With Me? In it, the band set the pattern for its sound: Noel Sayre's keening, classically tinged violin, luminous country-style guitar and Jerry DeCicca's whispery, mournful voice. A year later, the band released another EP, Sex Brain, an odd juxtaposition of classic folk sounds and soft porn lyrics. Now they're back, minds more or less out of the gutter, and making modest, but perhaps significant, alterations to their sound.

Black Swans songs take shape slowly, meditatively and are never too closely tied to actual melodies or hooks. The album's first cut, "Face," seems to grow organically out of a long drone, slow, carefully placed guitar notes punctuating a sustained moan of violin. DeSicca is half singing, half talking, words mouthed at slightly different pitches but hardly set to melody. There are long pauses between phrases, both lyrical and instrumental, as if everyone had to think about what to do next. And yet, the song builds subtly, taking on electrified heft in the guitars and emotional depth in the violin.

"Face" and the next three songs ("Hope Island," "Coats" and pretty finger-picked "Only Be With You") stick very closely to the Black Swans' formula: slow, soulful country songs, embellished by sometimes folk, sometimes classical flourishes of violin. (When he's not in Black Swans, Noah Sayre holds down a chair in the Huntingdon Symphony Orchestra in West Virginia.)

The first significant departure, and one of the best songs on the disc, is "Shake." Here, the band's subtle, emotionally-intense delivery catches fire, as big, crashing guitar chords break through the hum and piano notes twinkle jazz-like in the spaces between stark, funereal drums. It's only taken up a notch from the usual, made a little more rock, a little more Neil Young, but that's enough to make "Shake" standout. A couple of tracks later, "Fruitless Ways" introduces a reverberating, surf guitar whose wavery notes interlard sharp swoops of violin. It's just different enough to catch your interest and increase the intensity. And finally, there's "Blue Moon #9," a gorgeous, wordlessly sung cut that sounds like Panda Bear wandering barefoot in Appalachia … or maybe heaven. One of the two.

All this is good news, because any paradigm turns into a box after a while. Lots of folk artists become too comfortable, too safe to take chances, cranking out album after album of coffee shop prettiness. Black Swans have a compelling formula – with the violins and the whispered poetry – but what's really noteworthy about them is their willingness to mess with it.

By Jennifer Kelly

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