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The Black Swans - Occasion for Song

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Artist: The Black Swans

Album: Occasion for Song

Label: Misra

Review date: Jul. 30, 2012

There’s a swimming pool on the cover of Occasion for Song, an image that, for most bands, might convey lighthearted summer themes. For The Black Swans, however, it’s a reminder that, in 2008, violinist Noel Sayre drowned in that same pool. Sayre’s playing was an integral part of The Black Swans’ early sound. Classically trained and constitutionally incapable of cliché, he played beautiful, chilling, sustained notes that bent The Black Swans from quiet country blues into something otherworldly.

Since Sayre’s death, the band’s other founder, Jerry DeSicca, has struggled personally and musically to move past the tragedy. Words Are Stupid, in 2010, incorporated Sayre’s violin playing posthumously into the mix and included an oddball “Black Swan Tango” song that Sayre wrote and sang before he died. Don’t Blame the Stars, last year, dipped into reminiscence through a series of excruciating spoken word intervals, but avoided the subject of Sayre’s death.

Occasion for Song is The Black Swans’ best post-Sayre album, at least partly because it addresses Sayre’s death head on. Its centerpiece, “Portsmouth, Ohio,” describes the events of July 2008 in great detail, from the lifeguard’s whistle to the hospital (“bloated and blue in the ICU”) to a gathering in remembrance. “Nobody’s supposed to die, three days before the fourth of July,” DeSicca sings, very softly, a feathery brush of guitars, a drone of harmonica enough to frame the story. It’s a remarkable song, one that avoids sentimentality but still manages to convey the emptiness that Sayre’s death left. “Somewhere Else,” quiet as a sigh, spoken rather than sung, continues the story, as DeSicca walks between headstones remembering his friend.

Elsewhere, DeSicca deals more obliquely with memory and loss. The long hallucinatory “JD’s Blues” abstracts melancholy from a series of concrete natural images and makes them universal. “Bad Dream,” which closes the album, explores the way that people process sadness through metaphor and dream.

Occasion for Song also marks the first Black Swans album without violin, DeSicca’s harmonica standing in where Sayre would have been in the past. The band that DeSicca has put together -- Tyler Evans on banjo, Canaan Faulkner on bass and piano, Chris Forbes on guitar, Keith Hanlon on drums and Jon Beard on organ -- has found a subtle, sure way of playing behind him. Since DeSicca’s voice is so soft, one of their challenges is learning to play quietly without disappearing. “Bound to Be,” one of the album’s subtlest songs, is a marvel of restraint, the banjo and guitar pared to pencil sketches, the silence a main character in the piece. That silence feels right for this band, an integral part of DeSicca’s reticent art, as well as a tribute to the member who went away.

You realize, listening to “Bound to Be,” that there may always be an empty space in The Black Swans’ music, a place where it seems impossible that Sayre won’t pick up the violin and play. You don’t get over that kind of loss, not quickly, maybe not ever. Yet, in recognizing this missing piece straight on, Occasion for Song may finally have found a way forward.

By Jennifer Kelly

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