Are Campfire Droners Nimble Enough to Evade Craftsmanship?


Weird album of the week is Black Mountain’s self-titled debut. I’d call it “psych-drone-sludge” except it’s more tuneful and lively than those words imply. For instance, you could label the Velvets or the Doors “psych-drone-sludge” but that wouldn’t communicate how they shaped their swamp into rhythm and song. Black Mountain aren’t of Velvets-Doors quality, but they’ve got at least one very good track, “No Hits,” which starts with what sounds like electronica played on regular instruments, drums and percussion doing the interplay-of-metronomical-pulses thing while a sax deliberately squawks outside its range to produce hums and buzzes and faux feedback. The boy singer has a Neil Young quaver, the girl singer a Melanie quaver; they do harmonies that stick like peanut butter, and the thing just keeps building in intensity. The lyrics fall between evocative and evasive: The guy sings “Lemme holler against the rock star dream” without giving any reason why. And oddly enough “Heart of Snow,” the song that follows, has a chord pattern not dissimilar to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” (For those of you off on your own mountain, “Since U Been Gone” is the Top 40 airplay leader so far in 2005, and it’s great.) “Heart of Snow” follows its own diffuse muse, however—wounded dove rather than I’m so movin’ on—which costs it both poppiness and force, though it’s interesting for how the Melanie girl goes goth spiritual (that is, makes goth sounds without mouthing goth sentiments, and adds a touch of the gospel choir). Other tracks range from punky campfire sing-alongs to wouldn’t it be fun to write our own version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Although “No Hits” has tight harmonies, on other tracks the two vocalists sing slightly out of sync with one another, which is how they create the campfire feel. This has a congenial effect (as if to say, “Come sing with us”), even when the accompaniment is a doomy metal riff or a dark drone. Overall, Black Mountain prowl the borderland between “tight” and “loose,” though not yet with the excitement of tight-loose predecessors like the Airplane and Stooges (“Bicycle Man” on their Druganaut EP cops the rhythm from “No Fun”). Probably what’s at issue for this band isn’t the lure of stardom—they’re touring with Coldplay this summer, which is a peculiar strategy for avoiding fame—but the lure of songcraft, whether that’s within their reach and whether it would enrich or impoverish their sludge.

Black Mountain play Bowery Ballroom August 5.