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Oxbow | ‘Thin Black Duke’

It’s been a long time coming.

With their last studio album being ten years ago, and the last release bearing their name six years ago, there’s a generation who have grown up without these weirdoes being a fixture in their lives.

A disheartening thought.

From San Francisco (and emerging from the remnants of underrated hardcore weirdoes Whipping Boy), Oxbow deliver fucked up rock that encompasses noise, metal, jazz and hardcore.

Contemporaries like the Butthole Surfers and Cows may have been more prominent in the media and much noisier. But they couldn’t match the eclecticism on show for Oxbow’s debut LP ‘Fuckfest.’

Subsequent albums would see their profile grow, and the weirdness channelled into other areas, but the records never lost that sense of anything being possible when a record bearing the name Oxbow appeared. As Steve Albini once said: “Whatever Black Flag thought they were doing, Oxbow did much more succinctly.”

Now, onto the album.

It Just Rocks

Although not a concept album in that it tells a story from beginning to end, the character of the Thin Black Duke appears time and time again, used as a metaphor for masculinity and power.

‘A Gentleman’s Gentleman’, musically speaking, is a straightforward opener in that there’s no leftfield turns. It just rocks. Especially the middle section which just soars. But the spanner in the works is vocalist (and all round hard man) Eugene Robinson.

His spitting, hectic and mumbled delivery (describing this Thin Black Duke for the listeners) for the first part of the song reminds me of Scrappy Doo. He then smoothes up for the second half, which then goes into a light piano jazz soundtrack style.

How I’ve missed these fuckers.

‘Cold & Well Lit Place’ throws in jazz, pop, post rock and an orchestra to winning effect. The most 90’s sounding song on here, it’s laid back groove is both arresting and anachronistic (someone I played it to genuinely thought it dated from 1997). It matches the lyrics, in which the Duke establishes his circle.

‘Ecce Homo’ (a Latan phrased used to reference both Pontius Pilate introducing Jesus before he carried the cross and Mr. Bean) feels like Faith No More covering Slint circa the ‘King For a Day…Fool For a Lifetime’ period (no bad thing in my book). I love the way the strings build and coalesce before giving out and going back to the band.

‘Letter of Note’ goes ‘Loose Nut’ era Black Flag on us, while closer ‘The Upper’ is a half hymn like, half piano number where Robinson notes that the Duke’s power has been fully consolidated, his followers clinging onto him for scraps.

Rollercoaster Ride

Musically, the laid back groove paints an image in the listener’s mind of an old man recounting a fable to his grandkids as they sit outside on the porch near the desert.

Although on first listen it may appear to be an immediate album, it isn’t. Although it’s easy to categorise it as a 90’s alt rock album for 2017 (as some publications have), it’s far too strange to be a “throwback”, and it contains too much power (especially from Robinson) to be a nostalgia fest for people of a certain age.

What it is, really, is the lads in Oxbow doing what Faith No More did on ‘Sol Invictus’: reconfiguring what was so good about them in the first place and finding new ways to express themselves, while still taking the listener on a rollercoaster ride.

Welcome back lads. You’ve been missed.

4 / 5 –Christopher Owens ::: 07/05/17

  1. Underrated band for sure.

  2. codedwire Says:

    This is the best album I’ve heard this year (and I’ve listened to a lot of albums).

  3. Chris Steel Says:

    Great album, but don’t understand all the FNM references. Oxbow wipe the floor with those dudes!

  4. dr.gonzo Says:

    absolute genius. AOTY so far.

  5. Iron Aiden Says:

    Listening to it now. Not too heavy yet but a good smack of 90’s Nick Cave and PJ Harvey off it (which is a compliment)

  6. Art the fart Says:

    Bit too melodic and clean on first listenings – powers up like hell later. Lots of nuances so overwhelming. Love this album. Absolute gem.

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