An Audio Beard
One presses play on Thin Black Duke by Oxbow and is greeted by the laid-back, down-home guitar sounds and jaunty whistling from “Cold and Well Lit Place.” It’s a familiar sound that can be turned on without much disruption of the listener’s musical landscape — pretty simple stuff. And then, at 0:18, the fuzz of the guitar gives way to a cacophony that is reminiscent of the chaotic orchestral crescendo in “A Day In the Life” by The Beatles. The difference, though, is that “A Day In the Life” returns staunchly to a simplistic, very British description of everyday life. “Cold and Well Lit Place,” on the other hand, uses the orchestral build not necessarily as a plot device, but as a musical tool that they return to multiple times throughout the song. And, while very clever, it becomes clear that the fear that the listener experiences upon first hearing “A Day In the Life” will not have a calming return to form on Thin Black Duke.
Oxbow have a long history utilizing abstract emotional sounds to get their points across, which has made them an influential act in the ’80s noise rock genre. The sort of country bumpkin-soaked paranoia that pervades Oxbow’s music can be heard in modern releases that also carry a similar constant anxiety. Modest Mouse, in particular, with their song “King Rat,” communicate a theme of unhinged panic that Oxbow not only double down on with Thin Black Duke; singer Eugene Robinson mumbles and sputters into the mic so intensely on “A Gentleman’s Gentleman” that one can practically hear the unkempt beard that Robinson apparently does not have.
Thin Black Duke is a hugely successful exercise in anxiety represented through audio, and puts one right in the paranoid mindset that someone like Yelawolf establishes with his song “Shadows,” which details fears of mythical goblins, ghosts and reapers stalking his every move. But the ride doesn’t stop there, as fear begins to take a realer, darker turn on Thin Black Duke, to the point where Robinson is quite literally screaming in terror on “A Letter of Note.” It doesn’t sound like intangible fear. It sounds like that scene in Saw II where a man is burned alive in a furnace trap. One would hope for a relief from whatever demons haunt the narrator, and Thin Black Duke does offer it, but not in the way one would think. “The Finished Line” offers a more subdued energy after all the screaming and dissonance that precedes it. But instead of newfound peace, the song ends with what sounds like the narrator finally just keeling over and getting some sleep. Evocative, terrifying, and all too real, the ending is as brutally honest as the rest of the album.