Black Lab | Passion Leaves a Trace (s/r)

cd_blacklabDurham's voice—stark, lonely, aching—is spot-on against bare-bones accompaniment. When he sings counterpoint with himself on vocals, it's pure heaven.

 

 

 

 

A confession: I used to listen to the radio. As in, commercial radio: alternative rock, in all its ad- and corporate-fueled glory. Though I liked some of the mainstream acts—Our Lady Peace and Toad the Wet Sprocket come readily to mind—it was the second-stage acts toward which I found myself gravitating (thereby setting the stage for my defection from alt-rock and submersion into indie rock, one could say).

Back in the '90s, one of the second-stage acts I adored was Bay Area quartet Black Lab (who opened for Our Lady Peace on the Clumsy tour, as a matter of fact). Through a combination of Paul Durham's aching vocals, thoughtful lyrics, and indie-alternative rock instrumentation, their 1997 debut Your Body Above Me spent many an hour in my CD player; most of its lyrics are still embedded in my memory, with "Ten Million Years" remaining one of my favorite romantic songs of all time.

Despite a departure from Geffen following Body, Black Lab has continued to write and record music, releasing on its own Black Lab World imprint. The band's latest offering, Passion Leaves a Trace, attempts to return to the band's heyday, as readily evidenced by its similar, eye-grabbing cover illustration. And while not every song shows the band firing on all cylinders, there are more than a few home runs, and not a single strikeout.

Following the more than decent "Mine Again" and "Ghost in Your Mind," the straightforward, rolling "The Real You" would be a radio hit in a world that found me still tuned in. This is a love song in the truest sense of the word, with Durham proclaiming, "I won't give up/ and I don't mind waiting/ I can wait another day." A crunchy, guitar-filled bridge proves the band may be older but it's still more than ready to rock.

Durham's vocals are perfectly suited for "This Night," a haunting, melancholic offering. His voice rises only slight on the refrain as he begs, "So take this night, wrap it around me like a sheet/ I know I'm not forgiven but I need a place to sleep." A repetitive, stuttered guitar line off "Gone." Back is Durham's perfect creepy-guy voice to enumerate what must be said: "Number one, loving you was fun/ I'm sorry if I hurt you/ Number two goes like this/ If you listen close you can feel my kiss/ 'cause I'm gone."

Despite its dirty undertones, "A Day Alone" is a love song, pure and simple. Durham achingly draws out the lyrics over pointed guitar lines before finally admitting, "A day alone is wasted time for me." The repeated "yeah, yeah"s really do me in here, proving that Black Lab still have it, with or without radio/major label support.

Following the soundtrack-ready "Pictures of People" with its instantly memorable guitar line is the most rocking song on the disc. "Broken Heart" is down-and-dirty Black Lab at its best. Over feedback-heavy guitar, Durham proclaims, "She looks good with a broken heart/ she makes an easy mark/ yeah, I hate to be rough."

With introductory drum machine beats followed by full-fledged kit 'n' guitars, "Sun & Moon" blends orchestrated with organic. The piece de resistance comes in Durham's achingly gorgeous falsetto on the refrain. Fuzzed-out, grunge-worthy guitars kick off "Good"; by this point in the record, you'll be in agreement that Black Lab has surpassed this mediocre of a distinction. "It's not enough to feel without feeling good," says Durham. Amen, brother.

The band tones it down a bit for the elegiac "The Window," a song both ethereal and timeless. Durham's voice reaches upward, soaring, conveying just the right blend of pathos and longing.

As for the disc closer, a cover of Kristen Hersh's "Your Ghost," there can be but one word: Perfect. It's a rare feat, indeed, to not only do a cover song justice but also to make it your own, and here Black Lab succeeds in spades. It helps that the song itself is such a beauty, but Durham's voice—stark, lonely, aching—is spot-on against bare-bones accompaniment. When he sings counterpoint with himself on vocals, it's pure heaven.

With Passion Leaves a Trace, Black Lab reminds me that listening to the radio shouldn't be something to be embarrassed about. I guess I had it backwards: Radio let me down; radio's the one who should be ashamed. And Black Lab deserves a much bigger audience. B+ | Laura Hamlett

RIYL: Our Lady Peace, Sun Kil Moon

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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