Devastations | Coal (Brassland)

For some reason, I kept seeing brown while listening to these ten songs: the brown of muddy rivers, desert sand, a full glass of whiskey, the color of a tavern wall…

 

cd_devastationsThe title of this Australian band's latest album, their second, is deliberate—there's a lot of darkness and hard reality on Coal, a bleakly existential record. Yet for some reason, I kept seeing brown while listening to these ten songs: the brown of muddy rivers, desert sand, a full glass of whiskey, the color of a tavern wall… The music doesn't simply feel black, it feels murky, unclear, like an emotional dilemma that can't quite be understood or resolved.

Band members Conrad Standish, Tom Carlyon, and Hugo Cran have a penchant for capturing insular, near-hopeless despair in their dirge-like songs, but the act of doing so seems to shed light on what might be possible, to point the way out. "The Night I Couldn't Stop Crying" is a good example of their sound; it's almost Joy Division-like in its solemnness, but the piercing guitar and Standish's emotive vocal provide some much needed catharsis. "I Don't Want to Lose You" and "A Man of Fortune" feature elegant string arrangements to adorn the band's slightly arid sound (although Carlyon plays beautiful piano throughout the disc). That latter song is one of the brownest tunes here; the sand almost blows in your eyes as our downbeat narrator sings, "With a roll of the dice/Comes a hard cost/In a paradise/You're already lost." Don't think I'll play this tune next time I go to Vegas or Atlantic City, thank you.

The title track is particularly doom-laden and seems to reflect an abusive or neglectful childhood that the narrator struggles to forget. "Hold on, hold on, my father said/Then he kicked away the chair," sings Standish in his distinctive, melancholy baritone. The piano chords are stately, but lyrics like "I got coal inside my heart/I got coal inside my head" are about the honesty and indulgence of simply wallowing in grief and despair. This is no party record, in other words. Other memorable songs include "Cormina," a stirring, vaguely Spanish-tinged ballad, and the concluding "Dance With Me," a lost soul's possibly final request to his fair lady, whether she's been around long or not: "Just dance with me/Place my trembling hand/On your naked body/It's more than I can stand…For we may never meet again," Standish croons, from his shadow-laden psyche. The music sort of plods along without genuine release, yet it's undeniably poignant.

This is gritty, emotional stuff, documenting a fractured soul's effort to communicate in his darkest hours. Not fun, but certainly not the slightest bit contrived. It's difficult to recommend a CD like this—it's not particularly tuneful, and it sure doesn't rock. But some music is meant to reflect human vulnerability—the down side, in other words, of being sensitive, lost, and in need of love and strength that are never there in sufficient amounts. Devastations sing about, well, devastation, with the rarest of conviction, and while likely not to everyone's taste, Coal captures an authentic emotional landscape, one we all wander in periodically, whether we know where we're headed or not. B

RIYL: Nick Cave, Tindersticks, Leonard Cohen

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