After the “Quail And Dumplings” 7″ a month or three back, here’s the second single to be released in support of Sailor’s Grave – A Sea Of Tongues. “New Black Rich” was the only new song on that album. Even then, strangely, the title brings to mind The Broken Giant soundtrack which Oldham recorded back in 1996 and which included a song called “Black/Rich Tune” on the vinyl version of that EP, Black/Rich Music, of which an unlistenable demo version was once included as the B-side to the free 7” that came with initial copies of Viva Last Blues. Has that anything to do with “New Black Rich”? Only that “Rich” refers to Bryan Rich, who co-wrote the song with Oldham, implying that here’s a “new” song from them/him.
New Black Rich (Tusks)… Oldham’s recorded no shortage of “farewell, I’m moving on” songs just as Dylan did in his early years, but never one quite as listless and withdrawn as this. “I’ll say goodbye before we meet,” is the essence of the message, and the form of its main refrain. Oldham’s voice is somber here, soft, a hushed edge on his tone. Why or how would someone get himself into such a state over meeting people? The reasons given are twofold: “It’s not who I am, it’s who I’ll never be,” which suggests he doesn’t feel fit in his natural state to cope with the world, which is explained further by reason number two: “The times are not changing fast enough to be everything to everyone I need to be.” This persona seems to feel obliged to adapt, to change, to provide something for each person he meets, and in recognition of his inability to do that, he’ll slope off “into the trees” instead. There’s a line here too about a person’s beauty being contingent on the beauty of the world. It seems to be a song of despair put forth by one of those delicate souls with a skin too few. The music echoes this melancholy tone with a slow splash of drums, tinkly mandolin and guitar. Soon a rousing fiddle enters and brings drama and beauty but further mourning too. A sense of sorrow and fate conspire to bequeath this damaged narrator a pessimistic outlook. Electric guitar takes over from where fiddle left off. It’s a real beauty, a shy understated kind of song, but a beauty nonetheless.
Black As Grace… for me this song hinges on an interpretation of the title as it is sung seven lines into the song, “My sacrifice is as black as grace.” Part of the problem here is that ‘black’ is so clouded with concepts of misdirection, insincerity, anger, depression and ironic humour that it’s virtually impossible to know how to read the line. So we look around it at all the other lines in the song and come to the conclusion that “a man sent to fight has gone,” is dead or dying, hence the “sacrifice,” but the death seems in vain “because it won no peace and gave no love.” It seems that the song is sung from the perspective of this fallen soldier, and we get Oldham’s voice singing the core of the line from the right speaker, while Bryan Rich sings along more quietly in the left speaker, and a third voice, barely a whisper, echoes and reverberates in the background, as though a ghost is present. The song sounds kind of lo-fi, a blurry strummed guitar, fret-squeak echoing in the left speaker, and not much else, like a demo, although one assumes the lo-fi demo-ey quality is deliberate, in support of the song’s meaning and aesthetic. The soldier seems to be singing to his love asking her if she can continue to live, sustained by the few happy times they shared, “the times we were in the sun.” But now, “the sun burns my Kentucky eyes,” and he’s still falling as though offering these dying words while his soul takes flight or disappears off into an underworld. Oldham’s vocals are further off while Rich’s are close mic’ed. The final line, repeated once, hints at a last ditch attempt at redemption, almost a “With God On Our Side,” sentiment: “We said we could not be broken as long as we could be saved,” intones Oldham, but the voice is full of doubt. If the blackness in the song has any humour associated with it, it’s of a deeply bitter and dramatically ironic flavour. Interesting, though a bit weak; the kind of b-side that might easily be forgotten.
I did get the vague impression when I first put this 7″ single on that Drag City were havin’ a laugh. The first song is available on the Sailor’s Grave album as is, while the second is all we get for our six bucks, and it ain’t much to get excited about, clocking in at just over three minutes. Length of song don’t mean much, no, but it’s a wispy thing and the sentiment is nothing new. Nothing inherently wrong in that either I suppose. Side One is the worthier piece of musical art here. A third single for the Sailor’s Grave album appears in January 2015 – “Mindlessness.”