"The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being down the river, the only thing for it was to come and wait for the turn of the tide."
The Black Heart Procession
Velvet Elvis, Thursday, May 20
Breakroom, Friday, May 21
Take those classic first lines of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a legendary novella that has nothing to do with romance, or indie rock. It's more than a little foreboding, a tad ethereal, and, oh yeah, it has that "heart" in the title. Now imagine Conrad's text as music (don't discard that "heart" reference, though), throw in a little Palace Bros. bleakness, tack on some of Sparklehorse's sonic experimentation, and you'll get a sense of what San Diego's Black Heart Procession is all about. Underneath the keyboards, musical saw, guitar, and drum sounds, there's a lot of, um, heart.
Songwriter Pall Jenkins says the idea for the band came about a year and a half ago, when he and pianist Tobias Nathaniel—also his roommate and a fellow member of the rock band Three Mile Pilot—turned their commiseration into art. "We were in a real funny, or messed up, state of mind at the time," Jenkins recalls. "So we started writing these songs and sitting around my house a lot. And we came up with this idea to make all the songs have the word 'heart' in them. So almost all the songs from the first record have 'heart' in the title. We just went with that."
Oddly enough, the concept wasn't relegated to four-track cassettes stashed away with old love letters. It worked. And the duo, with help from some friends, has kept it up, with occasional touring and a follow-up record, 2, just released on Touch and Go. The inherent challenge of keeping up the band's breakup theme doesn't seem to faze Jenkins. "[That feeling] is always there," he says. "In the past, I had the same things inside of me. It's just choosing to let them out through music. On the first album, we were dealing with our feelings pretty heavily. The new one, I think, was reflecting on that feeling a little more than going through it."
When Jenkins sings, "When I fell inside, out of the snow, and by your fire/In this time I've learned," on the new "Your Church Is Red," it's obvious he's stopped wallowing in self-pity. Swaths of clanging sheet metal, a clunky guitar, and some of the best breakup lyrics since the last Mountain Goats record can all be found in the song.
Lyrics are one element, but the Black Heart Procession's music is something else. The musical saw peppers most songs, and adds a One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest type of creepiness to the disc. Pump organs kick in, and pianos are more prevalent than electric guitars. "We definitely like the antique feel of instruments, like the big old pump organ," Jenkins explains. "We try to keep that feeling, but mix it a little bit with some synthesizers that we try to make appear natural. It's kind of tricky to mix those two worlds and not have it be one distracting the other. You know, you have a big pump organ going, and it's really natural feeling, and then you have a synthesizer making wind sounds—you have to be careful not to make that synthesizer sound annoying."
This makes it sound like the Black Heart Procession could be just another band in the Elephant 6 collective of stoners and musical experimentalists. But asked about influences, Jenkins doesn't give many clues. "Probably Journey, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Black Sabbath. I love all three of those bands," he deadpans. Later, when discussing the merits of his musical saw (a Sandvik Stradivarius model, for those who care), he drops his cover and describes his inspiration. "In the back of my mind," he says, "I feel like I've always heard a '20s singer playing the saw and just singing, with some backup instrument. I don't know if those are just dreams that I've had in my mind or what."