By DAN MACINTOSH
The Band of Heathens are releasing their latest album during a pandemic, so it makes perfect sense to use an Albert Camus novel name, Stranger, as its title.
The group worked with a new producer this time, Tucker Martine, who has also produced The Decemberists and Modest Mouse, to name two quick examples. The album’s songs don’t directly address Covid-19, but it’s impossible to get completely away from our strange world situation. It’s between the lines at times, but it’s certainly there.
One song that fits onto a modern times soundtrack playlist, though, is “Today is Our Last Tomorrow.” Colored nicely with slide guitar, the song playfully addresses approaching apocalypse with a track that sounds like drunken revelry. Yes, we can sit around and fret about the world. Or we can use weird times as an excuse to party. The Band of Heathens have chosen the latter approach.
In some cases, though, you probably won’t guess what inspired some of these songs. For example, opener “Vietnorm” was prompted by bassist Jesse Wilson watching the sitcom Cheers while stoned. “Black Cat” is even more fascinating. Over a pounding drumbeat, the group tells the real-life story (inspired by a podcast) about a seven-foot Portuguese man who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century and helped build the Brooklyn Bridge. The title comes from the fact that this same tall man killed a panther in an underground cage match. When people say truth is stranger than fiction, they’re probably thinking of stories like this one. The song is given its extra eerie feel with some spooky gypsy fiddle and expansive electric guitar soloing.
One song that especially differs from much of what The Band of Heathens done in the past is “How Do You Sleep?” It begins with lush string sounds that sound – I kid you not – like the intro to a Flaming Lips song. The song also includes some falsetto singing; however, it’s not the sort of cracked, emotive vocalizing we’ve come to expect from the Lips’ Wayne Coyne. Still, the track’s arrangement makes it difficult to get away from that Lips comparison. Then there’s “Call Me Gilded,” which is simply beautiful. It’s wholly acoustic, with some delightful guitar picking and harmonized vocals.
Perhaps the best antidote to our stranger-than-ever times is consistently beautiful music. The Band of Heathens may have tried a few new tricks with these songs, but these out-of-character elements nevertheless still retain a sonic beauty. And few elements heal better (and more quickly) than music. You may not agree with all The Band of Heathens’ left-leaning politics, but great playing and singing (in and of itself) is apolitical. The news gets stranger and stranger every day. Our politicians many times act like strangers, more than friends. Music, and songs that express the way we all are feeling, however, is always a welcome fiend.
A few of these songs (“South by Somewhere” and “Asheville Nashville Austin”) speak about touring. It’s got to be strange to be a band that thrives live, like The Band of Heathens, yet cannot tour. This too shall pass. Let’s hope 2020 soon becomes little more than a strange memory. Until then let The Band of Heathens’ music sooth your soul.