Black Happy Day

In the Garden of Ghostflowers

(Silber Records; 2006)

By Dom Sinacola | 8 September 2006

The name’s not an oxymoron, and black is a color in the way designers deem appropriate: it intensifies dichotomy; it slims or shrinks a room, a sound, a conceit; it manifests mourning and brightens those colors adjacent. So, maybe “Black Happy” is relative, glee at the behest of--or in the shadow of--death and depression, like a kind of yin/yang amoebic copulation. Or, it could be more simplistic, opaque fingernails and white makeup, so traditional, so melodramatic, and so content in a woe-is-we malaise of creepy crawly William Beaumont sketches. No matter where Black Happy Day lands in the vast wasteland of Americana and somber fringe folk, duo Tara Vanflower and Timothy Renner have assembled a moribund tome of nursery rhymes, hymns, and clanking dulcimer. Unfortunately, my accessory caveat is circular: for all the skeletal logic they apply, they just don’t have a grasp on enough restraint; for all the ideas and production whizzes scoring the album’s tough hide, Black Happy Day just doesn’t push far enough.

Leitmotifs drive this baby on rusted rails, from the incessant background dins of vocals forever vacillating between orgasm and grief to the repeated images of decay shared with Christian iconography. If one thing’s for sure, and let no soul be mistaken, it’s that Vanflower and Renner are serious, smallpox serious. Their lyrics, except for those of “Leaves of Life,” “Edward,” “Lyke Wake,” and “Be Thou My Vision,” which are “traditionals,” drip with portent and morbidity, brackens of blood and tar. “Wolf & Hare,” a slogging practice in overprocessed, echoed voice and drawing overt boundaries between atonality and skronky goth, succeeds in a particularly evocative image of one titular animal inside the other. We are pressed with the album’s overhanging duality, “We grow together / We are a braid,” and chaotic splashes of water are cross-faded with soupy, patient fingerpicking. While the sampled water sounds like a kiddie pool being filled, and while, on the other side of the track, Renner’s sing-speak is damn near noxious, the song makes obvious what the band name already proclaims, that the quotidian is one contradictory deal. And that maybe contradiction is a kind of normalcy.

Which seems heavy handed, but so do the band’s arrangements for almost every cut. Vanflower’s lilting tenor is usually harmonized with, or buttressed by, Renner’s mud mouth, which is swirled, looped, spliced, and repeated ad nauseam. Or vice versa, the vocal stew cadenced by sharp pluckings on guitar and banjo. In turn, languorous pieces like “Whore” and the infuriatingly stagnant “How Many Hours ‘til the Spider’s Work is Done?” wrap harmonium drone around layers and layers of Vanflower’s coquettish mongrel croon (equal parts hanky and panky). Only the album’s closing reveals a more succinct talent in the two. “Hand in Hand,” struggling with Renner’s obligatory gutturals, courts a clear, soft melody, strengthening Tara’s gorgeously untrained voice instead of typically chipping it apart. Then, “Be Thou My Vision,” a frankly forward hymnal, is the most sincere and accommodating song around these parts, refreshing even if only because of the preceding dour fare. It’s plain pretty when Vanflower pushes her register.

Besides imbuing contradiction as a conceptual thread through every means possible, the album’s a thematic mess, soggy with dirt and tiring dogma, never really able to make any solid statement. On the other hand, In the Garden of Ghostflowers is precisely produced, fine tuned to a howling point. Be it the banshee scree in “Edward” that roils from ear to ear or “The Leaves of Life’s” seamless choral chant, each song retains a melody and formula intrinsic to the whole. Formulaic, sure, but consistency and the development of a strange swamp suite are nothing to chide. Things to chide are the band’s solemn resilience of form and their sometimes very dopey lyrics.

As a mood piece, Ghostflowers emotes death and ghastly beauty, but even that, when replayed through monotonous strings and one legato moan after another, drifts from meditation to gracelessness. Their means are admirably bare, their ideas firm, but their creative foresight lacks the breadth to approach the Ever After in any kind of satisfying way. What is absorbing, possibly even shocking, on first listen (Oh! How they weep! How they moan!) soon becomes lightless flora, which, I guess, is as devotional to Black as any burden can get.