The Blacks

Nom de Guerre

(Tricycle; 2007)

By Craig Eley | 10 August 2007

I spent some time this summer with the Blacks. I went swimming with them, saw their band perform, saw a Shakespeare play, and had dinner in Luisa Black's apartment, where I finally had the nerve to sit down and turn the tape recorder on. So that's my "disclosure," but in the back of my mind I was always writing this review, playing at the journalism I'd read in glossy magazines while taking a shit, where some guy goes horseback riding with Val Kilmer so he can write about what an asshole he is. In this particular instance, however, I'm the asshole. I'm the asshole because after all the time we spent together, and how many times I listened to the record, I couldn't get past (still can't, clearly) my own fucking basic realities: I'm young and I'm male.

This particular set of characteristics essentially makes me the target of Nom de Guerre's 9 little jabs. The record is steeped in punk music made before I was born, peppered with observations and critiques of masculinity, and all processed within the larger idea of the "persona." So yeah, it's an action-packed 28 minutes. As the title suggests, these songs are about who you are (or pretend to be) within the struggles of war, be they global, cultural, or interpersonal. In the case of the conversation I had with Luisa (not her real name), we, too, had to play our respective roles: Her as the confident, intelligent, and good looking musician, and me as the amateur music writer pretending to that I know how to interview someone. So from the start she's in control, and she knows it. I don't fully understand this until I go back and listen to the tape.

CMG: You seem to really hone in on the physical appearance of men. "I like the cut of your jacket" is one example. Is that.
Louisa Black (LB): It's instinct. It's absolute instinct. It's not about objectification so much as it is a kind of really honed awareness of the physical world around me, and especially in the rock world, where so much about personas and identities is specifically indexed to what you're putting out there.
CMG: What do you think you're putting out there?
LB: Oh not me, you! [Laughs] It's not about me.
CMG: What I put out there? As listener? As "man?"
LB: As man, as boy, as beast. It has nothing to do with me, I'm not even remotely interested in objectifying myself. I could care less. But I'm super interested in how erotic it is to come across people that -- wham! -- instantly turn your head.

The song we're talking about is the album's second track, "Elegant Walk," which describes the "wham!" moment and also some of the "bam!" moments that are soon to follow. It's one of the album's catchiest melodies (complete with "la-la-la" vocals in the chorus) and also some of the naughtiest lines ("you make me feel like a juvenile delinquent"). This isn't love at first sight, though, it's lust, and Louisa's female narrator would feel even more like a predator if we weren't already convinced, if not within the context of the song then within the context of the world, that's exactly what her "prey" is looking for.

The song's primal nature also happens to work well for the band's primal sound, which is deliberately minimal. Reminiscent of that other band, Luisa Black plays guitar and sings while Gavin Black (not his real name, and not her brother, or ex-husband) plays drums. Unlike that other band, he plays the hell out of them. These are thundering, serious drums. And if you don't immediately pick up on the third Black on your initial listen, that's because JDK Blacker is "only" the backing vocalist and tambourine player. Louisa describes him as the much-need "x-factor," which is the pure energy he exhibits on stage: dancing, jumping, screaming, and wailing on a tambourine. His presence on the record is essential, albeit not entirely for musical reasons. All of the songs? They're about him. After another glass of wine I get some of the back story, in response to a totally different question.

LB: It started as very simply percussion, that we needed, but he also ended up bringing this incredible, wild energy to the whole thing. We wouldn't be a band without him. And people make fun of it all the time. [Mocking voice:] Oh, you play tambourine.and what? But he's incredible. He's the secret weapon. Also, a lot of the songs are about him. Or the idea of him, you know? It's so annoying.
CMG: To you?
LB: Yeah.
CMG: Oh, more wine. So, about the difference between the live show and the record.
LB: Let me back up and tell you the real story about this. When I quit my old band, I was going to start a new band and J said, "Great, I want to be a singer." And he couldn't sing for shit. It was unbelievable. He didn't have the experience. He had all this energy and incredible stage presence, but he just didn't have the juice. So we did it for like a week, and then I said, "You're fired. I'm starting a new band and it's called the Blacks and you're not the singer. I'm the singer." So that's how the front man became the side man. And thing about it now is that he's developed this great voice as a backing singer. It's fantastic and perfect for what we're doing.

The album works with the same sort of assertiveness, and it draws you in with equal parts brute force and seduction. This isn't a challenging album to figure out: it's a tight, straight-ahead guitar rock record, with strong musicians, good lyrics, and a great voice (yes, you will be reminded of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but a more appropriate touchstone is Romeo Void). That said, there are some elements of repetition here that don't always work, including the fuzzy vocal treatment on every single track. Then there's the relatively lame "Heavy Song," which at 3:30 makes it 12% of the total output. Not to crunch numbers, but on a 28 minute record I want every second to count. Yet, it's a small blemish on a record filled with tracks that really work--"Raincoat," "The Flame," "The Split," and the title track, especially--are, for lack of a better word, kickass. This is wartime, and these are fight songs, even if the fight is only in your kitchen.

But it's not, and that's not lost on anybody making music right now. Even though it is occasionally lost on dolts like me who listen to Lucky Soul all day and wonder why more people aren't angry. When I heard the title of the record I expected some really charged, disruptive, radical, or transgressive notions. I was also stupid enough to look for them on the very surface.

CMG: When I saw the name of the record, and living in these times, I was surprised to find that record was not very political. It seems to me that the wars here are interpersonal more than anything else.
LB: Absolutely, but cultural too. I think that what's been happening has been this radical polarization of culture. Anything you do as an artist registers on one side of this divide. It's tough. I wanted to start a band and start a record and write songs that disrupted the logic of the everyday that you live with, whether it's corporate, or domestic, or whatever it is. The issues here have been on my mind for a long time. And I went back and listened to a lot of bands that were important to me, to hear how they reconciled the kind of joy and transcendence you get out of writing pop music with that sense of culture war.

Perhaps the real genius of the Blacks' debut record is that it conveys subtle and sophisticated narratives in musical language that is utterly primal; this record is lusty, powerful, driven, and, at times, violent. It's not necessarily eye-opening (you have heard music like this before), but is a necessary refocusing, the kind of album that comes along now and again from a small band that plays loud, has fun, and has something to say. Hopefully, we'll all be a little bit better off because of that. But I'll still probably be a lousy interviewer.