I first heard Black Lab in the fall of 1997. Their first single was featured on Toronto radio station 102.1 The Edge’s “Groundbreakers” show where they introduce new songs. (two of the other artists featured that week were Black Grape and Juliana Hatfield. I remember the program vividly) I instantly fell in love with the song and acquired the band’s full length “Your Body Above Me” soon afterward. To this day I consider it my all-time favourite record. (an aside: Pitchfork gave it 1.8/10, forever proving they don’t know a thing about music. But the review is hysterical. Give it a read here.)
All kidding aside, the record is killer. There isn’t a single weak track on it. It starts off strong with lead single “Wash It Away” and doesn’t let up until the end of closer “Gates of the Country.” Some moments, such as the bridge of the epic “Anything” or the verses of the borderline unhinged “Bring It On” are downright huge. Paul Durham sings as if his heart is being wrenched from his chest, Geoff Stanfield contributes fuzzed out basslines and guitarist Michael Belfer displays a mastery of his wild, mechanical, processed guitar sounds. As a whole it teeters between maniacal, gloomy, desperate and resolute.
The problem with releasing a 10/10 (not 1.8/10) record is that it can be impossible to follow-up. A smattering of non-album tracks were released afterward either as b-sides on European-market singles or on movie soundtracks. These songs were every bit as good as the album that preceded them. Work began on a follow-up. Then label-hell happened. Geffen was purchased/merged into Interscope. A&R people were fired. Black Lab was put into limbo and were released from their record deal. They signed a new deal with Sony but by this time infighting within the band had reduced it to just one member: frontman Paul Durham. The material from the second album was re-recorded with a new lineup and then label-hell happened again. After getting dropped by Sony, Black Lab self-released “See The Sun” almost eight years after “Your Body Above Me.”
Since then the band has existed as a duo: Paul Durham and guitarist/engineer Andy Ellis. They’re strictly a studio outfit and they don’t tour, but their output has been steady over the past decade or so and they’ve amassed quite the cult following. A recent kickstarter on an already-recorded album raised over $70,000 strictly to put towards a mastering job, promotion and publicity. Let’s take a look at that album.
“A Raven Has My Heart” is album #8 (if you count a couple compilations of then-rare and/or unreleased material) and bears no resemblance at all to any previous incarnation of Black Lab. For the most part arrangements are sparse and the focus is solely on Durham’s anguished delivery. Musical accompaniment exists in the form of piano/synths and down-tempo drums. A couple tracks such as “Gravity” and “Further” aim higher and succeed in upping the volume (and the melodrama) without collapsing under their own weight. But other songs come off as contrived such as album opener “Unfamiliar Sky” which sounds like an outtake from The Joshua Tree or “Playing” which should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. The remaining ballads are strong enough, but ultimately unmemorable. There is not enough rock on this record.
With a 20+ year career in music behind him, Paul Durham has definitely proven he has what it takes to last in the business and his willingness to experiment should be applauded. While “A Raven Has My Heart” may not meet the lofty 10/10 standards set by its predecessor, I’ll be waiting patiently to see what comes next.