The Black and White Years – Strange Figurines

strange-figurines-album-cover

Hometown art-rock heroes The Black and White Years have quite a backstory, which I’m sure they are sick and tired of reading about, so here’s the short version: back in 2007, former Talking Heads and Modern Lovers guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison “discovered” the band while they played for a crowd of about seven people during SXSW. In three months, Harrison produced and released their first album, and TB&WY (which sounds like a Mad Men-era advertising agency) rode that buzz-by-affiliation wave as any upstart band would. After the buzz wore down, the band abandoned Harrison’s purview (both financially and artistically), and released their second full length, Patterns, in 2010. The record was met with generally positive reviews, but it didn’t make the same waves as their first. The band nearly broke-up, and after three quiet years of consistent gigging but little recording, they’re back with this year’s Strange Figurines.

And it’s really good! To my ears it’s their most fully-realized, mature, and accomplished work to date.

Musically, it’s a very dense record that’s a bit hard to pin down. The soundscape varies wildly track to track– from big, sweeping epics like album opener “Embraces,” to subtle casio-crooners like title track, “Strange Figurines,” and everything in between. The most prevalent element, by far, is that hard-charging synth, which has gone from a supporting role in previous releases to the focal point of the band’s sound. The vocal delivery, too, has become much more experimental and diverse than in the band’s first two records. Not only have they added an additional, female voice to the mix (lead singer Scott Butler’s wife, Adrienne), but Scott himself has grown much more adept at matching his voice to the mood of the song. The two of them together affect a pretty wonderful Magnetic Fields-like quality, singing melancholic love songs backed by minor key synth chords.

And really, I think it’s the lyrical content that makes the album so effective. The song structures may vary, but this album is decidedly about one thing: love. Specifically, it’s about a certain kind of modern love that’s both genuine and realistic. On “Embraces,” Butler offers that “I’ll die for you, but only if you need me to,” and sets the tone right from the start. Love is real, and we all want to be swept up and totally consumed by it, but let’s acknowledge that nobody has actually gone insane. Crazy in love is different from just plain crazy. On album closer, “Matching Sweaters,” he bookends the theme nicely, riffing on the mundane realities that follow grand proclamations, but always go unsaid: “Let’s share a house forever / we can decide who folds clothes later.”

For a bunch of people I’ve never met and only read about on the internet, I’m proud of The Black and White Years. While it can be dangerous to assign narratives to the lives of bands, this really feels like a case of a band being “discovered” too soon. TB&WY had only existed for 6 months when Harrison plucked them out of the SXSW heap. That first record is so heavily indebted to him that the band has been rebelling against it for nearly 7 years. Because they weren’t allowed to find their sound organically, they struggled in those middle years, but have come through it all stronger than ever. By choosing to stick together after Patterns and look inward for song inspiration rather than outward, they’ve created something great that is wholly their own.

– Matthew Hall