In their almost three decade long career, Oxbow have by and large veered towards an avant garde style which has gradually morphed into a sound that’s very much their own. As early as 1989 debut Fuckfest, Oxbow have been uncompromising in their delivery, the stabs of hardcore chaos hitting just as hard as the jazz passages and unsettling gentle string led moments. With just a handful of albums to their name over the years, it’s clear that, like Tool, quality control is of utmost importance to these guys. So it’s pleasing to find that new album Thin Black Duke maintains those standards.
Before we delve into Thin Black Duke let’s make something clear: Oxbow do not exist in a particular time space. They do not fit a box. They do not rush, and more importantly they appear blissfully unaware of anybody listening. Theirs is music in the loosest sense, it is pure expressionism via the medium of instrumentation. Although their setup is traditional by rock standards (Eugene Robinson on vocals, Niko Wenner guitar/keyboards, Dan Adams bass/keyboards, Greg Davis drums) the delivery is not.
To play a random album from their back catalogue, particularly on headphones, is like listening to a movie without the visuals. The musical score sounds incidental, sirens can be heard in the distance as trains rattle along blowing dust through dimly lit trash filled city streets, hobos yell at passers by. Oxbow’s art seems to be more designed for movie fans than music lovers, and this knowledge makes them easier to approach.
Thin Black Duke, then, arrives a full decade on from previous effort The Narcotic Story (an album that gained producer Joe Chiccarelli a Grammy nod), and places us firmly back into Oxbow world, albeit from a different angle. From the assertiveness of album opener “Cold & Well Lit Place” you immediately get the feeling that something is different, but not in the way you may think. No, the difference being that you’re not watching the drama unfold at street level this time around, but rather the plush seats of a theatre.
The sound is incredibly warm and inviting, and this opening gambit is surely designed to lure you into their little stage production before rewarding you with the tale that lies ahead, curated peerlessly by Eugene Robinson. Oxbow fans will already be familiar with his delivery: part maniacal preacher, part mumbling street person, he doesn’t so much sing as recite incomprehensible poetry. But this time around he’s honed his performance into that of a seasoned actor, like a vague Tom Waits addressing ghosts, you imagine him prowling the stage in a dinner suit trying to unravel a story he hasn’t yet written a script for.
Each song arrives as different acts in this off kilter (off Broadway) show, horns and orchestration fill out the likes of “Ecce Hommo” and “Host” as Robinson alternates between crooning and muttering to himself like a mad scientist trying to extricate theories from his own mind. The real highlight to these ears, however, is the piano led “The Upper”, a dark bluesy hymn which recalls a tortured Nick Cave in his prime.
Elsewhere their noisy roots show up on the likes of “A Gentleman’s Gentleman”, but in a more refined way than older fans may be expecting. In fact Thin Black Duke overall is an exercise in refinement, making it a far more consistent and rewarding experience than some of the harsher elements of their back catalogue. The solid foundation laid by the rhythm section of Davis and Adams can be credited for this, they keep the listener firmly seated throughout, whilst Wenner tastefully weaves guitar in and out when needed, never overdoing it.
By close of play you’re left feeling the way you do after an enjoyable flight: you’re not quite sure how you got to the destination so quickly but you’d happily travel there again. With Thin Black Duke Oxbow have confounded expectations again, and we can only hope we don’t have to wait another ten years for the next act.
Thin Black Duke is out May 5th