You know how sometimes the box is better than what is in it? The idea of Christmas Day is better than the actual event, isn’t it? Niobe’s latest offering is not as exciting as we’d hoped. It’s got a host of guest players on it, including Trevor Dunn – one time bass player for Mr Bungle – and then there’s David Grubbs who was a founding member of Squirrel Bait. What do you mean, that doesn’t excite you?
Let’s start with everything that’s great about this record. First of all there’s Niobe’s voice, which drips with the kind of soul you’d find spilling from the honeyed vocal chords of smouldering femme fatale on a smoke obscured stage in a bar after hours. Niobe most certainly has an enchanting quality to her, and for the majority of Blackbird’s Echo she’s a delight.
She’s most effective on those songs that seem to have come from an age of legs coloured with tea-bags, rationing, and gramophones. On Lovely Day for example her voice is held way back in the mix. It comes through muffled and cloaked, as if it’s taken several years and many miles of travel for the sound of her voice to make it on to tape. Add some jaunty whistling and you’ve got a song that you can only hear in black and white.
My Conversion finds her as a torch singer battling it out with some fine jazz trumpets. A perfect mix of Shirley Bassey and Bjork. Its roots may be found in gospel and big band, but the leftfield influence is undeniable, and it actually works which, as we shall see, is all too rare an occurrence on Blackbird’s Echo.
Time Is Kindling is a really threatening song with an oppressive bass note the only solid thing throughout, as the electronics make the rest of the track malfunction, fizz, whirr, and die. Niobe’s still in her torch singer mode as the dread builds around her. If The Paper Chase had written a musical, it would sound exactly like this. It’s stunning stuff.
Ava Gardner At The Swimming Pool is a great little swing number that skips gently by charming you with a sense of naivety and end of pier sauce. You can’t help but love that can you?
Highlights these may be, but it’s not enough to make this a great record. Cadillac Night is a bass heavy R’n'B inspired track that degrades Niobe’s voice and integrity. It tries to be cutting edge and purposefully awkward with angular samples and speaker destroying throbs, but it’s a mess.
Likewise, A Shark tries to be jaunty with its freaked out Ornette Coleman/John Zorn sax stabs, but its limited ideas just don’t go anywhere. It’s over as soon as it starts, almost as if Niobe decided that it wasn’t working so it’s best to bail out early.
The title track wobbles about for a couple of minutes without doing anything other than inducing slight feelings of seasickness. If there’s anything to be learned here, it’s that Niobe might be a fan of Captain Beefheart‘s peculiar vocal style, but she probably shouldn’t try to employ a similar technique.
Normally such adventures into the experimental are to be applauded but for some reason, on this record it just doesn’t seem to work. Perhaps it’s that Niobe’s voice is so well suited to the nostalgic tones that permeate many of these songs that once the electronics and angular jazz start to take over it feels far too jarring.
There’s not quite enough consistency throughout to make it a convincing album; it’s neither one thing or the other. Normally such eccentricity would be saluted, but for the time being we’ll give it a polite wave and wait to see what Niobe comes up with next.