There they are onstage: A 6-foot-tall blond woman wearing a sheer, body-hugging shirt cradles the frets of a standup bass while she attacks the strings below. A smaller man, standing in the middle, sings as if the fear of God is in him and tears out smooth guitar licks. A dark-haired woman with high cheekbones sways from foot to foot as she stomps out guitar chords. An impishly smiling blond demon behind the drums pounds with rhythmic intensity.
These are the Blacks, and they are one of the finest rock & roll bands you'll hear this year.
A few weeks ago, the quartet made one of what has been a fair number of trips down to St. Louis, this time to open for fellow Chicagoans Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire. The latter band plays music rooted in popular and jazz forms of the late 1920s and early 1930s, whereas the Blacks are more clearly a rock & roll band. Still, the pairing was not a mismatch. The Blacks draw from inspirations much wider than the usual three-chord bashers of the common guitar/bass/drums combo.
"I kind of formed the band by ripping off the ideas of Tom Waits," says Danny Black, the singer/guitarist/chief songwriter of the band during a recent phone interview (the band does a startling version of Waits' "Going Out West"). "Not that I wanted to sound like him. But it's ripping off, taking off old chord progressions and things you've heard so many times before, and twisting them around a little bit, making them modern or different."
Black also evinces a love of Hank Williams and Louis Armstrong. "But I grew up listening to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin," he adds. "So I didn't want to play loud rock music, but I still wanted to have an energetic band. Which I do. We combine all those things."
Listen to "He's Gone," the last track on the Blacks' debut album, Dolly Horrorshow, released last year on Bloodshot Records. Black has a smooth, deep voice that brings to mind a little bit of X's John Doe, and maybe even David Bowie (with no trace of an English accent) in his quieter moments.
But on "He's Gone" Black works himself into a lather of pain. As drummer James Emmenegger pushes the music harder and harder, Black's guitar mixes with Nora O'Connor's, and bassist Gina Black (no relation to Danny) chugs along. Danny Black adds a neat trumpet line, obviously descended loosely from the New Orleans jazz favored by Armstrong. Then he cries out, angry at his lover who can't forget her past loves. The song, full of seventh chords and a melody straight from Hoagy Carmichael's world, could be done by Andrew Bird. But the Blacks take that sound and rock it out.
Danny Black forged his unique songwriting approach by working alone. "I discovered when I was about 22 that this was as good as I'm gonna get on guitar," says Black. "So I figured I might as well learn as many instruments as I can, because I'm not gonna master any of them. I holed myself up in an apartment with a four-track and did the four-track-in-a-basement thing. I had the freedom to put whatever instrument I wanted on a song. That helped shape where this band went."
The Blacks started going somewhere when Danny met Gina in a Chicago nightclub. "There wasn't really a musical connection," says Black, "but we could play really well together. There was a chemistry there. I've never met anybody like her. She's never learned any songs. She plays bass, but she never learned anyone's bass parts. She'd learn a song, but she'd Gina-ize it. I guess that's a really good thing to be able to do. Instead of listening to music sometimes, she'd rather just be playing it. That's where she gets all that bowing and that Eastern European thing she brings."
Gina Black is the band's most engaging and eloquent soloist. That she does this on the upright bass is unusual, but it quickly feels normal once you've heard how she builds melodic expressions from progressions where lesser musicians would slip into familiar clichés. She also sings, sometimes beautifully and sometimes with a harsh, exhilarating scream. The two Blacks worked as a duo and, in fact, were first noticed by their record company (also based in Chicago) when they appeared that way at St. Louis' MRMF a few years back.
"Eventually, we advertised for a drummer, and that worked out unbelievably when James answered," says Black. "He used to play in an Eagles cover band. He was making cash, probably $300 or $400 a week. He says, yeah, you might laugh about it, but he couldn't find any musicians that were worth playing with, so he figured he'd play in a band where at least the songs were good, and he'd make some money."
The Blacks expected to remain a trio until they met O'Connor, a friend of Danny's brother. "When we recorded songs, Gina would always put harmonies on," says Black. "And Nora can sing harmonies really well. She used to play in a couple country-rock outfits, but I guess they didn't really work. Then she just did a solo folky thing for a long time. When I told people Nora was playing with us, they went, "The folky girl? How's that gonna work?' But it did."
With the band fully populated and signed to Bloodshot, the Blacks went into the recording studio for eight days with Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, the former Del Lord who's produced quite a few indie bands in recent years, including Festus, Mo., natives the Bottle Rockets. "We met him before we got signed," says Black. "He said, "If you guys get signed, I'd like to produce your record.' I heard a lot of things about him, that he's kind of a tyrant in the studio. But I called him up, and we talked for a total of probably six hours or something. I asked him, "What does a producer do?' So he explained everything."
With such a short time to record and mix, the Blacks are not perfectly represented on Dolly Horrorshow. The drums aren't powerful enough, the backing vocals are a little too far back, and the guitars could stand to breathe a bit more. But the songs are clearly the focus, and they are very, very good. The Blacks take melodic ideas from folk, from gospel, from country and from rock of several eras. Every cut jumps at you with a catchy hook and an inspired arrangement. This is a band that's just finding its voice and that knows how unusual this voice is.
Lyrically, the Blacks wander down avenues of sexual intrigue and damnation; they're a band that sings, with a genuinely pretty harmonized tune, lines like "Lay your little head in my lap/Bring it back from the dead" -- a band that then fights off devils with a choir of yodeling angels.
"I don't ever start off knowing what I'm going to write about," says Black. "I just sort of come up with a line and work out a song. It takes awhile, but it usually writes itself. I won't know what it's about until I'm done with it, and I read it back, and go, "OK.' It's hard to talk about, just because I don't know where it comes from."
Other themes, both darker and lighter, come from outside sources. The Blacks do a desperately earnest rendition of Bill Monroe's "I'll Meet You in Church Sunday Morning," and a lovely rendition of a murder ballad, "Dear Little Girl." "You want to talk about influences?" asks Black. "I'm really influenced by music in movies. "Dear Little Girl" was something I heard in Raising Arizona. It was a lullaby the mother was singing. It's a murder ballad, and she's singing it to her kid. It was so pretty, but the words were so sick. I was really intrigued by it."
Live, the Blacks will go to the other end of the emotional spectrum with a powerful version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me." "That's just such a sweet song," says Black. "It straddles that line between maudlin and sincerity. I can sing it without feeling sappy, but it's something that's probably too sweet for me to actually write and not be embarrassed by it. That's probably something I look for. I like the sentiment and the words, and I could either not write them that well or not reveal that emotion. So I hide behind the cover."
The Blacks perform Thursday, Oct. 14, at the Side Door. Opening the show is twisted singer/songwriter Johnny Dowd.