Originally written by Ian Chainey
There are those drug albums that glorify the experience of the high; experimental recordings that are meant to add something to the process of self-exploration through mind-altering substances. And then, there are the drug albums that paint a realistic picture of addiction, of lives enslaved by the need for a quick fix. They speak of a world where the only thing that’s important is the needle, where love and passion for life have been superseded by utter dejection and confusion. They sound damn near alien to those that have only ever engaged in recreational puff-puff-pass sessions because they expose the kind of feelings that we try so desperately to bury with the goings-on of our “normal” days. And ironically enough, those are the drug albums that present a rather sobering look at life and of the seedy underbelly of America, a shadow society in which most of us, thankfully, will never belong.
While Oxbow’s sixth full length never explicitly states that it’s a drug album (well, you know, besides the title), lead voice Eugene Robinson’s vocal performance makes it hard to believe that it’s anything but. Like Oxbow albums of the past, he doesn’t sing in the traditional sense. Instead, he acts out his part with moans, groans, shouts, and screams, turning this album into more of an audio drama, something far more theatrical than your typical Hydra Head release. Backed by harder edged riffs that sound like the complete Amrep catalogue after being dragged through a sewer and with the sublime addition of a real third stream/chamber rock side (strings, etc.), The Narcotic Story is both catchy and confounding, deftly mirroring a world where paranoia and wild mood swings are the norm.
After the short “Mr. Johnson” intro (A John Luther Adams-like tone cluster), Oxbow breaks into “The Geometry of Business.” Beginning with a sort of funky acoustic guitar riff and a mumbling/grumbling Robinson duet with himself (two sides of a fractured mind, perhaps?), the track adds a deep buzzin’ bass, piano, and light percussion before strengthening the original riff with meaty distortion, making it hit that much harder. “Time, Gentlemen, Time” follows, coming across like a demented Grails reworking with the more reflective moments of Houses of the Holy. It breaks free at the 1:41, almost sounding like a Jeff Buckley record, with Robinson’s background howls taking the place of the indie legend’s ghostly crooning. This tradeoff sets the formula for the rest of the album as loud, aggressive, and oddly funky sections give way to quieter, more introspective segments.
But, nothing can prepare you for “She’s A Find.” The album’s near nine-minute centerpiece is anchored by Robinson’s vocal nuances. The man sounds absolutely pathetic, emitting the same kind of sounds that your drunk and depressed friend makes as writhes on the floor, whipped by his past and present failures. The stirring string arrangement and pitch-perfect piano playing (the spirit of Bill Evans trading some forlorn licks?) are a nice touch, but when that big droning guitar hits, it’s pure magic. The thing is though, that guitar doesn’t devastate. Instead, it sounds shaky, almost like it’s supposed to be a deep look into the main character’s psyche; something aggressive, yet so incredibly damaged and filled with self-doubt.
That’s part of why The Narcotic Story is so clever: the subtlest of details make the biggest impacts. Take the strings on “Time, Gentlemen, Time” that give the song its emotional weight. They’re not brilliant simply because they were included, they’re brilliant because one player sounds so unsteady, straying from the rest of the group, and that provides this unsure and uncertain atmosphere, like everything could come crashing down at any moment. Or, take the line in “A Winner Every Time” (“When it rains it fucking pours”) coming to life as a nod to “The Rain Song” (by way of Kayo Dot, maybe) in the second half of “Frank’s Frolic.” And then there’s “Frankly Frank” that takes the male character in Betty Davis’s recently re-released “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” (For fun, compare and contrast Oxbow’s riff to the Neil Schon and Douglas Rodriguez groove) and puts him through years of drug abuse, turning him into the kind of stuck-in-the-past, poor battered bastard who keeps telling you that he was somebody once; the kind of person who is desperate for your kudos, but you just don’t believe a damn word that falls out of his mouth. Again, it’s clever stuff, but it’s made even cleverer by the fact that Oxbow leaves the door open to ambiguity. Because you could interpret these sections many ways (and, certainly, in far different ways than I have done), it makes The Narcotic Story’s replayability factor extremely high since you’re always going to pick up on something new with each listen.
So, while I’m sorry to drag on and go all “failed creative writing student” on you, the truth is that The Narcotic Story is well worth your time. Calling it compelling is an understatement and calling it fascinating is just too simple. It’s an album that could possibly have multiple identities and all of them seem worthy of study. To me, this is a drug album, plain and simple. To you, who knows? But, I think we’ll both agree that it’s one of the year’s undeniable highlights.