Graded on a Curve:
Bambara,
Stray

Bambara formed over a decade ago in Athens, GA, with a move to Brooklyn thereafter. The release of Stray on February 14 via Wharf Cat Records finds them four LPs deep in a discography that has evinced considerable refinement. Consistencies include attention to texture and dynamics as they resist cliché in the development of a sound that’s literary and cinematic; think Southern Gothic and New Hollywood neo-noir and you’re cruising through Bambara’s part of town. Offering vivid imagery but with sparks of spontaneity, the new record continues the expansion of their style with no loss of potency.

Comprised of twin brothers Reid (vocals, guitar) and Blaze (drums, vocals) Bateh and William Brookshire (bass, vocals), Bambara’s earlier material resides nearer to the noise zone. This isn’t exactly an uncommon scenario with bands as the members start settling down from energetic beginnings and become more adept at working up songs.

But on that note, with the exception of a pair of cassette EPs, “Rings” from 2012, which features live vocal pieces recorded with a telephone mic by Reid Bateh, and “Night Chimes” from 2015 (also issued as a lathe-cut 7-inch in 2017), which is “12 minutes of manipulated vocals and collected samples” broken into five tracks, everything I’ve heard by them has been rooted pretty firmly in song structure (and “Night Chimes,” while textural, isn’t exactly abstract).

As specified above, with the emergence of Stray the count is now four albums (using the math in the press release, as the internet documents a self-titled 2008 CD and a 2010 CD EP “Dog Ear Days” that I’m guessing the band is evaluating as formative). The first was Dreamweapon from 2013, initially self-released but quickly given a wax pressing by Arrowhawk Records, followed by Swarm in 2016 (also on Arrowhawk) and then Shadow on Everything, their first for Wharf Cat, in 2018.

Across these eight sides of vinyl the band has moved away from making a full-bodied Industrial-Gothic punkish noise rock racket (with moments of moodiness less severe, plus calmer, even acoustic based interjections) and toward the aforementioned bookish-cinephile territory. Think Swans and Iceage progressing into the realms of Nick Cave with a dollop or two of influence from the maestro Morricone.

If you’re like me, those references night not read as especially promising. I’ve no issue with Cave, but hey, there’s only one of him, which is to say that he’s not a prime specimen for career modeling (as he’s managed to musically adapt his literary and celluloid interests into a discography and a bookshelf of longevity). Additionally, so much (too damned much) Morricone-impacted junk is about as deep as a kiddie wading pool (to say nothing of the parade of unrelenting clichés).

Bambara succeed by eschewing the blatantly imitative and maturing gradually as an extension of what can be called a tradition, as once upon a time Swans (lead throughout by Michael Gira) and Cave (starting with The Birthday Party and moving through various stages of The Bad Seeds) were regularly considered as belonging to the same branch of the subterranean post-punk/Indie/Alt rock scene.

The big difference right out of the gate on Stray is in how Bambara persists in connecting like a band of equality rather than the vision of one fucked-up thinker with backing-band precision. Over a minute elapses in opener “Miracle” before Reid commences his narrative, which swaggers along halfway between stressed-out and sleepy as strains of keyboard broaden the sound.

After Reid partakes in a brief spoken passage some dusty desert-noir string bending emerges, the bass throbbing heavily all the way before a pummeling crescendo followed by a short dose of cinematic (“post-aftermath”) ambience at the finale. “Heat Lightning” is far more of a straight-up fast-paced rocking situation, though Reid still has a story to tell. The climate remains arid, and at this point in Bambara’s lifecycle the filmlike approach is easily distinguished from rote Spaghetti Western-isms, travelling through contempo noir and landing in the general neighborhood of malaise.

“Sing Me to the Street” magnifies this Morricone a bit, upping the Dick Dale-Duane Eddy sunbaked twang while simultaneously standing apart with backing vocals courtesy of Drew Citron (of Public Practice) and Anina Ivry-Block (of labelmates Palberta). It’s here, in a solid mid-tempo, that a comparison to Leonard Cohen really shines through, and that’s cool, but in highlight “Serafina” the band rev up matters again as Reid offers some of the record’s most vibrant storytelling.

The backup singing returns in the heartily percussive “Death Croons,” with this welcome auxiliary vocalizing sticking around for “Stay Cruel” as the guitar twang reemerges and with an atmospheric trumpet in tow. As the title might infer, “Ben & Lily” only intensifies the narrative aspects of Stray; what’s striking is how it and “Serafina” maintain Bambara’s power as a collective unit (it surely helps that Reid is also responsible for one third of the core instrumentation).

If there is a track that illustrates the band’s overall moves in the direction of accessibility, it’s “Made for Me” with its cascades of keyboard and woodblock percussion, though Reid’s lethargic drawl keeps matters from sinking too deep into normalcy. Contrasting, there are moments of Industrial-hued clamor in “Sweat” that harken back to some of Bambara’s earlier stuff.

But maybe Stray’s sharpest move is in how “Machete” extends the overall thrust of the preceding nine cuts without going for the hackneyed Big Finale. It’s the difference between reheated/ rehashed formula and legit inventiveness, and it concludes a fine fourth LP.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text