Baby's in Black
Black Heart Procession's bleak beauty
By Greg Cahill
WHAT CAME FIRST, John Cusack pondered in the opening scene of the romance-and-record store film High Fidelity, the music or the misery? For Pall Jenkins, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with Black Heart Procession, the heartache definitely preceded his latest musical manifestation.
Just don't ask the 30-year-old Southern California musician to reminisce about the essence of his personal hell. "I don't talk about that in interviews," he says curtly, during a phone interview from his San Diego home.
Pregnant pause. Next question.
Crying about a broken heart is nothing new in pop music, but the Black Heart Procession's dark, haunting atmospherics have elevated that pastime to high art that is singularly appealing to critics and fans alike mesmerized by the band's introspective minor-chord melodies, lyrical lamentations, and experimental sounds. Indeed, the brooding soundscapes on the band's latest CD, Three (Touch and Go), include guitarist/singer Jenkins wailing on a musical saw (that sounds like the scraping of a metal shovel over a tombstone), and Tobias Nathaniel's funereal pump organ, searing synthesizers, and surreal waterphone. Two tracks feature thunderstorms in the rhythm section.
The result--once described as somewhere between Hank Williams and Twin Peaks--is as dark and deep as Dostoyevsky's existential abyss, as mesmerizing as a car wreck. It is chilling balladry in the best tradition of Nick Cave and Tom Waits.
It's also a beautifully bleak depiction of life that prompts critics to wax poetic. "Black Heart Procession capture the utter disillusionment of innocence lost, that piercing, heart-wrenching moment when you first realized that the bright colors of the circus were simply a mask of the patched-together shambles of the circus life," the Seattle-based music magazine the Rocket once opined, "and all you could do was cry."
And where does Jenkins--who spends his more upbeat moments touring and recording with the alt-rock band 3-Mile Pilot--get his inspiration for these sad odes? "I'm feeling so uninspired right now," he says with the barest hint of a laugh. "I wish I knew what inspired me right now. For the most part, the songs just come from everyday life--you know, just looking around at things and being annoyed at them."
More often than not, those observations lend themselves to arresting tales of bitter regret. But, Jenkins adds, he's not ready for antidepressants--yet.
"I'm not like suicidal and walking around thinking dark thoughts all the time," he demurs. "My life isn't so horrible. Actually, everything's fine."
From the January 25-31, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.