Artists like Scott Walker, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave are often commended for their eccentric tendencies; their music is entirely one-of-a-kind, as thematically engrossing through narrative idiosyncrasies as their musical accompaniments are haunting. Every component sticks with the listener, granting their music a radical enigma despite never venturing into shock value or explicit fervor. Their willingness to venture into the darkest corners of life with such a genuinely unique perspective is the reason for this. The no-frills approach apparent in many of their most intimate works (see Cave’s The Boatman’s Call or Waits’ Bone Machine) relies more on grim reality than desperately concocted stock characters and fantasies. All are lyrical geniuses in their own right, the type that always relied on the concept of an album rather than the snapshot appeal of singles. Their full-lengths unfold with intricate precision and always maintain the intimate themes that are initially presented. And in the case of a sudden revelatory transition, no one does it better or more cohesively than this trio – aptly titled, the dark storybook songwriters.
Contemporary artists like The National, The Mountain Goats, and recently The Antlers are groups that have these artists’ best interests at heart. They have mastered the art of dark, grimy, and gothic-infused atmospheres at this point in their careers, even if their music remains more accessible and less dense than artists like Walker, Waits, and Cave. Their delivery – generally a collection of indie-rock and folk influences – is less ambitious and nowhere near as prolific. Still, no one is going to listen to The Antlers’ Hospice and deny that it is as emotionally-charged and thematically dense than anything in the dark storybook catalog. The presence of one individual artist rather than an entire band (a recent trend for the approach) makes the gritty personalization of a Tom Waits or Nick Cave much stronger on a prolific level, but even longtime fans of them can agree that the latest crop of their influenced indie-rock offspring brings some interesting ideas to the album. They are perhaps not as innovative or groundbreaking, but interesting and wholly satiating nonetheless.
One aspect in this vein that goes overlooked is the extreme difficulty of entering the niche. These are groups with little radio appeal despite cult followings, who are often listeners with a strong emphasis on how musical content and lyrical wordplay communicate and affect one another. The beautifully abundant imagery throughout Waits’ “Kentucky Avenue”, a vivid recollection of childhood memories fresh in his memory, is lifted by a minimalistic and nostalgic piano melody that is gradually accompanied by exhilarating strings that grow in intensity with Waits’ croaking voice. “I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs,” he sings during the strings’ emotive peak. “And we’ll bury them tonight in the corn field.” That line was written about Waits’ childhood best friend, who had polio. He was commenting on the power of innocence. Not knowing what polio was – or the fact it had no clear cure – gave he and his friend a sense of hope, one that is impossible for “knowledgeable” adults to acquire. In that sense, the concept of actual knowledge is subjective. This is echoed in this precise instance within the song, which through a collaborative lyrical and musical tour-de-force is able to capture both a memory and learning experience that few artists alive are able to convey.
Of course, setting oneself up to be the next Tom Waits is over-ambitious. After all, few people are both poets and musicians with the depth and scope of one Tom Waits or Nick Cave. There are those that are certainly as promising though, especially when you consider they are at an early stage in their careers. The Overcoat is a promising example of the next wave of dark storybook influences. A West Virginia-based trio fronted by the sullen vocals of Andrew Slater, their self-titled EP (available for free here) touts the same gothic devices as Nick Cave, the small-town secrets of Tom Waits and David Lynch, and the infectious rock and folk-infused fury of recent hybrids – like The National, Man Man, and The Antlers. The Overcoat call their music “an urgent, threadbare reminder of the angst and tedium of modern life”, an apt description especially for efforts like “Kid’s Bones” and “Fantasies” that dwell on everything from neglect and conspired death to divorce.
Dark indie-rock would be an easy label for The Overcoat, but their songs have more depth than the tag may suggest. “Simple Man” is heralded by screeching strings that somehow inject a climactic beauty, albeit one filled with chaos, into touching commentary about individuality (or the lack thereof). The crunchy guitar riffs present in “Fantasies” immediately brings out those Nick Cave comparisons, the realistically gritty lyrics enforcing this. “If only my pops packed his bags, absconded with his porno mags / In divorce court there’d be no white flags,” he sings. “At home my mom would make drinks for her dates / They’d wait and wink while she picked out a negligee.” The amount of angst and pain is prevalent enough to send chills down your spine, especially when a line like this precedes a very polished and affective guitar solo: “If only I were locked up in a cellar somewhere without food / And all my captors burnt me with their cigarettes and stripped me nude / Three months later cops would show and neighbors and the news crews.”
Other tracks, like the jazzy percussion and acoustical sparkle of “Barn Burning” or the morbidly epic folk of “Kid’s Bones”, are not nearly as accessible but pack similar lyrical depth. The Overcoat is a brilliantly moody release filled with many like this. If you want your jaw to drop again, check out the final minute of “Kid’s Bones”; the incorporation of Celtic and classical influences make for an utterly genius conclusion. The artistic prowess throughout resembles the awe-inspiring talent of the dark storybook songwriters that surely influenced this excellent album. That The Overcoat managed to infuse such dark themes and effective atmosphere into a variety of musical contexts, from slowly chugging creep-folk to jangly string-aided anthems, is perhaps the most impressive thing about their self-titled release. I’m not sure though; there’s just so much to appreciate.
You can download The Overcoat for free at the group’s Bandcamp. It is HIGHLY recommended.
RIYL: Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Scott Walker, The National, Man Man, The Antlers, The Mountain Goats, Akron/Family, Islands, Grizzly Bear, Interpol, Frightened Rabbit, The Birthday Party, Grinderman, Crime & the City Solution, Leonard Cohen, Tindersticks, Mark Lanegan, The Velvet Underground, Placebo