The Southern Gothic Sound
Reviewed: Pinkish Black’s Pinkish Black
(Handmade Birds, Released May 15, 2012)
There aren’t a lot of heavy artists keen on the Southern Gothic sound, though even if there were, vocalist/keyboardist/lyricist Daron Beck and drummer Jon Teague, who together form Fort Worth’s Pinkish Black, would still be the accidental and reluctant kings of all that is Southern and nightmarish. Southern Gothic music—unceremonious death begetting poor folk begetting deteriorating, kudzu-strewn idylls, all to a soundtrack of petted acoustic guitars and heavenly harmonies—leaves only enough wandering room for certain native sons. Most musical artists bold enough to offer the listening public something more than fancy footwork and pink-bobbed wigs hew to traditional, old-timey instrumentation and arrangements to achieve that Southern Gothic sound, a species of popular music in which murder, suicide, and ghosts—and mournful riffs and solos—are underlined.
On The Handsome Family’s Through the Trees (1998), people, mainly lovers, beg to be buried, commit mutual suicide, commit suicide by drowning, commit suicide by falling down wells, or, for the love of cookies and tea, try to refrain from quoting Nietzsche in the psych ward. On The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee (2002), a jittery, damn-near punk folk record of nervously strummed acoustic guitar and frontman/songwriter John Darnielle’s agitated, sinister yelp, a husband and wife facing the end of their marriage commence drinking themselves to death after raising a little roof against the cold on Southwood Plantation Road, “Where at night the stars blow like milk across the sky / Where the high wires drop / Where the fat crows fly.”
Pinkish Black, however, is not “most musical artists.” Recorded at The Echo Lab in Denton and released in May on Denton’s Handmade Birds Records, the duo’s self-titled album is just a snapshot of the co-songwriters’ prolificacy. Beck and Teague have been performing together for about six years, previously and originally as part of The Great Tyrant, whose bassist, Tommy Atkins, committed suicide in the winter of 2010—Beck and Teague mourned their friend’s death by throwing themselves even further into their music, pounding out an almost entirely new set of material for a pre-scheduled show a month after Atkins’s passing. (The Great Tyrant’s only album, There’s a Man in the House, was released last year on Fort Worth’s Dada Drumming. Another Great Tyrant album may be on the way.)
As with a Gothic tome of yore, authenticity comes into question on Pinkish Black—that molten bass line gurgling throughout the album is not Atkins’s posthumous handiwork but keyboardist Beck’s. Onstage, with his shoulder-length dark hair, aquiline features, and pale complexion, the Pinkish Black front man cuts the profile of either a Victorian-era serial killer or a vampire (though, in person, he’s as affable and relatively normal as can be). He’s a natural foil to the bespectacled, shorthaired, sinewy Teague. Onstage and in the studio, Beck’s voice, a baritone alternately operatic and angry, serves as another instrument, dripping with reverb and buried in the mix, which isn’t necessarily listener-friendly, considering the elegantly macabre content of the lyrics. Though the duo avoids balladry, a couple of tracks could be classified as such, especially the first song, “Bodies in Tow,” perhaps Southern Gothic music’s first mass-murder ballad.
From a single glowing synth line, the song erupts into a funereal churn, a tank in slow motion, drummer Teague smashing his ride with his right hand as if slowly hammering a nine-inch nail and with his left skipping out a semi-militaristic beat on the snare. A synthetic siren wails. “Ambling on to the dawn, to the morning, frozen in time, a life never ending, standing in line counting time, move along these bodies in tow,” Beck sings, his voice distant and hollow, somehow managing to cram all of the words into a single line but in no way rushing them. Onward the song marches, coming to a full stop around the last minute for Beck’s keyboard to spiral down the rabbit hole. The twinkling continues as Teague shifts into third gear, giving Beck room to stretch his pipes. By the end of the song, the singer is simply crooning, a zombie Barry Manilow.
The most traditionally structured song is “Everything Went Dark,” a thundering, orchestral jaunt pivoting on a simple two-note keyboard refrain—dooo DAAA dooo DAAA—two ’50s-era B-movie laser guns firing in different directions. Elegant figures and pure pop artistry are never far away—the crescendo to “Passerby” soars like some show tune, and glorious heights are scaled at the end of the album’s most obsidian, frightful track, “Fall Down.” But the pop flourishes don’t last long. As any student of the Gothic knows, darkness reigns, and even when the first notes to “Tastes like Blood” drip out of the speakers—just some slow piano chords and Beck’s otherworldly moaning—you can feel the homicidal ghosts of the South crowding around you. Boom. The song explodes into bashed cymbals and that roiling, growling bass line, with a supersonic synth-scape hovering above and with Beck, at his most bloodthirsty, screaming, “I ran away from home again / I went to taste the fruit of life / It tastes like blooooooood! It tastes like blooooooood! It tastes like blooooooood! It tastes like blooooooood!”
The final track, “Against the Door,” could be seen as a paean to Atkins, starting with a rumbling bass line, matched in intensity only by Teague’s iron drumsticks—he’s pounding his snare, high-hat, and kick demonically. Beck, his voice smooth and resonant, almost hymnal, sings, “He lives no more / Leaning against the door / He’s gone / Goodbye.” The song breaks down into just bass and drums—before The Great Tyrant, Teague and Atkins played together in another prog-goth outfit, Yeti—and Beck solos on the keys, taking an eerie, cinematic run. “Against the Door” swells to a maelstrom of stomping noise before ending suddenly, not totally unexpectedly but unexpectedly still. A few people might have seen it coming.