Tim Cohen sits at a table cutting up playing cards.
The Black Fiction vocalist-guitarist-songwriter has convinced himself that the meaty torsos of every jack, queen, and king are spelling out something big. He flings the disembodied heads into a pile and arranges the stately bodies to spell out Black Fiction Ghost Ride. Across the table keyboardist Joe Roberts is gathering the heads. Arranging the sovereign noggins into a gruesome and fantastical pile, Roberts sketches out the story: it is Raphael the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle who has cut off these heads, and he stands over his trophies, his sais dripping red. Ghost Ride (Howells Transmitter), the debut from San Francisco's Black Fiction, wins points for whimsically macabre album art.
They've been called everything from "the Arcade Fire on a peyote-laced vision quest" (FlavorPill SF) to "pop music for little kids on acid" (an audience member). It seems that Black Fiction are simply too wriggly to rest under any thumb or umbrella. Online reviewers are drowning in genre jargon — psych-soul, freak folk — and struggling to wrap reason around the light that Ghost Ride emits.
I caught up with Cohen on his lunch break from Amoeba Music in San Francisco to get his take on the response. "I'd hate for someone to have an idea of what they are going to hear and not be open to us sounding like something else," he said. In one sweeping sentence Cohen nailed it. Black Fiction is "something else." Or to make it snarky, if you please, "else-fi." The plain truth is that it is difficult to speak for this album because it speaks so loudly for itself — though it may be speaking in tongues.
The apocalyptic "Great Mystery" plucks, bounces, and drags at once, ripening with lyrical delicacies like "Farmers in the fields will grow the world's weight in corn/ We will cream it for the babies that have yet to be born/ We will leave it in the sewers for the rats and the worms/ We will store it in the cupboards for the coming storm."
"Carry Him Away" feels as urgent and hopeless as rushing into a tidal wave before it slams down on top of you. The harmonica- and glockenspiel-laced tune taunts with the invasively ironic refrain of "music is a terrible thing." The phrase might not be so tongue-in-cheek, considering that Cohen, Black Fiction's primary songwriter, has some reservations about music industry conventions.
For starters, the notorious multi-instrumentalist has a flimsy history of formal musical training. "Basically, if I can figure out how to make a sound on an instrument, I can figure out how to play it," Cohen explained before deadpanning, "I can play the recorder as well as any eight-year-old." Conservatory learning isn't the only grain Cohen is going against. October will bring a minitour stretching over parts of California, but the year-old band — which includes percussionists Jon Bernson and Jason Chavez, multi-instrumentalist Anthony Marin, and bassist Evan Martin — is being patient about planning a longer route. "If we are going to tour, we want to do it right," said the bandleader. "You need to know about the evils of the industry and guard yourself from them. I have a lot of apprehensions about asking people to help us out — I don't do a lot of schmoozing. I'm a musician at heart, and that's all I want to do."
The tracks of Ghost Ride were painstakingly recorded on a Tascam 388, a reel-to-reel eight-track. The idea was borrowed from local songwriter Kelley Stoltz, who recorded Antique Glow on the same machine. The 388 is unique because it is essentially an entire sound console complete with EQ built into an easily transportable recorder. "I appreciate the qualities of analog recording over digital," Cohen explained. "Digital recording isn't as challenging — you can just cut and paste your stuff together." As I upload the tracks of Ghost Ride into the inner sanctum of my iPod mini, my cheeks begin to sweat a bitter taste of shame — I can only ascribe it to the way an amateur wine connoisseur must feel after plopping a few ice cubes into a well-crafted sauvignon blanc.
Live, Black Fiction take the form of a whirling dervish minstrel show. Intensely cerebral and bubbling over with epileptic grace, the album projects a whimsical playfulness in full force onstage. They will melt off your musical preconceptions. You will run to the merchandise stand to buy this album.
They toppled Noise Poppers last year like a house of vandalized playing cards, leaving the audience with the same "what the hell just happened?" epiphany that early Velvet Underground and Talking Heads audiences must have felt. Black Fiction are laying down some new bricks. I can't wait to see where they lead. SFBG
With Tussle and the Dry Spells
Sat/26, 9 p.m.
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF