Love Songs, Nothing But Love Songs

THE PLACE OF the broken-hearted love song in pop music is rivaled only by that of its evil twin, the happy love song. They dance along a vertical axis ranging from the heights of joy to the depths of pain. But what goes up must inevitably come down, and the physics of romance produces far more (and better) sad songs than happy ones, no less in indie-pop than in opera or the blues. Still, while most bands write a few good tunes to cry along with when love walks out the door, singer Pall A. Jenkins and keyboardist Tobias Nathaniel of the appropriately named San Diego band The Black Heart Procession have made the exploration of this experience their raison d'être.

Both Jenkins and Nathaniel are also members of the underrated, bass-driven pop band Three Mile Pilot. For their darker incarnation in the Procession, Mario Rubalcaba joins them on drums, and assorted instrumentalists accompany them on tour; the entire ensemble will play Saturday at Minneapolis's 400 Bar. This little circle creates addictive, monumentally indulgent post-folk dirges. They sound a bit like Smog or Calexico if either had a country bone in its skeleton. And the band's sophomore album on Touch and Go, 2 (following last year's 1), employs a few basic melodic elements--guitar, organ, Jenkins's reedy voice--to similarly moody ends. Using the incidental sounds of swirling wind, creaking hinges, and rolling thunder, the band and producer Ryan Hadlock give the album the atmosphere of a haunted house in a dust bowl. And to vary the texture, Jenkins and Nathaniel select from an unusual array of instruments: a thereminlike saw, a toy piano, a waterphone (that is, a water-filled vase played with a cello bow).

Not Joan Jett's rock: The Black Heart Procession
Not Joan Jett's rock: The Black Heart Procession

Unlike Leonard Cohen, another good choice for stereophiles who don't want to feel better yet, Jenkins leaves out names and avoids any other story-telling specifics that might prevent listeners from slipping into his characters' skins. On both albums, the only people he introduces are an unspecified "you" and "me"--"you" ostensibly being the cause of all the pain felt by "me." The exception is a figure, labeled "The Waiter," who stars in a three-part, three-song tale of the same title, which overlaps both albums (the first chapter opens 1, the second and third bookend 2). This lost soul waits for his lover "in a cabin where it's cold," because she once told him, "I'll be there...when the snow thaws." But by the end of 2, he can't stand it any longer and goes looking for her, only to fall into the snow. "If I'm so far from your heart," Jenkins and Nathaniel sing, "Why do I feel it beat?" The scene is both affecting and shamelessly over the top--laughable, even.

"Eventually, we had to start laughing at ourselves," Jenkins admits over the phone from a tour stop in Texas. "You know, when you're really sad and crying, and all of a sudden you have to laugh because you're so pathetic. So there's sarcasm and humor there, directed at ourselves." True enough--even on 1 the band's humor took the form of including the word heart in seven out of eleven song titles. And when touring, the Procession can take its funereal emotionalism to comic extremes. Depending on how many friends are available to help out on the varied instruments, two to seven people sit onstage in near-darkness, with a small, flashing red light pinned over Jenkins's heart. Now that's black humor.

 

The Black Heart Procession will perform Saturday at the 400 Bar, opening for June of 44; (612) 332-2903.

 
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