Tragic Animal Stories
ANY COLLEGE ROCKER worth his bachelor's degree will sooner or later head wide-eyed in search of postgrad sound adventures. Few, though, will be as well equipped to handle a musical career beyond the walls of Ivy as Eric Bachmann, maestro behind the one-person pop ensemble Barry Black. It shouldn't surprise us: Bachmann's main gig, Chapel Hill's Archers of Loaf, has always exhibited an aptitude for making music that transcends its indie-rock pedigree. Besides, Bachmann had the advantage of spending his college years in music school. While most were chugging down Pearl Jam, Eric sipped Stravinsky.
Bachmann's first steps outside the Archers' conventional four-man rock thing came in 1995 with Barry Black's self-titled debut, a patchwork of spare-time recordings with local North Carolina musicians (Ben Folds), producer Caleb Southern, and a host of random scenesters. Though too informal and unassuming to assert itself as anything but a lark, the record was an unexpected gem of eccentric pop that revealed compositional talents Bachmann had only hinted at in his other band. Fortunately, Bachmann deemed his sideshow worthy of further exploration.
So we have Barry Black's follow-up, Tragic Animal Stories, a more formal, self-conscious affair. Taking time to more fully script and sculpt the arrangements, Bachmann cashes in on some of the skills he learned in orchestration class. With a blend of instruments both classical (strings, horns, woodwinds, piano) and modern (guitars, percussion, tape loops), he paints each of the 10 tracks in a rich and distinct (and smartly playful) hue. Plodding tubas motivate "Dueling Elephants"; an ominous violin sounds "When Sharks Smell Blood"; synth washes and distant whale-call vocals start the "Tropical Fish Revival"; and so on. The results are like Peter and the Wolf done by a mythical Brian Wilson Chamber Group. Even when Bachmann strings together avant styles in the form of fond references to Satie's piano figures, Cage's exotic percussion, and Eno's static ambiance, the pieces are consistently generous to modern pop tastes. In fact, they're fucking delightful.
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