For those who rarely get down, there's not much comedy in sadness. Frequent visitors to melancholia, however, develop a comfort level that allows the heart to lighten, even as the weight of the world pushes it down. At that level, humor and sadness coexist, even feed off each other.
When Pall Jenkins laments “I know that you are through with me / I know that you wanna torture me” over warped desert guitar in “Heart of Darkness,” he's staring down an elegant hallway to heartbreak. But to see him croon the words in a ZZ Top beard, oversized Elton John shades and a red light palpitating on his shirt pocket, there's an element of pitiful whimsy.
“It's so sad you can almost laugh at yourself, because it's pathetic. But at the same time you're not always sad like that. So you almost need a disguise that adds comfort to the situation and lets you release it a little bit more,” Jenkins says from a weathered, wooden chair in the backyard of his Clairemont Mesa house, landscaped mostly in dirt.
Jenkins recently took over the house from his artist mother, whose skeletal sculptures stand at the edges. The whole band is gathered under the mild sun-a scene where coffee has won out over personal grooming.
Jenkins and pianist Tobias Nathaniel initiated the alternative-minded, orchestral despair of Black Heart in 1998. It was the beginning of the end for Three Mile Pilot, which featured the two along with Zack Smith, who went on to form Pinback. Black Heart was never meant to be a full project. But their haunting, atmospheric ballads-with Nathaniel's lovely piano and Jenkins' Neil Young-as-undertaker vocals-were simultaneously beautiful and awful. If Coldplay prettied up the hurt, Black Heart gave the spiritual corpse a full makeover.
Touch & Go Records, one of America's premiere underground labels, issued their first three albums. Now the cost-conscious label is dedicating more money and time to the band than ever. For good reason: their new album, Amore de Tropico, finds a newly invigorated Black Heart Procession-their patent melancholia served with a pep in the step and a clime of tropical voodoo.
“With 3 we didn't feel like we moved a step forward,” Jenkins says.
“It evolved a little>/i> bit,” Nathaniel contends.
“Yeah, but it wasn't like this big step,” Jenkins replies. “And this record, we were like, ‘Let's get our own equipment, open the studio, not name the record 4.' We made some conscious efforts to write enough songs and experiment until we feel like we're really doing something that's a step forward and different.”
Tropico is drastically different. They still echo the Buddhist call for sifting beauty from sadness. It still aches. But they've added spirit-world, feminine harmonies to back up Jenkins, and whereas on past records space itself was an instrument, Tropico carries a much more continuous beat.
“It's very dense compared to everything else,” Nathaniel says.
Jenkins agrees, contributing the album's steadier, insistent pace to the full-fledged addition of tour drummer Joe Plummer (formerly of Caustic Resin).
“Joe had just been playing the beats that we had before,” he says. “With this record, he got to write his own beats. We were all pushing ourselves a bit with different styles of playing and how we were going to approach it. We got to where Toby wasn't doing as much of the low end, it was more mid-range, high and melodic.”
“This time it was more like band songs,” Nathaniel summates.
Jenkins says the lush new sound is also a product of having their own studio in Jenkins' home, called Stereo Disguise Sound Laboratories. On past records, they recorded at Bear Creek Studios in Seattle. Contemplation meant money.
“On this one,” Jenkins says, “We had all the time we needed to fill in those little gaps.”
The best way to describe Tropico is in terms of past work: the song “It's a Crime I Never Told You About the Diamonds in Your Eyes” from their second album, 2, was the closest Black Heart came to pop music up until now. Though still haunting, it was upbeat and melodic and remains the song local and college radio stations pick up. Johnny Cash even asked permission to cover the song (nothing has surfaced yet).
On Tropico, there are multiple “Diamonds.” The band has tapped the hallucinatory orchestration that made Pink Floyd such a tuneful head trip. In fact, Tropico makes a good case that Black Heart is the Floyd of the new millennium, only more ghost town than astral plane. The full-length film they're shooting here in San Diego-a murder mystery that combines the slapstick of the Beastie Boys' “Sabotage” and David Lynch's avant film noir-furthers the comparison.
“With Three Mile Pilot, I learned to not be afraid to be pretty,” Jenkins says. “People can be afraid to be thoughtful and emotive and beautiful, things like that. You try and draw a line where you can be comfortable with that and ride that edge.”