I’m not sure I could come up with a worse scenario for a band than having one of its players pass away while the group was touring, but that’s sadly what occurred in September 2014 when Lorein Bourne, a.k.a. Styx and drummer for Portland, Oregon-based and self-proclaimed “garunge” duo Dark Oz, died of complications from Turner Syndrome after a show in Missoula, Montana. Given the nature of this group, which had started out as a solo acoustic project for singer/songwriter Francis Gehman before expanding into a more punk-influenced two-piece in 2013, one might think this loss would mark the end of the project, but Gehman has followed through and released the album he and Styx had finished shortly before her unfortunate passing. Though the release, a pirate-themed EP entitled simply ¡Piratas!, would perhaps be too rough around the edges for many, it’s strangely hypnotic and full of compelling lyrics, one of the most remarkable things I’ve encountered all year.
Made up of one single, 25-minute track, ¡Piratas! is meant to be listened to in one sitting and kicks off with a neo-sea shanty simply called “Pirate Song.” With Gehman singing in as raspy and gravelly a voice as he can muster, the tune is told from the perspective of a seemingly vile buccaneer and, perhaps appropriately, starts off with a thumping drum beat from Styx before Latin-flavored mandolin and intermittent snarling guitar lines join in. The lyrics here (and honestly, throughout the album) are clever, often amusing, and sometimes surreal; I don’t think ¡Piratas! is that far removed from what Jeff Mangum (of Neutral Milk Hotel) accomplished on the frequently-overlooked and underappreciated On Avery Island.
The album continues with "Lithium Sky," an obviously punk-influenced track pushed along by a crisp drum beat that occasionally lets loose with noisy, guitar-driven solo sections. Gehman’s vocals are more rhythmic than tuneful and the song has a definite intensity to it, eventually giving way to a swaying, much slower soft rock number. Punctuated by guiro scrapes, tambo shakes, and tinkling glockenspiel, "Blanket" is tinged with melancholy, suggestive of a pirate recalling the good old days as he sits haggard and defeated on a beach at sunset, and features gentle, lazy guitar and breathy, more delicate vocals.
Undoubtedly the highlight moment on the album is a lengthy, quietly grandiose track titled “The Tempest." Beginning as a somber, folk-rock track that recalls the quiet moments of Pink Floyd’s classic albums, the song contains utterly fascinating lyrics that weave an extremely compelling narrative, becoming especially poignant and significantly haunting during a stanza which describes a sailor’s penchant for going for broke then ends with the devastating line “But one day the sails will fly / For you at half mast.” From here, the track transitions into a mournful yet slightly optimistic, agonizingly-paced instrumental break before a final section finds layers of hazy guitar being heard over plunking piano. The tone of the album takes a dramatic turn on the brief "Big Top," which harkens back to the arena rock of the late ‘70s with squealing guitar placed alongside a thrashing drum beat, and ¡Piratas! finishes with a slower, power ballad-like track called "Crystal Ship."
Truth be told, there are a few moments on ¡Piratas! that sound a bit awkward, as if the players couldn’t quite nail down transitions between different sections, and while this combined with the occasionally sparse arrangement might make the album a hit-or-miss listen for many people, I thought these moments of imperfection actually added to its charm. There’s some really nice instrumentation found here, and I rather liked the fact that the album sounds like the work of only two players – a sharp contrast to the approach of many modern rock duos who try and make themselves sound “bigger” than they actually are. Certainly, it’s the lyrics and songwriting that are the true standout elements of Dark Oz’s work, and I sincerely hope that Gehman continues to make music in some capacity. ¡Piratas! won’t be to all tastes, but it’s a singular listening experience that I’d label as a sleeper choice for one of the year’s best.
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