Reviews Oxbow The Narcotic Story

Oxbow

The Narcotic Story

It’s impossible for me to give The Narcotic Story a fair review. As the liner notes state: “This does not mark the actual conclusion of THE NARCOTIC STORY but merely the first in a triptych that will later include a full-length film of the same name, as well as a soundtrack release for said film. We hope your level of interest affords you the luxury of a continued patronage.”

That level of consumer commitment might be too much for a band like Oxbow to ask of its audience. Consider the tale of Garth Brooks: the wireless-mic’d, acoustic-guitar-smashing country superstar had the pop cachet in the late 1990s to launch an ambitious, meta-musical project starring alter ego “Chris Gaines” (with a separate, hard rock identity conveyed by the bangs dangling over his dark, brooding eyes). But that foray fell flat, as Brooks retired Gaines, got a divorce, and retired from touring. If Garth Brooks couldn’t successfully execute such a grand multimedia project, what chance does Oxbow have?

But Oxbow, like Harrison Ford in Star Wars, should never be told the odds. As guitarist Niko Wenner heroically put it towards the end of Christian Anthony’s great documentary For Adults: A Film About a Band Called Oxbow: “All we do with money is shove it in a big hole, light it on fire and call it Oxbow."

What kind of a band is Oxbow, anyway? Should I trot out all the old clichés? Is it enough to say that they’re the kind of band that chokes hecklers unconscious and gives their albums titles like King of the Jews and Fuckfest? Should I talk about their pit fighting, intellectual frontman Eugene Robinson, a self-confessed “fightaholic” who in the aforementioned documentary gives advice on smuggling simple, hand-held weaponry through airport security (after 9/11, no less)?

I shouldn’t, because in the end all that colorful material is also, at the same time, immaterial. Even the forthcoming documentary and soundtrack are immaterial; my job is to evaluate this record. But that’s also the good news, because on The Narcotic Story, Oxbow sound as self-assured, focused, and dangerous as ever.

To the connoisseur this might feel like a more streamlined or even pared down incarnation of Oxbow: the songs no longer struggle and strain against their restraints like kidnapped children, but instead snap to attention like well-trained attack dogs. Highlights: “Down a Stair Backward” and “A Winner Every Time,” both earmarked by jerky, seesawing guitar that seethes with a kind of horrifying inevitability; and the sighing, oddly beautiful album centerpiece “She’s a Find”, which has a starry twinkle usually not visible from the swampy muck within the Oxbow county line.

Even Robinson’s unhinged vocals seem new somehow. Part of what’s always made Robinson so intimidating is the raw nerve vulnerability of his singing, which is at the forefront more than ever on this album. Given a long enough timeline, his exertions don’t sound so strange anymore, but unsettlingly familiar, like the voice you hear in your weakest moments. And The Narcotic Story is the kind of album that reveals itself more with each listen, as you realize how well all of its oddly-shaped parts and appendages fit together. The Narcotic Story is a carefully modulated and concise statement, and as such there’s nothing here on the order of the annihilating “Shine (Glimmer)”, the transdimensional closing track from An Evil Heat. But there are still plenty of untold riches.

And so, this album marks another notch on the bedpost of the cash-burning, international horrorshow that is Oxbow, another chapter in one of modern music’s most deranged and cathartic sagas. I’d like to say that this is the album that will bring this bold, imaginative band the fame and fortune they so richly deserve, but of course that’d be a lie. Oxbow will never move the amount of product of a Garth Brooks, or even a Chris Gaines. But those personalities will also never win the kind of moral victories that are standard fare for Oxbow. And if we’re lucky, this band will keep the fire in their money pit burning until there's nothing left, or until it grows so big it destroys us all. Whichever comes first.

9.2 / 10Jon
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