Free birds

Pub date March 5, 2008
WriterNathan Baker
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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George Sheehan, in his best-selling 1975 book of jogging-inspired philosophy, Running and Being: The Total Experience (Second Wind II), describes the endurance runner as being "twice born." The second life is the runner’s internal struggle — a gauntlet of pain, failure, and disappointment that ultimately becomes the necessary condition for hope. While not exactly an advertisement for sneakers, Sheehan’s maxim illustrates something important about the Black Swans: they aren’t the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down; they’re the medicine itself, a soulful salve pursuing internal aberrations because there’s something redemptive in their delivery, something undeniably good for you.

For his own part, songwriter Jerry DiCicca isn’t a runner. "I’m a relentless pacer," he confesses in an e-mail interview, "and a bad chess player," proving that the author of such doleful laments as "Who Will Walk in the Darkness with You" is not without humor after all. In fact, he’s far from a self-absorbed, journal-burning auteur. "I really care about the words, but I’m pretty sure if I moaned the menu of White Castle in a minor key backed by Noel [Sayre]’s violin, the effect wouldn’t be much different for most people."

It has been a bearish couple of years for the Black Swans. In late 2006 they released Sex Brain (Bwatue), an EP’s worth of variations on themes of a venal nature. After touring and getting "weirded out by some small labels that acted gross," they were able to remix a record originally made in 2005, and Change! (La Société Expéditionnaire) found its way into the light last November.

As we have learned, sustained struggle can be illuminating, so to call Change! a dark record is to deny its resolve, its reconciliation with psychic disfigurement. Melancholy airs are staked by arrangements that patiently wait on DiCicca’s mossy cant — "I sound like a narcoleptic caveman," he writes. On "Hope Island" he seems at peace with isolation so pure that it could have been the one true condition of his life. "Shake," a laconic waltz whose delicate piano figure trades with ocean-size guitar surges and Sayre’s tawny violin, exemplifies one of the band’s most enduring strengths: space — a slowly passing landscape that allows for breathing room and time to think. The Desire-era Dylan vibe comes courtesy of Sayre, who channels Scarlet Rivera better than anyone in or outside of Columbus, Ohio.

DiCicca is no Dylan dilettante. Last fall he lectured a 500-level class at Ohio State University on the bard’s career between Infidels (Columbia, 1983) and Time out of Mind (Columbia, 1997). He passed out pretzel rods to the class because, he writes, "I like to eat pretzels when I listen to Bob." Does he have further aspirations in the ivory tower? "I’m hardly a scholar," he observes, "just a semi-autistic windbag that convinced a professor otherwise."

Three records into their discography — Who Will Walk in the Darkness with You came out in 2004 on the Delmore Recording Society imprint — the Black Swans have proved their craftsmanship, one that does not feel overparented or overdetermined. Enter the artwork on the vinyl versions of Change!, each of which sports a custom sleeve painted by artists at ARC North, a Creativity Explored–like art studio for people with disabilities in Columbus. "I’ve purchased paintings by ARC artists because they seem freer, with less mimicry," writes DiCicca. "That’s what I aspire to — well, who wouldn’t?" On a recent visit to Aquarius Records, the bins offered a copy whose palate of serene colors — cornflower, aquamarine, a touch of navy — are swirled violently onto the paper, leaving gauzy, haphazard brushstrokes. A storm has come to a tranquil sea — or has just gone.


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