Oxbow's absence (from releasing LPs at least) has been so lengthy that there's a whole generation of listeners whose first exposure will be this year's forceful return. For dedicated fans, Thin Black Duke was a long time coming. While it didn't quite enter the realms of the Chinese Democracies of the world, this record was named and spoken of well before its public actualization, creating an ongoing sense of uncertainty. Years passed with occasional appearances and the release of the fantastic semi-live release, Songs for the French, but you'd be forgiven for losing your patience. As The Duke himself (simultaneously a composite of frontman Eugene Robinson and also somehow not entirely frontman Eugene Robinson) intimates in the album's opening track, "everything around here comes for a fee." Time may be money, but these years have been worth their weight in gold (or at least a gold edition of their newest album) when it comes to Oxbow's work.
So far we've touched on anticipation and delivery. These factors play into hype, but not the record itself. Here, and presumably anywhere art is discussed, the heart of the album is what matters most. Thankfully, the waters Oxbow treads are still teeming with the tension that has run throughout their career, yet it's refined in a new way. The band's capacity to forever sound familiar without repeating themselves would lend itself too easily to a lightning-strike analogy, yet there's something more calculated than the chaos many are quick to assign to the band. After nearly thirty years, approximately ten of which were spent plotting the art rock majesty of this newest offering, it's impossible to write anything off as accident or good fortune. Instead, this is the sound of restlessness and endless reworking and revitalization. Oxbow may be well in control, but there's a frustration coursing through these songs. Its roots may vary by the member, but the universal outcome is the same: occasionally explosive qualities in the hands of musicians competent enough to know that turning it up to eleven the whole damn time spoils the thrill of cutting loose.
None of this is to say that they've mellowed out. Aside from the obvious knowledge that Oxbow's always tempered unholy racket with clever melody and sparse structure, this is simply the most, well, well-lit display of their masterful dynamic. While The Narcotic Story was so heavy with strings and cinematic bombast that it felt like a film, Thin Black Duke streamlines itself so that all the heft is present but in a much leaner, more vibrant fashion. Muscle and grit take the forefront in rocking and moving sections of songs like "A Gentleman's Gentleman," but the expressive percussion and melting horns of "Other People" feel just as exhilarating and gripping in their own way. The thrill is almost at its highest when Oxbow deviates from expectation. These wanderings aren't flights of fancy, they're distinctly misleading, leaving even the most seasoned listener blindsided by the shifts and sways. By the crawling end of "The Finished Line," one can only hope we'll be led off again by Oxbow sooner than 2027.
PR for this album was handled by Motormouth Media