Brooklyn’s Pearl and the Beard are a brave trio. They declaim where others mumble, roar where others mew, rhapsodize where others explain, and dash, scramble, mince, or stomp where others feel pressure to merely stroll. Their music gives full breath to a romantic abandon, a cinematic melodrama that hasn’t been hip in a long time, and thanks to their practiced hands and golden throats, they manage to make you love it. Their first release, God Bless Your Weary Soul, Amanda Richardson, made a lot of music writers use the word “gamut,”* and not without cause – between their voices, their scope, and their genre, this band is all about range. Consult “Vessel,”** their stark, high-drama monologue of a doomed sailor amidst siren calls, or the audacious, heroic reverie “O, Death!” for proof. The word “Warm” shows up a lot, too, and for good reason – the love songs on God Bless are comfy, cuddlesome things, borne on sweet, expectant boy-girl harmony and counterpoint, awash with hope and doubt. Brings me to some unforeseen novelties in their newest release -
Killing the Darlings finds Pearl and the Beard grittier, grander, and – get this – hornier.
It’s strange – in the chronology of a trio of singer-songwriters one might expect to see the heaving downplayed as time wears on, but not so here – the trio’s sex drive sees a Indian summer on Darlings in three distinct come-ons:
First – the kinetic, crackling “Sweetness,” wherein Guitarist Jeremy Styles, all confectionary murmur and creamy falsetto, gives wolfish chase in a city that refuses to commit to a single key, leading him from chord to chord asweat with longing. Cellist Emily Hope Price grits the song’s teeth with a ticking staccato bass line while Percussionist Jocelyn MacKenzie trips up the poor stumbling protagonist with timpanic rolls on her big floor tom, all three oooing like libidinous poltergeists into the muted outro.
Next, the naughty, delightfully queer “Douglas, Douglass” – wherin the apparently well-endowed Douglas is compared to a series of trees amidst disparaging comments about his wife and amusing catcalls (“I’ma dip you in my bowl!” holler the girls, “I just gots to plant your seed,” offers Styles) Musically, it’s sparse and rousing – stomps, claps, and vocals, with the eventual addition of swinging snare, tom, tambourine, and – exclusive to the album version – a horn section. Live, they usually manage to carry this song off in front of the stage, in the middle of the audience, which is completely consistent with how fun it is.
Finally, the smoldering and aptly named “Hot Volcano:” Price takes the lead here, swept up in a panting, burlesque appeal to some bad homunculus who has her “laughing at the reaper” to “tie me up, scoop me out all hollow.” The song – not by accident, I shouldn’t think – climaxes thrice. Price once revealed that “Volcano’s” ragtime tendencies and rubato swells were inspired by Greensboro act Holy Ghost Tent Revival, a revelation for which I am offering our town a hearty high five.
It’s not all about sex, of course, on Darlings. Sometimes, as in the instance of “The Lament of Coronado Brown,” it’s about having to keep your mouth shut against the thrumming of your soul. “They won’t know,” declares Price, “that I love you,” while the band sets up a mournful march in 3/4. The dichotomy of the song is the thing that makes it distinctly Pearl and the Beardian: On one hand, Price’s brassy, heroic melisma under Styles and MacKenzie’s high blown harmonies puts the protagonist singing on a mountaintop, yet on the other hand, the pizzicato angst of routine and the silence of his objective, all to do with stifling, swallowing, and choking, place his hands firmly and irrevocably in his coat pockets. It’s a ravishing tragedy, and ends humbly in a forced smile.
Not insignificant is the power of setting in Pearl and The Beard’s arrangement of songs. One can be sure, for instance, that “Sweetness” occurs at night, downtown. Listen to it and tell me I’m wrong. On the same token, to hear the banjo at the end of MacKenzie’s achingly sweet “Prodigal Daughter” is to find oneself on some rural back porch as the sun sets. Most significantly, and perhaps a little more obviously, though, The Black Hole of Calcutta, the album’s last song, puts you right alongside the 145 sweaty doomed of the song’s titular tiny dungeon, where, on June 19th, 1756, 123 prisoners are said to have died overnight due variously to crushing, heat stroke, or asphyxiation. Price plays solo pizzicato cello on this one, accompanied by Styles and MacKenzie only humming. The song is sparse, almost deathly silent at certain junctures, and intimate enough for the listener to hear Price draw breath as she coaxes the instrumental bridge out of her cello. It’s bluesy, too, which is a statement I like – when you’re shoved into a dungeon meant for four with 144 of your fellows without water or hope, your angst isn’t going to pick an unconventional chord structure – you’ve just got the blues. Nonetheless, it soars like any good PaTB song should, with the narrator screaming his beloved’s name (“Emmy!”) at a fast fading pinhole of light, packed, no doubt, between others thinking the exact same blues. Warm, once more, gives way to hot.
There’s more to say about this album, because there isn’t a weak track on it. Jocelyn Mackenzie’s uncanny ear for melodic and lyrical counterpoint supported by her positively avian voice and playful glockenspiel will sneak up on you throughout the album and impart the most delicious chills – see, for instance, the second verse of “Jasper Christmas.” There are pages, I’m sure, to be written regarding the heartbreaking “Swimming” or the rollicking opener “Reverend,” or how they’ve turned down the reverb and turned up the fuzz, but instinct tells me to truncate this before I start gushing. Suffice it to say that this is a fine album indeed, and that you can get it here.
*Gamut apparently originally meant the range of a scale in medieval music. Did you know that? I didn’t know that.
**”Vessel” is actually two songs, in a way. There’s the track on “God Bless” wherein Styles takes the role of the sailor and Price and MacKenzie that of the siren, and the title track on their subsequent EP “Black Vessel,” wherein they all sing together in a steady, Samuel Barberesque build. The difference is profound, and the horror is effectively depicted in each, but the former’s is a horror of the unknown, while the latter’s is a horror of the inevitable. Listen to either or both and be transfixed by beauty.