Three years ago I picked up a copy of the second release by the group Blackfield, appropriately titled Blackfield II, based solely on hearing the cut “Christenings.” I was really amazed that there was a group with a fresh and intelligent approach to pop music that also owed much to story-teller outfits such as The Kinks and Pink Floyd. I knew very little about Steven Wilson, main man behind prog innovators Porcupine Tree and even less about ultra left-leaning Israeli pop star Aviv Geffen, but this duo were taking another sidestep from their main gigs to collaborate on a second record. I was quickly smitten by their bittersweet lyrics, beautiful vocal harmonies, and understated approach to songwriting. Off to the stacks went Blackfield II, only to be unearthed when I needed a reminder that pop music doesn’t have to also be idiotic.
I was very happy to recently receive a copy of their DVD/CD combo, NYC, a live document of the tour supporting Blackfield II from a show at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, March 16, 2007. I wasn’t even aware that this had been released by Kscope/Snapper Records later that year, but I’m damn glad I own it now. By this time, I’d learned all about Wilson and his multiple projects, recordings, and production credits. He’s quite the Renaissance man and Blackfield is quite dissimilar from all that has come from him both before and since. He and Geffen took their recording band out on the road with them (though most of the ideas captured in the studio come solely from Wilson and Geffen) and also took their music to another dimension on stage. What a kick it is to see who plays what instrument, who sings whose song, and that Geffen looks rather fetching in glitter shadow (yes, that’s glitter shadow eye make-up). Blackfield has gone back into hiatus, but let me tell you about a few of the high points on this collection (the track order of the CD is duplicated exactly on the DVD) so you can understand why I hang my hopes on the possibility that the duo may return once more to enchant me with their combined brilliance.
The best moments among NYC’s 18 tracks are not coincidentally the best moments from Blackfield II. The material is strong and played energetically by Wilson, Geffen, keyboardist Eran Mitelman, bassist Seffy Efrati, and drummer Tomer Zidkyahu. Efrati and Zidkyahu were also present on Blackfield II, so their solid rhythms are well understood and expanded upon during the transition from studio to concert hall. All save Zidkyahu contribute vocals, with Wilson and Geffen alternating the lead. This helps to translate the lush studio wizardry of Blackfield’s records to the live setting. Wilson, at center stage left, plays a dazzling metallic, gold-finish PRS six-string electric, while Geffen, at center stage right, switches off between acoustic and electric guitars and the occasional borrowing of Mitelman’s electric piano and synthesizer. Wilson chooses not to engage in pyrotechnics, sticking with sparse lead lines, occasional “stun guitar” (to borrow a term from Blue Oyster Cult’s Eric Bloom) blasts, and splendid slide set-ups. His voice is the smoothness to Geffen’s rougher, Hebrew-inflected delivery.
The first “wow” moment comes, for me, on the Geffen-penned and sung “Miss U.” The lyrics, as with many of Blackfield’s songs, deal with the emotions torturing a man in the wake of a failed romance. The woman/subject has clearly moved on with her life, yet Geffen can’t get past what they once shared. There’s a depth to the lyrics that isn’t revealed at first listen as Geffen’s pleas verge on the narcissistic; the woman more an object than a human being. Is this why the relationship fell apart? We ponder this as the band unleashes perfect harmonies and Wilson’s chiming guitar line dips into a simple, yet amazing solo and back again.
Skip ahead to the disc’s only cover tune, Alanis Morrisette’s “Thank You.” Wilson opens with a slow-paced slide part and the sturdy backing of Geffen’s piano and then stops playing completely to focus on his singing. We’ve all heard this song, well, Morrisette’s version anyway, umpteen times, but the perfection of her songwriting is unveiled through Wilson’s longing, pained delivery and the simplicity of the arrangement. This is the left turn we’d never expect Wilson to take, but the idea and the presentation are completely stunning.
Another deviation that works to great effect is Geffen’s handling of the lead vocal on his song “Someday,” which Wilson sings on Blackfield II. Geffen’s voice, much lower in pitch than Wilson’s, fits the somber tone of the lyrics, which deal with a loner’s buried anger and resentment towards those that excluded him from recognition and acceptance throughout his life. Bitterness and sadness are feelings that Geffen excels in conveying and “Someday” is the prime example. The band lays down a moody, orchestral build-up while Geffen suggests that someone, either the loner or his shallow enemies, “find the highest cliff and dive.” This open-ended lyrical approach runs parallel with the best art, in whatever form, leaving those experiencing it to determine their own meaning and walk away contemplating more than the piece.
The Wilson composition “My Gift Of Silence,” features an incredible performance from both Zidkyahu and Wilson himself. Any doubts about Wilson’s superb voice are dismissed on this song about a man choosing to silently accept a broken relationship and slip into numbness. It’s the poker face of love that he’s on about, with Geffen’s harmonies as the perfect compliment.
One last heart rending gift comes through the song “Hello,” from Blackfield’s first album. This song, written through collaboration between Wilson and Geffen, has the duo taking turns singing the verses and showing sharp contrast in their voices. Wilson’s stinging slide intro and solo over the song’s ending give us a glimpse of what he’s holding back in order to satisfy the needs of this material. He’s truly a master musician, able to exert power through restraint and the space between notes.
The disc’s bonus features include music videos of the songs “Hello,” “Pain” and “Blackfield,” all directed spectacularly by artist Lasse Hoile. There’s also a gallery of backstage photos and stills from the promotional shoot for the album’s cover photo, featuring Geffen and Wilson in various New York locales. For those of you with the killer stereo set-up, the playback can be set to 5.1 surround sound.
After viewing and listening to this release, I’m waiting in anticipation that we’ll hear more from Blackfield in the years to come. True, both Wilson and Geffen have their “day jobs” in other outfits, but Blackfield’s following continues to grow. If enough of us show our appreciation, we may even see them tour one day, far outside the boroughs of the Big Apple.