The Black Swans have never been afraid to let their freak flag fly, standing in a long line of country and folk eccentrics like Lee Hazlewood, Iris DeMent and Merle Haggard (two of whom get shout-outs on this album). For more contemporary counterparts, you could look to Lambchop, Richard Buckner or Will Oldham, perhaps, but the the polarizing, hoarse-whisperer voice of The Black Swans’ Jerry DeCicca has no obvious analog.
The band’s last album, Words are Stupid, found DeCicca substituting animal sounds—rooster crows, monkey screeches—for words. This time, taking inspiration from Willie Nelson’s Yesterday’s Wine, he provides spoken-word intros for several songs. They aren’t throw-aways, either—think short poems rather than off-the-cuff rambles. It’s an important distinction. No matter how left-field a lyric or how bizarre DeCicca’s cotton-mouth singing may seem, there’s an artful intentionality to it. That intent can be so lighthearted it prompts a chuckle. It can be so dour that you’ll depress yourself thinking of it as you try to fall asleep. Most of the time, a Black Swans song has both. Sometimes they’re indistinguishable. As DeCicca says on the opening track, “There’s no way of telling / If the world is crying or if it’s yelling / So raise up your arms / And dance with me.”
It’s hard to believe Don’t Blame the Stars has been floating around for more than three years. Hard to believe because, a) It’s a terrific album that a label should have snatched up earlier, and b) It’s eerily prescient. The Black Swans finished recording the majority of the record in a Columbus, Ohio garage in the spring of 2008, crafting a batch of songs themed around finding meaning and solace in music and friendship. Just a few months later, Black Swans violinist Noel Sayre died in a swimming pool accident. In that context—and with a mural of Sayre serving as the album’s cover—it’s hard not to hear a song like “My Brother” as a prognostic lament for the fallen bandmate: “If I knew which way the crosswinds blew / I’d find myself back with you / I see your face on the paths I choose to follow / Can’t forget what we’ve been through.” And “Blue Bayou,” inspired by the Roy Orbison song of the same name, foreshadows the “troubled times in our lives when only music makes us feel alright.”
“Blue Bayou” is worth your time just for the buttery-smooth guitar licks of Chris Forbes, a consistent highlight of the album (and consolation that while Sayre’s violin will be sorely missed, The Black Swans’ sound will hold up thanks to the rest of the band). Joe Tex, the R&B singer DeCicca describes as “a beautiful man… here to help us,” gets a full song in his honor. Jimi Hendrix, Sam Cooke and several others also receive kudos on Don’t Blame the Stars. With an album this singular and strong, I imagine the forebears DeCicca name-drops would happily give The Black Swans’ freak flag a spirited salute.