Pink Mountaintops: Outside Love

Music Reviews Pink Mountaintops
Pink Mountaintops: Outside Love

Black Mountain side-project returns with an obsessive ode to unrequited love

Since the topic of love is the most widely used and abused theme in all of pop music, Pink Mountaintops’ Stephen McBean can be forgiven for poking a little fun at his ten-song study in romantic melodrama by using Danielle Steele worthy romance-novel artwork on the album cover. But despite his attempt at levity, Outside Love is not a light-hearted affair, with ugly accusations and frustrated pleas making its references to vampires, devils, and rotting appendages seem understated by comparison. If these songs add up to a love story, it’s not the sort that’s likely to turn up in a supermarket checkout line paperback any time soon.

As the head of the loosely assembled “Black Mountain Army,” a Vancouver musical collective that includes over a dozen bands, McBean has his hands full as both the driving force behind flagship act Black Mountain and contributor to various other projects. But where previous Pink Mountaintops releases sounded a bit tossed off and crudely drawn, Outside Love is an intricately illustrated affair, built out of druggy walls of guitar feedback, reverb-drenched male/female vocals, and leaden drum splashes. Like the thick blue velvet and garishly florid novel on the album’s cover, these are songs that are rich with texture and content, designed to fit together like chapters in an unfolding musical narrative.

Opener “Axis: Thrones of Love” serves as both an introduction and a thesis statement, establishing the album’s groggy wall-of-sound and McBean’s heartsick persona, as he drapes searching rhetorical queries over glacially flowing guitar fuzz and piano chords. It’s a formula that is broken down and reassembled numerous times throughout the album, from shimmering ballads with dewy electric guitars (“While We Were Dreaming”) to somber string-laden meditations (“Vampire”) and woozily swirling merry-go-round ditties (“Come Down”). And despite the general mood being somewhat restrained, McBean mixes in a few country-folk sing-alongs and stomping synth-rock riffs to balance the reflective mood. Best of all is “And I Thank You,” a swirling gospel-tinged duet with Jesse Sykes, whose greasy piano and pedal steel make it sound like an Exile on Main Street outtake.

Outside Love isn’t the first time McBean has created an album-long meditation on love, as Pink Mountaintops’ self-titled 2004 debut was similarly thematically focused. But while that album tended more towards lust, with songs titled “I (Fuck) Mountains” and “Sweet ’69,” this one is driven by a more desperate and dangerous spirit, as if its latent frustrations could erupt into violent or self-destructive gestures at any moment. That sense of ominous tension ultimately becomes the album’s central character, with every aching vocal and wobbly chord change adding subtext to McBean’s remarkably restless musical monologue.

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