Previous to 2002's An Evil Heat the best way to describe any given Oxbow album was as an aural snuff film. The music that the quartet coaxed out of their instruments was a sick, twisted mass of deconstructed blues riffs made to sound horrifying and pained and over it all you had Eugene Robinson's tortured wail that never quite gave away which side of the snuff he was on. It was uncomfortable music to put it simply, very well-played and fascinating but uncomfortable nonetheless. Something was different about An Evil Heat though, and that difference is even more pronounced on 2007's The Narcotic Story. It isn't so much that Oxbow stopped making aural snuff films, both albums are still intense as hell and more than a little disturbing to listen to, but they were going about them with a great deal more clarity. Gone was the grainy feel I associate with their previous outings, replaced with a bit more carefully executed production that highlighted exactly what it was that the band was doing underneath the surface. The layers becoming more obvious didn't make things any less uncomfortable to listen to, but made them much more fascinating.
My fascination goes deeper with The Narcotic Story for some pretty obvious reasons. Firstly it sees the band considerably expanding their sonic palette, building some of the best songs around strings, woodwinds and pianos in addition to their usual melange of twisted blues riffs and Robinson's wailing. It's also the closest the band's ever come to making music that could actually be mistaken for accessible at points. Even on the much more cleaned up sounding An Evil Heat there was a lot of ugliness that seeped through the mix, but on quite a few occasions the songs on The Narcotic Story sound...well, pretty. Ignoring Robinson's vocals of course, though he's not in full wailing mode for the whole album like usual, even coming close to crooning on "She's a Find," (it still feels weird to type 'crooning' in the same sentence as Eugene Robinson...) the arrangements seem to put a lot more focus on the more comforting - though still not comfortable - aspects of the sound. The strings may have a sinister edge to them, especially in the booming introduction of "Down a Stair Backwards" and the last bit of "Frank's Frolic" but they feel so much more inviting than the usual assault of Niko Wenner's guitar and Dan Adams' complex basslines. Of course those still figure in prominently, but the variety the rest of the album's arrangements offer gives it a great deal more replay value.
Of course if it weren't a little bit uncomfortable it wouldn't be an Oxbow album, so despite the fact that the album's centerpiece "She's a Find" is pretty much an unambiguous love song (feels so weird to say that...) it's not like the band have softened up all that much. We're not talking about the assault of something like "The Last Good Time" or "Gal" but something more...insidious I guess is the word I'd use. The riff from "Time, Gentlemen, Time" for instance wouldn't sound out of place in the course of a normal blues album, but between Wenner's still kinda sick-sounding guitar tone and the production on it sounds downright evil - not clichéd evil but actually capable of frightening the shit out of me in the right moments evil. Even when he's using an acoustic on "The Geometry of Business" Wenner still manages to sound menacing, or maybe it's just Robinson's muttering beneath the surface waiting to break out with one of his normal shrieks. Speaking of Robinson, it almost feels like for once he's not the focal point of the ordeal, allowing his band mates more time to play at the front of the mix even when he's in his usual form. I mean, previous labums have had plenty of great moments from the instrumental side of Oxbow - Serenade in Red's "Over" comes to mind immediately - but The Narcotic Story's production seems to put less emphasis on Robinson than before. He still demands attention, especially on the heavier numbers, but he's just as adept at adding to the discomfort as an underlayer.
It also helps that the albums doesn't sound much like the Oxbow old until the fourth track, and then "She's a Find" comes along sounding nothing like anything the band has ever done. It keeps you off balance, so when you're thrown into the most aggressive stuff on the album immediately thereafter it seems that much more uncomfortable. But "She's a Find" is a fucking amazing song, toning down everything that makes Oxbow Oxbow without sounding like anybody else, getting mildly emotional, close to pretty at times and earning each of its 8 minutes with some of the most involved arrangement of any Oxbow song ever. I once joked that I'd have it played at my wedding, but the more I hear it the less I think of that as a joke - I could totally see it as a logical addition to the DJ list at a particularly dark wedding. The rest of the album isn't quite at its level, but it's also a fairly large step above the rest of the band's output, no small feat when you consider that Serenade in Red is one of my favorite albums of the 90s. It's the most fully realized and least expected thing they've done at htis point, and it seems like they'll only get better from here.