There’s something that they never tell you, but that all the old pros know – that sounding rough and ready takes time and, paradoxically, polishing. Blackhart and Strangelove, a West Australian duo have plenty of the pre-requisites to be great. Above all else they’ve a good sense of what makes a great song, and the god-given tools to achieve it; that is solid instrumentation by songwriter Johnny Strangelove, and voice full of character from singer Tessa Blackheart. Where they fall down – only so slightly – is on the rough edges they present.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for rough edges, presuming they sound right. So, for example, on She wasn’t sorry, the lo-fi rythmic intro sits perfectly with Blackheart’s bluesy voice. It’s rough and captivating, just as an intro should be. It puts forward the promise of the song. The problem is that the promise isn’t fulfilled – partly due to a change in the dynamics of the production. From one moment to the next the sound goes from down and dirty (think the Bad Seeds or Heavy Trash) to super polished (Donna Summer comes to mind). Now that jump doesn’t happen easily or smoothly – it’s a rough edge that we could have done without.
Similarly, on the same song (which has buckets of potential), Blackheart sings just a few lines repeated in a blues mantra, so rythmn is all. 90% of it comes off perfectly, but from “She said she wasn’t sorry, baby” she stumbles clumsily to the convoluted an ill-fitting ‘for what she did she wasn’t sorry’. It sounds like a jam gone wrong, as if during a twelve bar blues someone decided to momentarily switch to a waltz.
Because the songs rely overwhelmingly on mood and simplicity, these admittedly minor glitches steal the legs out from under the songs.
Better, though, is Anyone But Me, which has shades of all the right reference points – like Nancy Sinatra, the Bad Seeds (Martin Carthy guests on the E.P), and even the recent collaborations between Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. Piano and sparse guitar punctuates a tale of dark self-discovery. It’s the sort of song that the late great Johnny Cash could have happily covered.
The Metamorphosis is in a similar vein – wonderfully melancholic and mournful. The duet format is old-hat at this stage, unless done well – and this song does it exceedingly well, mixing the voices along with a wonderful trumpet (think of the intro to the Waterboys ‘Don’t Bang the Drum’put up against the Cowboy Junkies).
The e.p includes guest performances from the aforementioned Carthy, as well as Ben Franz from the Waifs and various others from the local Australian scene. On the strength of the e.p Blackheart and Strangelove is a project with a great future