Oh, Stephen McBean. The more immersed I become in your music, the more I am convinced of your genius.
Pink Mountaintops is a bit more of a solo project for McBean, frontman of Black Mountain, but that's not to say it isn't full of friends. Musicians from all over contribute to the album, including just about everyone from Black Mountain and members of bands like A Silver Mt. Zion, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Destroyer and Lightning Dust, among many others. McBean does the majority of vocals, but is also assisted by GY!BE's Sophie Trudaeu and the Webber sisters, who are a great contrast, and a few songs even find them in front and centre. The album is a bit looser than Black Mountain, a little more experimental, but it never meanders or draws out; it is still as tight as anything you'll hear. Backed with piano, strings and even a choir, it is definitely gentler and perhaps even a little more cerebral than Black Mountain. There are shades of similarities between the two bands, but Pink Mountaintops veers more into the psychedelic shoe-gazing realm of things. Though it's not solely that, as they race through several different genres, never stopping for too long or looking back at any given style.
One thing I always look for in albums is how it flows; not just how one songs transitions into another, but the overall "tone" of the album. I prefer it to be a novel, where each song is a chapter rather than a collection of short stories, where each song stands on its own. (Metaphorically speaking... I don't mean it has to be a concept or "story" album.) Outside Love manages to have a near perfect flow to the whole thing.
Axis: Thrones Of Love sets the mood for the album, with it's slow and calm jangling, asking us right out of the gates "How deep is your love?" -- perhaps almost mockingly, considering the rest of the lyrics, not just in the song but the album as a whole. Execution picks things up for a more fast and rollicking number before Ashley Webber's beautiful vocals drive the haunting While We Were Dreaming. Vampire somehow manages to be even "creepier", with the spine-tingling rise from it's minimalistic beginning to the grandiose finish. Holiday, with McBean proclaiming that "everyone [he] love[s] deserves a holiday in the sun" and Come Down pick things up a bit with their cheer and energy only for Outside Love, another stunningly chilling song which pairs McBean with Jesse Sykes, to give a complete sense of desolation.
And I Thank You picks it up again, lyrically to be sure, and it gradually gains energy, musically, in the country-twinged song and The Gayest Of Sunbeams gives the album it's last burst of energy... and what a burst it is. Finally, the album closes out with Closer To Heaven and leaves us on somewhat of a high note. With its beautiful strings, choir vocals and McBean "pray[ing] sweet angel that we'll make it all right" it gives a cautiously joyous and uplifting ending to both the song and album.
There is a kind romance to the album, in a way. It is not unabashedly romantic, saying that love is a many splendoured thing that will lift us up and conquer all and is all we need. It acknowledges the doom that it can bring, as though expressed through someone that knows it's darker side. But it doesn't go too far in this tragic direction, either; it is skeptical without being cynical. In the end Outside Love has a grim optimism and while it somehow manages to be simultaneously vaguely disturbing and surprisingly uplifting, in both cases it is incredibly powerful and quite brilliant.
One last thing I will mention about Outside Love is that is has quite possibly the best cover and album art of the year. From the front cover (seen above), the above image of a book on crushed velvet, to the back cover, which is the back of said book complete with "author's" portrait, and even the insides, with the book sitting on the back of a toilet. Hell, even some of the promo shots, like the one to your right is all sorts of awesome. One of the big reasons I still buy physical CDs is that I love awesome album art and/or packaging, so it's always nice to see something like this, rather than a bunch of images dashed together with no meaning or relation. I think it would have to be my favourite album art or "theme" of the year so far.
Download And I Thank You
Download The Gayest of Sunbeams