It’s no surprise that the Black and White Years have served up a stellar debut with their first proper album. We’ve been expecting it since first crossing their path early last year, and the announcement last spring that the trio would be recording the album with Jerry Harrison, esteemed producer and former Talking Heads guitarist, only upped the ante. Thankfully, The Black and White Years delivers, and without changing the sound that has made them one of our favorites here on Austin Sound - even if that cover artwork is a bit suspect. The touch of expert production is noticeable, especially in comparison to the group’s early demos, and the album impressively captures the band’s unique and eclectic movements with an emphasis on the details and decidedly tighter control. The songs are still propelled by an overarching homage to Eighties keys and guitar driven rock, skittering beats that jump irresistibly behind Scott Butler’s deep, disjointed vocal dexterity as the group melds the Talking Heads and Dire Straits influences with a playfulness shining through in the flourishes of reggae rhythms and bursts of ska that gesture toward the Specials or Madness.
Opener “A Wetter Sea” serves as an appropriate introduction. The swirl of keys is accentuated by a sharp percussion (courtesy of session work from Tom Petty drummer Steve Ferrone) while Scott Butler’s vocal kick with their familiar, staccatoed punch. The slow funk bass on the first guitar line gives way to the burst of shouts as the dance rhythm kicks in and the song moves behind a driving force without being overbearing. The lead single “Power to Change” proves to be the album’s best track, moving like a classic Dire Straits tune, as Butler fires off lines and the vox and guitar take tours through beds of echoing distortion. The song also smacks an appropriately timely political note that would seem to work in their favor.
This is all tested terrain for the group, but with the shift in tempo on “My Broken Hand” the Black and White Years open up some new textures that expand the album well. The slower pace emphasizes Butler’s emotion a bit better, especially in the melodic opening lines that hover with the ringing quiver of guitar. The harpsichord effect on the synth seems a bit gratuitous, but the song drifts the most easily through the band’s various impulses. “Lighten Up the Letters” likewise moves more melodically alongside the slow, soulful jam of “A Dense History,” which declares at the start, “Texas, is my home, and my heartbreak, my memory recoils from a dense history,” before Butler launches into shrill glam shouts. The song may best summarize the Black and White Years’ ability to be incredibly dense and simultaneously playful, never allowing the songs to become too distractingly heavy or dismissively light.
“You are a Dragon” playfully unloads the kind of 8-bit video game sounding bounce from the synth and a Caribbean rhythm as Thompson fans the dance flames with quick bursts of guitar. The song twists all over the place in just over four minutes, but as with the entire album, holds together convincingly and never feels contrived or forced, while also offering great lines like “You are a city, An amalgam of noise, So pretty and dirty.”
The skuzzier pop sound and great hook of “Everyone” strike the right notes, but it’s the slow swell of horns on “Evil Ape,” joining almost surf guitar riffs, that would be more welcome throughout. Brass is so natural to the Black and White Years’ sound, perhaps because of the ska inflection that informs it, that it would serve them well to incorporate it more. Still, the band has produced a great debut that should garner them some much deserved attention.