Black Swan Lane: An Album Retrospective.
‘The perfect safe refuge for the world-weary’
During [sic]’s lifetime Black Swan Lane have become virtually synonymous with the magazine. The Atlanta acts’ debut A Long Way From Home was the very first album we ever featured, selected on a whim as one of those ‘Recommended for you’ releases over at good old Red Sun Records. Well they sure weren’t kidding. A Long Way From Home made the perfect aural résumé, a timely blend of dreamy alt-rock, shoegaze and post-punk. Since then, Black Swan Lane have released five follow-up albums, all of which made my annual Top Ten and one of which was my album of the year. We have interviewed the band, covered each release and will continue to do so all the while we are lucky enough to have them.
However, if the name Black Swan Lane is unfamiliar, you do face an admittedly daunting task. How to get into a ‘new’ band who have six long players behind them? Most of us would give up without trying. This would be understandable yet also unforgivable. You wouldn’t want to be without Cocteau Twins, Catherine Wheel or Red House Painters just because they have a large back catalogue. Right? Black Swan Lane are in that class. You need this in your life.
So where to start? There are no Black Swan Lane singles, no ‘Best Of’ album and relatively few DJ’s or writers championing their music. That’s where we come in dear reader. We’ve grown up alongside these records – put in the hard yards so that you don’t have to. Except, of course, it wasn’t a hardship.
Over the course of this retrospective we will reappraise each of the six Black Swan Lane albums, charting the evolution from one to the next. We’ve done a Buying Guide. We will also gather the thoughts of frontman Jack Sobel as he reflects on the making of each record.
Read on, new fan or old. Prepare to fall in love with music all over again.
PHASE ONE: A LONG WAY FROM HOME. & THE SUN AND THE MOON SESSIONS.
A LONG WAY FROM HOME.
As is fairly well known, debut album A Long Way From Home contained contributions from quite a few indie-rock luminaries. Black Swan Lane’s core writing axis of Jack Sobel and John Kolbeck had already been performing under the moniker of The Messengers. The name change came about both as a slight shift in philosophy as well as an opportunity to re-brand as Jack explains in more detail below. Thus the fledgling BSL project was augmented by The Chameleons’ Mark Burgess, Kwasi Asante as well as the wonderful Anna-Lynne Williams (Trespassers William). As with follow-up, The Sun And The Moon Sessions these early releases were notable for their warmth and optimism. There’s a gentleness and a playfulness to them. I remember ‘critiquing’ A Long Way From Home only for its over-generosity. At 22 songs and 79 minutes long you might see why.
It was a nice beginning.
Here are Jack Sobel’s memories of that debut album:
A LONG WAY FROM HOME.
After recording the last Messengers album with Mark Burgess and playing some live shows alongside him, backing him up on Chameleons songs, Mark formed the band Bird with Kwasi Asante, Achim Faerber and Yves Altana. We hosted the band at our home while they were in Atlanta and recorded many of the tracks in less than a week with sub-standard equipment. I think we had more fun recording the album than focusing on the sound and cohesiveness and never thought the “project” would turn into anything solid. When the Mancs left for home, we still had no title or band name. In addition, after a let down at Warner Brothers, we knew the Messengers were dead. After stumbling on a beautiful street named BLACK SWAN LANE and having just seen a black swan pop up on the PC after looking up the word Aviary, I knew what the project title should be. There are some great songs, but the recordings are questionable and there are definitely some regrets. When it was all over, one of the tracks, ‘In The Ether’, was picked up for a major motion picture and we had a small cult following.
THE SUN AND THE MOON SESSIONS.
This new, collaborative project became even more amorphous on second album The Sun And The Moon Sessions. This time, as the name suggests, Sobel pulled in the talents of The Sun And The Moon‘s legendary ‘two Andy’s’, Clegg and Whitaker. With Burgess also returning at this point Black Swan Lane felt a bit like a fully fledged Chameleons side project. Certainly the record found favour with followers of The Sun And The Moon and The Chameleons. Indeed that fan base is a perfectly natural fit for the music of Black Swan Lane. Like the debut, and perhaps even more so, The Sun And The Moon Sessions feels like a compilation album. The opening five or six tracks feel as though they come from different records. Indeed there is so much variety across this record that it struggles almost for identity. To give an example, the Whitaker penned ‘Tidal Wave’ is almost Britpop in comparison to Burgess’s adolescent material or Sobel’s dreamy romanticism.
Yet it is good. So good in fact that if this does feel like a compilation then that record would be called The Best Of Indie and Post Rock 1983-89 or some such. Don’t let the ‘Sessions’ wording put you off either this is a studio quality album despite what perfectionist Mr Sobel might have you believe (see below).
The Sun And The Moon Sessions delights with every revisit.
Jack Sobel recalls that time here:
THE SUN AND THE MOON SESSIONS.
This was the first time I would meet Andy Clegg and Andy Whitaker from one of my favorite bands of all time, The Sun and The Moon. Mark Burgess and the original drummer for The Chameleons made up the other half. It all started when we came up with the idea to bring The Sun and The Moon to the U.S.A. for the first time. John couldn’t make it over, so I blew the dust off my drumsticks and filled in for the concert. Again, we made arrangements for a longer trip in order to go back into the studio. Another “project” under the BLACK SWAN LANE banner with different players, but this time, we incorporated more of John Kolbeck into the equation and had sub-par recordings mastered without being properly mixed. A very eclectic selection of songs sung by four different and unique singers. Amazing songs which should have been recorded and produced better, but the most fun we have ever had recording material and reuniting old friends and fans.
PHASE TWO: THINGS YOU KNOW AND LOVE. & STARING DOWN THE PATH OF SOUND.
THINGS YOU KNOW AND LOVE.
Black Swan Lane’s third long player, Things You Know And Love marked the greatest shift in the bands history. I’ll stress here, that ‘shift’ was editorial rather than creative. With a running time just shy of one hour, less somehow became more on Things You Know And Love. The group’s writing axis contracted back to its core duo of Kolbeck and Sobel and the ensuing album felt more cohesive, more whole.
Suddenly Black Swan Lane were elevated to the level of serious contenders. That ‘cult’ tag would still prove difficult to shake off, but they were no longer just ‘fan service’ for Manchester music aficionados. Sobel had always been the showrunner but here for the first time since The Messengers he really stepped forward as the frontman and figurehead. Perhaps akin to Robert Del Naja with Massive Attack his own voice has somehow always suited that music best, despite working with some of my favourite and most wonderful voices on the planet. Jack Sobel’s breathy, hypnotic vocal really came to the fore on Things You Know And Love and they never looked back. Yes, Mark Burgess lends his pipes to the hazy ‘Wander’ but that song is the exception which proves the rule. Follow-up song, ‘Let Me Go’ is brutally thrilling and begins a sequence of relentless quality which never lets up for the duration of the album.
Things You Know And Love is a coming of age moment for the band and their listeners; a soaring take-off after which Black Swan Lane would never be quite the same again.
Here are Jack Sobels own recollections from that era:
THINGS YOU KNOW AND LOVE.
According to John Kolbeck, this is really the beginning of BLACK SWAN LANE and shows the band at its best. I agree to a certain extent. THINGS YOU KNOW AND LOVE came to be from a phone conversation Mark Burgess and I had together about some very personal and heartbreaking material. When Mark’s thick British accent uttered the phrase “Things you know and love” in the middle of a long sentence, I wrote it down and knew immediately it was going to be the title track off a new album. The conversation also had me immediately writing new and darker material right away. This was also the first time in quite some time John and I sat down simultaneously to write together in the same room. And… the album took a year to make – not a week. We also gained a master mixer, Jeff Tomei (who has now mixed our last four albums) and better equipment to get us to the digital age. People around the world started to notice BLACK SWAN LANE and we knew we were on the right track. At the end of this project, Mr. Burgess told me his new plans for Chameleonsvox and so, our professional relationship ended.
STARING DOWN THE PATH OF SOUND.
Staring Down The Path Of Sound continues in the vein of Things You Know and Love. It is the first Black Swan Lane album not to feature Mark Burgess or indeed anybody else from The Chameleons expanded universe, therefore reinforcing the direction of its predecessor album. It is also chock full of wonders. If the talent pool of songwriting contributors had contracted, song quality had not. Staring Down The Path Of Sound is varied like all the best albums have to be. Yet it is also focused in a way the first two never managed.
Jack reflects upon Staring Down The Path Of Sound here:
STARING DOWN THE PATH OF SOUND.
Another reunion of sorts. Lauren Fay, who founded The Messengers with me back in 1991, popped out of the woods and contributed some amazing backup vocals to this record. The title came from the rawness and purity of the songs and we found the perfect album cover by famous French photographer and artist, Julie Waroquier. Towards the end of the mixing of this album, we received a call from Mark Burgess and his manager, Tony, to go out and do a joint 8000 mile tour across the States. The timing worked out well to promote the new record. We
sold out clubs across the U.S.; sold merchandise, signed autographs and wound up losing a lot of money. There was some infighting and animosity between many and we all stopped speaking for some time. I thought, musically, things are basically at an end, but the amazing reviews and bigger fan base that the new album generated created more sparks.
PHASE THREE: THE LAST TIME IN YOUR LIGHT. & A MOMENT OF HAPPINESS.
THE LAST TIME IN YOUR LIGHT.
Black Swan Lane’s fifth and sixth albums are serious pieces of work. From the get go on The Last Time In Your Light this is evident. ‘Relax and Breathe’ is a taught, muscular opening track and ‘Stranger’ a bona fide stadium epic after which the album kicks into a meditation on time, love and loss. There is nothing to punctuate the sheer excellence here. The refrain “close enough to miss and far enough to know” from penultimate delight ‘Leave’ particularly resonates. I think it is that duality of joyous, wonderful music and utterly devastating lyrical content that makes The Last Time In Your Light it the winner it is. It scored my album of the year for 2013 and is never far from my player.
Jack Sobels personal account of the time and events surrounding the groups fifth album follow here:
THE LAST TIME IN YOUR LIGHT.
Every album, I always consider my last. This time I thought I really meant it, hence the title. For the first time, I had writer’s block for a while which was both maddening and concerning. I thought I had done all I could do. Then one day, something happens, and it’s amazing. It’s like somebody else takes over your thoughtless mind and creates magic out of nothing. Health scares, life flashing before your eyes, survival as well as several deaths around us fueled much of the writing on this one. The Last Time In Your Light has so many different meanings to it and it is tied for my favorite BLACK SWAN LANE album. Both critics and fans hailed this album as one of the year’s best.
A MOMENT OF HAPPINESS.
A Moment Of Happiness can be seen as a continuation of The Last Time In Your Light except with a twist. Musically, Black Swan Lane remain beautiful but lyrically this is probably the bands’ darkest record to date. Where, on previous works, Sobel has appeared frustrated by personal inertia, now he seems beaten, resigned to his fate. A Moment Of Happiness continues the groups trademark melodies and manages to combine excitement with emotional impact. Yet be warned, the album is devastatingly sad and can be an overwhelming listening experience at times. I could draw parallels with The Smiths, Strangeways Here We Come, The Cure’s Bloodflowers or The Chameleons Strange Times but I think the time has long passed we need to reference Black Swan Lane by other bands. Check out the live version of ‘Lost For You’ from last years gig at The Earl.
Another ridiculously strong long player.
Jack Sobel reflects upon his most recent album here:
A MOMENT OF HAPPINESS.
Just when we thought we were self actualized and we were retiring the experimental project started in 2007, along came some new material – enough to fill another album. It started to feel like a solo project until John Kolbeck got back in the groove and John Hamm lent a hand. There seem to be fewer and fewer moments lately where I can smile and say things are wonderful. The title is definitely both ironic and sarcastic, but surprisingly the recordings can bring a smile to your face. I purposely try to create things that are beautifully sad and can emit some emotion. This album has the most concise theme and flows the best in my opinion. It delineates a relationship between time and happiness. We spent more time recording this one than any other BSL album. Again, I considered this the very last album. Will there be more moments for BLACK SWAN LANE? I’ll be sure to let you know soon. xx
IN RETROSPECT – A SIX-ALBUM SUMMARY:
Black Swan Lane’s back catalogue of albums can be viewed almost seasonally. The debut, A Long Way From Home and The Sun And The Moon Sessions represent summertime for Black Swan Lane. This is childhood. There’s a feeling of playfulness and possibility throughout, an optimism bordering on naivety.
Things You Know And Love & Staring Down The Path Of Sound can therefore be seen as adolescence, or the Fall. September’s light is fading but the Autumn colours are beautiful. Sobel questions himself and his situation across these releases. There is warmth here but also reflection and a sense of loss.
We wish for a happy ending. Instead we get the harsh winter that we always knew would come. The Last Time In Your Light is like December’s first snowfall and is equally majestic to witness. A Moment Of Happiness is the bleak freeze which inevitably follows.
Which album to get first is a tricky one but a nice ‘problem’ to have. If you read the whole article I’m indebted to you and maybe you’ll have formed your own opinion already. Go with your own instincts. Otherwise, you could go chronologically. It certainly has worked for me and been a wonderful journey thus far. My recommendation though would be one of following:
1.) If you still value the Album as an art form in of itself, rather than a bundle of music then I would consider Things You Know And Love which has the coherence of a full album as well as the warmth and variety the early Black Swan Lane had to offer. It’s a great starting point, I think.
2.) If you’re really thinking of diving straight into the deep end and swimming with the big boys, then The Last Time In Your Light is masterful album which stands alongside the great recordings of alternative music.
Will Spring bloom for Black Swan Lane?
Will there be a seventh album?
I literally cannot say.
Keep watching this space dear reader.
Editors Note: The band currently offer a special deal on the whole six album package. That’s over ninety songs for a bargain price. See link below. Been a good boy or girl this year? Don’t write to Santa. Write to Sobel.
[sic] Magazine thanks Jack Sobel and John Kolbeck for their participation. Art direction and photographic effects by Carine Hubrechts. For more painting or photographic artwork from Carine please visit her site All Around Luna via the link below. Enquiries regarding Carine Hubrechts Album Sleeve artwork can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org Backstage band photograph by Tom Dausner and used with kind permission. For more from Tom please visit his website Photographic Tom via the link provided. Article by Brett Spaceman.