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How to Murder a Mystery

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Black Heart Procession

The Tropics of Love DVD

(Touch and Go)

Black Heart Procession & Solbakken

In the Fishtank 11

(Konkurrent)

The Black Heart Procession's 2002 concept album, Amore del Tropico, was a mild departure from their previous work--a bit more upbeat, a bit more up-tempo, with an actual title instead of a number. But it was still more or less the sort of thing that makes you wonder what's gone awry in sunny San Diego. Pall Jenkins and Tobias Nathaniel's brooding vocals, nightmarish keys, and somber guitar form the backbone of a shadowy beast that distends and deflates as various instruments are sucked into its belly and then oozed back out again.

A lot of music like this gets called cinematic, but Amore was explicitly presented as the sound track to a murder mystery movie that didn't exist, and while there's no actual mention of a murder on the record, the sound is melancholy at knifepoint. Most of the lyrics address abandonment, loneliness, anguish, and frustration, and overall the album certainly conveys a sense of confounding loss. Anyway, it's supposed to be a sound track and not the murder mystery itself, so there's really nothing to apologize for.

After wrapping up an extensive tour in support of the album in July, though, the Black Heart Procession began work on The Tropics of Love, a DVD consisting of 15 music videos--one for each track on Amore--strung together to form the missing murder mystery movie. Shot on a fraying shoestring budget and starring mostly BHP alumni, the story revolves around Luigi and his lover Maria. After a drunken fight, Maria packs up and goes to stay with a friend. Luigi gets invited to a party where he gets wasted and his car keys are stolen, which loosely suggests he's being set up. He wakes up the next day, the humiliation of his daily routine compounded by Maria's absence; she spends the day crying in her friend's lap and is murdered shortly thereafter. A character known only as the Inspector is on the case, and Luigi is arrested. At the conclusion of a brief trial, he's convicted.

After that the focus diverges from the specifics of the crime and hovers around Luigi's daily reflections on his lonely future in prison and the Inspector's deepening obsession with proving to himself that justice was served. Neither man finds peace by the end, and there's no indication that either one will. Bucking the traditional murder mystery formula, which concludes with a big aha, Tropics opts to focus on a bigger mystery: as the back of the box says, "all this will make you wonder why."

That it did, but not in the intended way. What probably sounded like a great fucking idea at the time isn't. The story's told without dialogue, in action sequences drawn out redundantly to fit the length of the songs. The slipshod production and lack of dramatic amplitude make it a complete mismatch for the expertly crafted album, which has carefully constructed highs and lows and in-betweens.

At around the same time the Black Hearts were working on the film, they participated in the In the Fishtank project--a series of albums curated by the Dutch indie distributor Konkurrent, which gives a band or two a couple days of studio time and zero guidelines and then releases the results. Past releases have paired Chicago's Tortoise with the Ex, Low with the Dirty Three, and Sonic Youth with the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra. For In the Fishtank 11, the Black Heart Procession asked to work with the Dutch prog band Solbakken; apparently the two have a history of playing shows together as far back as 1998.

The music they made comes out in slow thunderous waves and proceeds to march, tumble, sprint, and even tiptoe through old swamps of typical Black Heart mud with renewed spastic fervor. What's pleasurably unnerving is what (presumably) Solbakken does to the interplay between Jenkins's downcast singing and Nathaniel's complementary piano, taking what's already gloomy by nature and making it twitchy and foreboding, adding electropercussive scuttling and saturating the background with subtle hums, scratches, and tinkles. It's dark, exciting, and deceptively snug. It's one of those nifty little recordings that is meaningful enough to affect, but indefinite enough to affect differently with each successive listen, to mean something new and summon up different feelings. It's volatile like a murderous mind and as hard to pin down as true mystery should be.

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