The Ocular Concern: The Coen Brothers Do Twin Peaks, Sonically Speaking

by delarue

Noir menace, sometimes distant, sometimes front and center and impossible to turn away from, fuels Portland, Oregon instrumentalists The Ocular Concern’s album Sister Cities (streaming at Bandcamp). The band’s music bears considerable resemblance to guitarist Marc Ribot‘s cinematically unfolding themes as well as multi-clarinetist Ben Goldberg‘s Unfold Ordinary Mind narratives, not to mention Ennio Morricone’s 70s work, especially the Taxi Driver score. The group’s main songwriters are guitarist Dan Duval and keyboardist Andrew Oliver, whose electric piano does double duty as bass in the same vein as what Ray Manzarek did with the Doors but with more restraint. The rest of the group includes Stephen Pancerev on drums, Lee Elderton on clarinet and Nathan Beck on vibraphone and mbira.

Surrealism is in full effect with the opening track, a wintry west African mbira theme for vibraphone, bass and drums, Duval’s loopy electric guitar kicking in to raise the ante. Violinist Erin Furbee, violist Brian Quincey and cellist Justin Kagan join the group on the Sister City Suite, which opens alternating between an uneasy calm and jarring strings, then shifts to a snide faux noir latin ambience that’s pure Bernard Herrmann spun through snarky Ribot downtown cool. Alex Krebs adds washes of bandoneon to the sarcastically blithe second segment, its suspenseful pulse evoking the Get Carter soundtrack, finally hitting a roaring punk jazz stomp where Elderton’s clarinet leaves no doubt that this is where the murder happens. From there they move to a cynical, string-driven cha-cha and then follow a fake tango groove with lushly swooping strings contrasting with more of that menacing Ribot-esque reverb guitar. This may be a Pacific Northwest band, but the sound is pure New York circa 1988.

The band’s eponymous track parses coldly glimmering. wistful pastoral jazz, Elderton using its hypnotic rhythm as a launching pad for a slowly crescendoing solo until the piano and drums push it out of the picture. Lafayette, another wintry mbira groove, sounds like the Claudia Quintet without the busy drums, Eldterton’s trilling and eventually thrilling solo being the highlight. They follow that with The Eclectic Piano, essentially a suspiciously blithe variation on the same theme. The album ends with the warmly consonant, narcotic William S. Burroughs, Let’s Go!, Elderton’s alto sax taking a slowly resonant lead over Oliver’s twinkling. echoing electric piano lines. If the Coen Brothers ever did an episode of Twin Peaks, this would be the soundtrack.