Portland, Oregon band When the Broken Bow make intense, powerful music. Their apocalyptic new album We, the Dangerous Weapons is a mix of ornate, anguished gypsy rock and pensive, trippy, surreal, sometimes haunting lo-fi chamber pop and noir cabaret. Some of their more elaborate songs evoke Botanica; the politically-fueled stuff reminds of Humanwine. Punctuated by the occasional brief instrumental interlude, it begins pensively and ends in horror. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp site; tracks can also be downloaded. Frontwoman Ali Ippolito’s voice ranges from understated plaintiveness to raw, unselfconscious rage; she also plays piano, banjo uke, accordion and builds lush layers of orchestration with “midi stuff.” Justin Stimson adds biting, sometimes ferocious reverb guitar and nimbly melodic, growling bass in tandem with Sharon Ermlich’s sometimes majestic, sometimes nuanced drum work.
The first of the songs, For Argument’s Sake, is what would have been the hit single if this was thirty years ago: it sounds like Fiona Apple but edgier, Stimson’s distorted leads mingling with the piano’s precise broken chords. Then things gets dark and stay like that the rest of the way. The first of the waltz songs is Better Than My Own, its sadness and longing obscured for a bit by an unexpectedly jaunty ragtime interlude. Stimson adds twin guitars straight out of the Brian May playbook against Ippolito’s nebulously creepy piano on The Game, building up to an explosive, raging crescendo. A steady, swaying banjo uke song, My Favorite Question looks for hope in a hopeless situation: “Cry over this genocide and all the pain it brings..what are we to do with ourselves?” Ippolito asks repeatedly.
They go back to creepy waltz territory for Where Are You, a bitter, ragtime-tinged tale of abandonment, punctuated by more of those twin guitar leads which Stimson artfully manages to keep from veering off into cheesy Hotel California territory. The most explosive track here is titled To Warrant a War on Want, which builds from a slow cabaret swing to a screaming guitar interlude as Ippolito critiques a vicious cycle of consumption and comformity that spells imminent doom for future generations:
You don’t know what powers that be
Make you think that this is right
Sweet dreams, sweet fantasy
These things are made in factories
Hurry and wake up to your life
Or you’re gonna end up one of their machines
The band follows that with a menacing nocturnal shoreline scenario, another dark waltz that morphs through several tricky tempo changes into a big, orchestrated gypsy rock anthem. Magnify starts out predictably, pensive and slow, the guitar and piano over oscillating white noise panning the speakers and slowly takes on a bitter, anthemically elegaic quality: “I didn’t know what it was like to be you, to be tiny little you,” Ippolito laments to the guy she’s lost to “inanimate objects.” The album ends with a scampering bit of a punk interlude and then the wistful banjo uke waltz Giving Up the Ship: “I can’t imagine I’ll make it out alive…there are too many others to step on and step over,” Ippolito announces as the choir of screams grows louder and louder. And then it’s over: with a bang, not a whimper. Without a doubt, this strange, intriguing and fearless album is among the best to come out over the past year. Ippolito spent some time here before heading out to Portland; watch this space for possible return appearances.