The macabre has a habit of becoming funny but in such a way that it just gets eerier and more impenetrable. When someone makes songs, films, or paintings (or whatever else) that take from styles that are part of an engrained tradition, the tropes and clichés that they use or borrow from become absent presences haunting them. The origin of why something makes the skin crawl and the heart pass into shadow becomes all the more obscure, a mystery at home in the light of day. The longer you look or listen the less you have a grip on what you are feeling and why you are feeling it.
Timber Timbre, the record, has been my introduction to Timber Timbre, the project of Toronto resident Taylor Kirk. The album—released by Arts & Crafts and long-listed for the Polaris Prize—is run through with a sense of dread that is weirdly and effectively entwined with a breath of levity, the kind of mixture that only black humor can accommodate. The motto on the Timbre Timber Myspace page is “Creep on creeping on,” which is actually a pretty good encapsulation of an album that makes no attempt to hide its debt to some of the more grisly strands of “weird American music.” The eight songs pass from ghostly lullabies to ghoulish stomps and rickety, hunched over swamp guitar creepers.
Standout “Lay Down in the Tall Grass” is balanced on an organ figure that immediately brings to mind Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Like that classic song, it is addressed to an unnamed you (who digs the narrator out of a shallow grave with a pocket knife) and ends up being some sort of love song with violence coursing around the edges, off-screen, just beyond what actually gets said. Kirk sings, “I’ll be dreaming every night of you / I’ll be shaking at the sight.” Some nether region between love and horror—a common effect produced by these songs.
The following song, “Until the Night is Over,” opens into a slightly unhinged little guitar figure that is almost as funny as it is ominous until Kirk delivers the opening lines: “There is a house in New Orleans / where you woke from a coma and then bit your cheek.” “House of the Rising Sun” definitely has something creepy about it in its best incarnations; it hits on the covert forces that lead a person to run him or herself into ruin with drinking, gambling, and whoring rather than being especially concerned with the morality of doing such things. Here, the appropriation of it allows Kirk to carry over that depth while invoking some more overtly savage and alarming imagery.
Like “Magic Arrow” and “Trouble Comes Knocking,” “Until the Night is Over” moves and feels like a ghost train rattling and crackling through sinister landscapes. We see everything described (and more) in black and white, but this colorless world is like the one imaged in films like Nosferatu or Dead Man, suggesting not the past so much as a universe of ever-present but elusive dark passions made manifest.
Timber Timbre has a way of getting you beside yourself, projecting dark dreams that you star in, where night is as much a murderer as the man holding the bloody knife; where the best we can hope for is irremediably bound to the worst by our attempts to get at it. The more familiar this record seems on the surface, the more it reaches down into some shadowy recess where we all need to go sometime. “I get low, low, low, on my own,” sings Kirk, and for a moment it is obviously the same as getting high. It’s all just getting outside, even for a fleeting moment, away from the villainous blood that haunts even our most altruistic acts.
MP3: “Demon Host”