Review Summary: Death is what you make it.
Bambara are no strangers to death. The band is composed of songwriter/guitarist Reid Bateh, Blaze Bateh on drums, and bassist William Brookshire. Their brand of violent and dreamy punk has been carefully molded to a sharp point since 2001. The band's roots in their hometown of Athens, Georgia have inspired the gothic themes that have run through their music since inception. They relocated to Brooklyn, New York in 2013, but their Southern foundations stayed with them and continue to fuel the body count their music carries with it, particularly 2018's acclaimed narrative-driven Shadow on Everything
. This is no different with Stray
Their overall fourth studio album (exempting their self-titled release on Emerald Weapon in 2008) marks a sea change for Bambara, and how they approach songwriting. They've dialed back the dissonant and claustrophobic noise of their earlier releases for something more lush and cinematic. This was somewhat explored on Shadow on Everything
, but it still a record set in enclosed spaces, doors between someone's teeth. Stray
takes the full leap, with flourishes such as dreamlike backing vocals from Drew Citron (Public Practice) and Anina Ivry-Block (Palberta), to blend with frontman Reid Bateh's smoky and at times, sinister baritone. The band also recruited Adam Markiewicz (The Dreebs) and Sean Smith (Klavenauts) to provide additional brass and string instrumentation to supplement select cuts like grandiose opener "Miracle", bringing heightened impact to the moments that really count. The changes don't halt at the sonic level, however.
Unlike Shadow on Everything
, the album was not entirely recorded in the windowless basement of their Brooklyn apartment, affectionately known as "The Bambara Basement". Stray
was also written in isolation in an old cabin, out in the wilderness of Georgia. "Obsessive" is one way the process could've been described, all three members of the band working feverishly for fourteen hours a day away from all other distractions. Reid was inspired by thrift-store photographs. He found himself lost in these captured stores, the process reminiscent of Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategy" method. Some characters featured on the album take their names from the people in these photographs, with other parts of them taken from people Reid and family knew while growing up. The band withdrew from a focus on the chronological storytelling with Stray
, opting more for separate stories connected by a common thread of Death.
Death, both abstract and personified, is inescapable for the characters that into contact with it across Stray
's ten tracks. The album's narratives take place across days, months, sometimes years. The feelings and desires of these characters are laid bare as they navigate this apocalyptic vision of America, both from the band's own hometown and present day retreat of Brooklyn. The drama is high and the tension is immediately apparent. The embodiment of Death that haunts these strangers is not kind. He is not the normally imagined slim, tall man in a suave suit; he's something more grotesque and sadistic, making his not-so-subtle entrance on the pummeling "Heat Lightning".
A storm of psychobilly drum beats and frantic guitars emulate Death's reckless speeding down the highway as he contemplates the weather, then Reid Bateh's ethereal voice gives the first description of the harbinger. His physique is described as "bones trapped in greasy fat", with a laugh like a "baby pigs squeal" and pale eyes that glow in the moonlight. He has a darkly peculiar sense of humor, imagining "...all the models on the billboards going by" with "...X's in their eyes". The song itself is a no holds barred rager with a frantic rhythm and lyrics that inspire unease, aside from the aforementioned description of Death himself. There's even a break in the instrumental as Reid describes Death stopping off the side of the road to take a leak, aiming for every lightning bug he can splash, then helping himself after hearing the cries of an animal dying off in the woods nearby. This is only one of many surreal or freakish bits of imagery sprinkled throughout, but "Heat Lightning" sets the stage for the rest of the album in its own way.
Elsewhere, "Sing Me to the Street" and "Death Croons" demonstrate the band's sensibilities in more of an Urban Gothic backdrop, especially the former which is a first for the band in its own way. If there's any track in Bambara's back catalog that would be a dead giveaway for Nick Cave inspirations, this would be it. "Sing Me to the Street" is sultry and dreamy, living in a frigid haze as the band plays with restraint, letting Reid's disillusioned tones accompanied by siren song backing vocals and subtle horns elevate the gloom into the clouds on the chorus; "You will go...away.". The song is a haunting ballad wherein a nameless character wanders the streets of a city that is cut between being alive and abandoned while grappling with thoughts of oblivion. This is the quietest moment on the album, and a calm before the storm.
"Serafina", alongside the previously elaborated on "Heat Lightning" and "Sing Me to the Street", served as the album's pre-release singles. Ironically, they are some of the most innocuous tracks, barely lifting the curtain on the full album's contents. At first glance, anyway. Nonetheless, "Serafina" is incendiary and anything but gentle. The frantic rhythm section and breathless verses match the pace of the wild-eyed hellraiser the song is named after. A woman named Sadie finds Sera in the woods dancing around a bonfire one night, and she recounts her story: instituted at youth for her love of fire, and captivated by another arsonist that broke out with his lover and started going on a streak "Burning through Georgia like a moonstruck Sherman". She was inspired by this act and declares her own:
""People are who they are," she said
And I want their kind of love
Where you're bad together and it's good"
This is the most hopeful moment on Stray
, despite any nihilistic and destructive connotations. Filled to the brim with stimulating imagery as Sera and Sadie go on their arsonist streak throughout abandoned towns and become closer with one another, climaxing in Sera declaring: "We gotta keep it up Sadie, no stopping / We gotta keep it up Sadie, we're not stopping." If they keep the fire burning and never stop moving; Death can't catch them. The weight of their lives takes nothing from their lust for life. They'll burn, they'll cry, but they'll never die. There's a strange beauty to it all. Inspiring, in its own way.
Out of the album's deep cuts, "Stay Cruel" is a highlight, an ode to wickedness when it becomes intertwined with desire. The protagonist recalls lustful fantasies of Miracle, making him skin his knees at her "shrine" and kicking him in the teeth for crying out in pain. The instrumentation on this track reminds me of some of the calmer passages from Shadow on Everything
, with a big twist in the form of an utterly moving chorus punctuated with sensual vocals as Miracle coos that she'll divulge her ruthlessness...for a price. The visual of a neon-red mist matches the reverb-drenched guitars that broil through and make the patron's hesitant request to feel Miracle's heel and make his dreams reality sound like a death march. No smiles, no mercy, stay softly cruel. Cruel for you, baby, cruel for you, honey..."
I want to touch briefly on the preceding entry in the tracklist, "Death Croons". Death stops at a bar in the middle of town, and is approached by a woman in "a stained sundress" that "flashes a big bag full of blow", trying to get him to lighten up. She comments on his "***ed up eyes" and he politely tells her to tread carefully as she continues to advance on him. The bubbly, almost doo-wop drum rhythm is intoxicating with how it synchronizes with the practically growled hook of "I...am not, your kind" and the innocent backing refrain of "Come on, baby, let's have some fun". It's a haunting combination, considering how the song's events play out, and well, Death's crooning.
Perhaps one of the most evocative verses on the album comes from the yearning and lament found on "Made for Me", a ballad with dust-tinged surf rock guitars and a distinct western flair. The character recounts the memory of a past lover, a lover that kept them alive through thick and thin, despite the speaker never ceasing to "sting". It builds into a thick haze, as they recall vivid imagery of their departed other as she approaches him, the implications unknown:
"Lit cigarettes will rain
On a field where horses roam untamed
See you running with them through the flames
Wildflowers in their manes
As you lead the stampede my way"
It's verses like this that astonish me when it comes to Bambara's lyricism, which can be disquieting and eerie one moment, and affecting the next. This moment on the album feels like a temporary release from the misery, letting the visions of horses galloping through green, open fields and blooming wildflowers wash over, until you're thrust back into reality as these heralds vanish into the fires on the other side. It's a stubborn, but resolute glow in the night.
"Ben & Lily" and the album closer "Machete" are among two of the most harrowing tracks the band have penned to date. "Ben & Lily" looks back on two sterilised outlaws. It was inspired by a man that Reid and his brother's father worked alongside while toiling away in a factory one summer during his youth. Their tale as depicted on the album is tragic, with Ben practically shouting to the heavens after coming to work one day. Ben is described as "injured bad but still working" with blood rolling down the conveyor belt, cursing an unknown aggressor for "what he did to my sweet Lily". Dealt a poor hand by Death. "Machete" leaves little time to breathe. The events are described in swift, grisly detail as Reid's fearful vocals jaunt along to Blaze's constant percussion. Anxious guitar lines across the song's five minute runtime only become more fevered with each passing second. From the back porch of Crystal's mother's home in rural Georgia, to the album's final minutes in the false security of New York's streets, violence is amiss. Reid's cries of "I knew damn well he'd never stop" at the song's peak intensity are unnerving. The protagonist loses everything in a blink and tries to run from Death, becoming overwhelmed with shadows of his perished beloved. He tries to confront Death and learns the grim fate set before him.
The focus might've been on making the stories and characters portrayed not so intertwined, but there are plenty of clues in the lyrics that suggest associations not immediately obvious, if the listener chooses to seek them out. While speaking on the characters for Stray
, Reid Bateh described all of them with the following phrase: "They are drifters, outcasts, criminals, and lovers. All looking for some sort of true connection in the world to make it worth while. They are united by a sense of isolation and longing and, for the most part, they are doomed from the start." In some sense these qualities could apply to the protagonists in all of Bambara's songs, named or unnamed.
Despite the time spent talking about these narratives and the feelings evoked, nothing in the realm of post-punk or punk blues has been reinvented here, but the atmosphere and lyrical storytelling that has practically become a trademark of the band is refined into their most exquisite, fleshed-out collection of songs yet. This will personally go down as one of the finest releases of 2020 for me, and I'll be hard-pressed to find anything that better stimulates some of the emotions I've found from the songs on Stray
. The album puts the band at a crossroads, and while uncertain of their course from here, it'll be incredibly exciting to see where they'll go next. I know only one thing for certain: burn bright, Serafina.