A rock band committed to experimentation in 2014 has its work cut out for it. Sure, artists can flavor rock ’n’ roll with pedal tech or substitute a six-string for something more exotic, but can a band make a rock record that expands as much as it rehashes?
While dads and Rolling Stone editors ponder this question, Laughing Man is trying to answer it. Since their 2010 release The Lovings (’63-’69), the members of the D.C. quartet have been active in the city’s experimental and independent artistic ecosystems, playing drums in Paperhaus, throwing avant-garde jazz shows, running alternative artist cooperatives, and talking up Laughing Man’s genre-liberated bona fides. But for all the external activity and interview chatter, The Lovings itself was fairly straightforward, blues-tinged rock, cut with occasional strings and Brandon Moses’ dynamic vocals.
Perhaps it was the four-year interlude between albums or the frequent interaction with widely disparate artists at spaces like Union Arts or Gold Leaf Studios, but on its newest release, Be Black Baby, Laughing Man has recorded an EP of solid rock tracks unlike those of any of its peers or collaborators.
There are few similarities with the band’s last outing to be found in Be Black Baby. It sheds the lo-fi reverb and distortion that coated The Lovings; its expanded sonic palette includes reverse pedals, kinda shreddy guitar solos, electronic drums, and a saxophone. Moses’ vocals, which propelled the first record and cut through the hissing of record tape, have changed significantly: On The Lovings, Moses yelped and warbled; songs like “Nagasaki” and “The Veri” on Be Black Baby show his capacity for restraint and the precisely placed scream.
Which isn’t to say that this is a particularly coherent record. Be Black Baby is sometimes post-punk, sometimes math rock, sometimes vaguely bluesy. “Body Cop” endures suite-like shifts in time signature, tone, and mood, transforming from atmospheric jam into a tinny garage-rock anthem and back again in just about a minute. Whether listeners find them jarring or exhilarating, the metamorphoses the EP undergoes in the span of its 20-minute runtime is unexpected.
The key, though, is all in the packaging. The songs are duct-taped together by a series of ambient tracks cut with scratchy soundbites of political speeches and musings on race and blackness in America. These moody and textured interludes provide breathing room and a semblance of continuity among wildly different tracks. Be Black Baby is a collection that should be listened to from front to back, if not because that’s completely doable in 20 minutes, then because its the only way the songs really make sense together.
Advocates for D.C.’s music scene often lament the lack of recognition that many local bands are said to “
deserve.” It’s thinking like this that threatens accomplishments of artists and collectives like Laughing Man. Be Black Baby isn’t going to reel in too many national converts: The album cross-pollinates too frequently, welding garage-rock outros to pseudo-emo ballads prefaced by avant-garde jazz interludes. It’s not a recipe designed for commercial success.
But lack of recognition shouldn’t be a marker by which to judge an album’s quality. Be Black Baby is ambitious, curious, and strange. The band promised to rock and explore, and did both while still managing to produce listenable, interesting material. Forget fame—the invention is the real feat.