Someone broke up with Christian Gibbs. The curly haired Brooklyn singer-songwriter has released several solo albums — the latest a 2005 whisky-soaked, harmonica- and steel guitar-infused marriage of Neil Young and Tom Waits — but required a band of four instrumentalists gleaned from his borough’s folk scene to record the haunting, if slightly unhinged, lovesick ballads on ‘Capo My Heart’ and Other Bear Songs. Perhaps he needed some moral support.
Lucinda Black Bear spikes the sweet falsetto and desolate melodies of Elliott Smith and Sparklehorse with Nick Cave’s dark aggression. At first, Gibbs recorded these tracks alone at home, and their lo-fi, piano-and-guitar core is still audible. But it’s Mike Cohen on bass, Kristin Mueller on drums, Chad Hammer on cello, and Clare Burson on violin who prevent the surprising, complex album from rehashing Either/Or.
Like a nineteenth-century German song cycle, Capo My Heart documents the erratic stages of romantic loss. “Fought the Bear” establishes the situation’s severity, evolving from an understated, melancholy tune into wild-eyed rant. Unevenly layered strings create tension, and Gibbs roars into the chorus amid crashing drums, crying, “Fought the bear with my bare hands!”
The fourth track, “Capo My Heart,” is where Gibbs hits rock bottom. The minor, piano-driven ballad’s tempo plods along, as if the band might not have the will to hit the next note. It doesn’t ease up: The next song begins with, “Give me god, give me death.” And after pretending he has recovered on the playful, folksy “Noon Day Sun,” Gibbs spins into “Give U Nothin’” — a crazed, bitter diatribe. Surrounded by dissonant chords and chromatic runs, reverberating, jangling guitar and off-beat hooks, he moans, “You’re going want me one day/ and I’m going to wait till that day/ and I’m going to give you nothing/ watch you while you bleed.”
Gibbs began his career in the early ’90s when he arrived in London for a semester abroad, answered a help-wanted ad and traded college for employment as Modern English’s guitarist. He signed to Atlantic in 1999 for one solo album and then quickly returned to obscurity, recording under C.Gibbs Review, C.Gibbs and the Cardia Bros., and most recently as C.Gibbs for 2005’s Parade of Small Horses. “Here I Am,” is the most similar to Gibb’s recent solo work, as he drops into a scratchy baritone amid a honky-tonk climax of tickling piano and heavy drums. The song loses all sense, however, when it fades into a spacey, echoing Queen-esque coda.
Bizarre codas are Capo My Heart’s primary flaw — Gibbs needs to learn how to bow out gracefully. The worst is closer “Hibernation Song,” composed entirely of buzzing, hairy strings. Perhaps it’s meant to sound like the lonely nighttime forest depicted on the cover, after the bears have fallen asleep and the moon it out, but it has little in common musically with the other arrangements. Then again, maybe the entire album is about being unable to let go.