Let’s make one thing clear — there was never a secret supergroup session at some home studio in Nashville that included Lee Hazlewood, Townes Van Zandt, Stuart Staples from Tindersticks, and Mickey Newbury. That’s unforunate on a basic level, but also because it would have handily explained the genesis of the sounds emanating from Occasion For Song by The Black Swans. The Ohio-based band led by singer/songwriter Jerry DeCicca bears its share of melancholy and then some on their fifth album, but so do a million and one other indie bands, and none of them come anywere close to evoking the same sort of sad-sack super session described above.
Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that the album was crafted in an old-school, analog recording studio in DeCicca’s home town of Columbus. In fact, it’s the same studio where the DIY R&B labels Capsoul and Prix cut the ’70s collectors’ items that were eventually anthologized in The Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series. And there is in fact a tiny tinge of soul to be heard here and there in The Black Swans’ Americana laments, but it’s more the kind of soul that seeped across the border to country music in the ’60s and ’70s via artists like Tony Joe White and Larry Jon Wilson. Ultimately, DeCicca’s deep, mournful tones feel like they were born to rise up ghost-like from the aftermath of some catastrophic event and deliver poetically shaded cautionary tales. For instance, when he sings “This is a song about who I used to be/a shadow is a rainbow, the colors of eternity” on “JD’s Blues,” it seems like he could easily be singing in the voice of a spirit that’s already shuffled off this mortal coil.
The arrangements that frame DeCicca’s hypnotic incantations are steeped in gothic Americana, teeming with lonesome, reverb-laden guitar lines, back-porch banjo, and drunk-on-communion-wine organ. On “Fickle and Faded,” DeCicca describes a teenage encounter with folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in which the latter tells him, “Kid, there’s no such thing as a promised land.” In a way, that moment is a microcosm of the whole album, in which we face up to the reality behind the myths we may have held dear about the America in our minds. But perhaps the best part of it all is that we’re not sure whether the Elliott encounter ever really occurred or its purely a fictional device, and in the end, it doesn’t matter a bit.