Michael Belfer, Bryan Head, Paul Durham, Geoff Stanfield
The Dark Pop of Black Lab by Jeff Apter

March 1998

More years ago than I can remember, The Who cut a song called "The Seeker." While Pete Townshend did a fair impersonation of a windmill, thrashing his guitar into splinters, Roger Daltrey howled, "They call me the seeker, been searching low and high. Don't think I'll get what I'm after 'til the day I die." It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to call "The Seeker" a theme song for Paul Durham, the brains of Black Lab. (You can't miss Durham – he sings, strums, writes, co-produces, and stands dead-center in all band photos.)

During his twenty-nine years, Durham's been searching for, well, something, anything. He was a Nietzsche devotee, studying at Berkeley and Oberlin colleges. He almost converted to Judaism, despite being raised a Buddhist; and he has devoted plenty of years and tears to getting his rock'n'roll act together. Now with Black Lab's sleek slice of angst-rock, "Wash It Away," their hit single all over the airwaves, it could be that Durham's found his elusive outlet.

In the sonic pigeonholing scheme of things, Black Lab are part of the "new seriousness," alongside mega-sellers such as Matchbox 20, The Verve Pipe, et al. What these earnest, austere acts lack in laughs and/or character, they make up for in substance, crafting hook-heavy, emotionally wrought, arena-ready rock.

Yet there's a darker, denser quality to Black Lab's debut album, Your Body Above Me (Geffen). Their sound does have hints of moody Britpopsters The Psychedelic Furs, especially in Bianco's late-night growl of a voice, and the rumbling rhythms and sleek melodic grooves that underscore most of the dozen tracks. (U2, The Cure and Sisters of Mercy also make it onto the checklist.)

Despite their soundalike tendencies, however, Black Lab still shoot for diversity. Their debut album mixes up surly, guitar-driven pop with ripples of sheer noise, and highly strung lyrics watered down with quieter meditations (see "She Loves Me"). "Thin White Lie" takes a funkier turn, contrasting a hefty chorus with nimble guitars and gloomy overtones, while "Ten Million Years" is both spacious and spooky.

In their attempts at diversity, however, they don't always succeed – Black Lab sometimes get the terms "emulation" and "innovation" confused – but their dark romanticism stands out amongst today's overly caffeinated Generation X nihilism.

Apart from a few amps of wattage – and a peculiar cover of Devo's "Girl You Want" – not a lot separates the live version of Black Lab from the studio band. When I saw them at Tramps in New York City on March 5th, they were sandwiched uncomfortably between Canada's brooding Tea Party and the even surlier Big Wreck. But they still managed to win over some new converts. "This is our first New York show," admitted lanky, sunken-cheeked frontman Durham – who, incidentally, could pass as a close relative of The Addams Family's Lurch – but he didn't appear too daunted by the New York occasion. He and the band proved they're more than one-hit, high-rotation wonders.

"Wash It Away," naturally, was a standout, but "X-Ray" poured on the energy and power riffing. "Sleeps With Angels" was loose-limbed, while "Time Ago" and its pure-pop smarts hinted at another hit-in-waiting.

Although they don't exactly exude personality on stage, Durham's sheer height (and his dazzling red shirt) ensures he grabs attention, while guitarist Michael Belfer, all tattoos and grimaces, laid one barbed-wire riff upon another. Along side them, skin-man Bryan Head and solidly-built bassist Geoff Stanfield kept the rock-steady rhythms ticking over. Their sound was powerful, clean and well-executed. It's clear that Black Lab have the musical licks to match their brooding, serious-young-men demeanors.

And high marks for their cool, too. When some half-brained K-Rock jock burst on stage (this was a partial live broadcast, you see), rather than join in the puerile patter, Durham and company stood back, disinterested looks on their faces, letting the rock'n'roll wannabe have his thirty seconds in the spotlight. It doesn't seem like Black Lab plan to play the sycophant's game, which can only be a good thing for their future.


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