Occasion for Song, the fifth album by the Black Swans, is haunted by absence, from its cover art depicting a diving board over a swimming pool on the front, and late violinist Noel Sayre's headstone on the back (he drowned in 2008), to its 12 songs. As an album, it owns the truth of that absence; it looks unflinchingly at memory, existential questions, empty space, and grief, and ultimately accepts it all. Founders, vocalist guitarist Jerry DeCicca and bassist/pianist Canaan Faulkner, are augmented here by four others on banjo, guitar, B-3, and percussion. DeCicca's songs have always been steeped in the kinds of subjective truth that we find in history, movies, literature, and music. He uses allusion, metaphor, and history to weave his own hybrid mythology; none of his songs feel strictly confessional -- even if they are -- which is part of what makes the Black Swans' sparse Americana so compelling. There is only one song that directly addresses Sayre's death ("Portsmouth, Ohio"), but the album's overall tone expresses its meaning. Recorded in warm analog in a vintage Columbus studio, the band's sound here exists in the vast somewhere between the plaintive darkness of Townes Van Zandt's early records and the ethereal grayness of the Tindersticks' suffocating intimacy. "Basket of Light" addresses the bonds of friendship; it stands apart from the general tone of the album with its shimmering, nearly midtempo country stroll. Banjo, electric guitars, and B-3 envelop DeCicca and allow him to express his longing for that connection. In "JD's Blues" (a waltz), he sings: "This is a song about who I used to be/a shadow is a rainbow, the colors of eternity..." as if being shocked by the confrontation with the utterly transient nature of time. On "Work Song," he takes up the theme in a different way by addressing the awareness of how we spend our time, moment by moment. His lonesome harmonica solo acts as another voice entering from the margins to express empathy with the listener. "Fickle and Faded" is an elegantly understated paean to the mercurial quality of memory. In one verse he iterates that at 17 he saw Ramblin' Jack Elliott playing slot machines and the singer told him: "kid there ain't no promised land." True or not, these "memories" represent something greater; they inform the protagonist's world view. By calculation, Occasion for Song should be a downer. It's not; it's tender, gentle, and expresses what absence teaches in the music and poetic language of Gothic Americana -- without nostalgia or artifice.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek