Long Lights, the second full-length album of Saint John’s Penny Blacks, saw release this season. The creative vessel of songwriter Jason Ogden, Penny Blacks has been making periodical creative offerings since 2011, blending genres and putting out some of Saint John’s strongest records.
It’s been two years since Penny Blacks’ last release, their EP Molskine Weather. In that time, the band’s sound has evolved. Less somber and subdued but no more hopeful, Long Lights combines Penny Blacks’ usual dark indie-acoustic malaise with a heavier blues-rock—not the direction we’d really expected, but one that’s definitely led somewhere worthwhile. This musical development feels almost a throwback to the upbeat energy of The Silver Screen EP, but without the knowing, commercially-accessible Joel Plaskett-y charm.
Long Lights opens with ‘Black Wool,’ setting the tone of the album within its first minute. ‘Black Wool’ is a lengthy, winding jam led with a dark, bluesy groove and backing violin, all overlaid by a rambling tale of violence and human history before the song degenerates into a series of increasingly intensive blues-rock guitar breakdowns. Following on this bold open is ‘Good Dog,’ which starts off in similar fashion, with despondent lyrics, slick guitar work, and a subtle bluesy bass riff, but takes its own direction, building to an impressively catchy finale.
Hands-down the most outstanding track on the album, ‘The High Tides Motel’ starts unassumingly. With just some light guitar picking accompanied by slow, despondent vocals, the sparse sound lulls listeners just in time for the song to shift to dramatic intensity. Even at it’s peak, though, ‘The High Tides Motel’ is somber and somewhat sinister, with the violin and distorted guitar blending into an elegant chaos. Following this powerful piece is the eponymous ‘Long Lights,’ a nine-minute long slow groove that, while not as memorable as might be expected of a title track, is still captivating and thoroughly enjoyable. ‘The Night Manager,‘ a sonorous, lonesome dirge, deserves a mention as well, with its meandering melody and wistful lyrics perfectly capturing the feeling of late-night solitude.
The final tracks on Long Lights are some of the most overtly dismal. While ‘Scrimshaw Coming-of-Age Triumph’ certainly sounds brighter and more serene than the rest of the album, the lyrics of nostalgic bitterness cast the song in an entirely different light. With a chillingly dark blues-rock groove, ‘Teardrop’ finds the perfect balance between emotionally distraught and eerily detached that encapsulates the feel of the entire album. Long Lights closes with the pained recollections of ‘To Pieces.’ Building from a sorrowful melody and vulnerable lyrics, ‘To Pieces.’ mourns a lost lover with staunch refusal to reconcile, closing the album with the haunting line “Forgiving you just gives you the courage to hurt me again.”