Blackwood Company, Forbidden Fruit

Blackwood Company, Forbidden Fruit

I once had to make the agonizing drive from Houston to Los Angeles in one sitting. From the grueling scorch of land between San Antonio and El Paso through the mind-hell that is Arizona, I really wish that I’d had Blackwood Company’s debut album, Forbidden Fruit, with me. The album begins with a fluttery synth and a distant guitar, and as soon as the first song drops in, you immediately feel that you should be driving cross-country in a convertible with the wind in your hair.

At first listen, you’d definitely think that Blackwood Company offers light, sunny, upbeat fare wrapped in diverse musicianship and crafty guitar solos. This is due in part to the bright acoustic guitars and melodic vocal harmonies, but upon closer inspection, you realize that the songs have a slightly darker presence that belies their upbeat feel.

Forbidden Fruit took the better part of a year for singer/songwriter John Stuart and guitarist Stephen “Sven” Shirl to write and record. John handled most of the songwriting duties on his acoustic guitar, and it’s the songwriting, by far, that makes the album so enjoyable. Don’t get it twisted, mind you — Sven can rip a guitar solo, and Dan Hassay is a monster on drums, but the songwriting is both crafty and personal, deeply melancholy and entertaining and is the heart that pulls you into the songs.

In “Indie Blues Pt. 1,” John bemoans, “It’s hard as hell playing to an empty room / Told the manager all my fans’ll be here soon,” which every local band in Houston can at one time or another relate to. He cleverly tells of the traps and pitfalls that make up the local music scene, and the problems that confront every band at one time or another. Then there’s the scathing admonition of Fred Phelps in the song “Reverend Phelps,” where John reminds the reverend, “Reverend Phelps, God don’t hate a soul he made / Even demagogues who decry gay pride parades.”

There’s definitely more than a hint of Beck here and a touch of Liz Phair, which John openly admits is an influence. The album also has a mildly erratic nature. You’ll hear keyboards and synths in one song, and a didgeridoo on instrumental track “When the Bees Go…” The songs will swing from a pop acoustic feel to rockabilly to bluesy love ballads.

Nevertheless, the diverseness is never distracting, and the album never loses the cohesive character that John and Sven stamp on it. If anything, it just feels more an extension of who John and Sven are as musicians and possibly a byproduct of listening to too much Beck. So anytime you have the notion of making a 22-hour nonstop trip across the country, be sure to take Blackwood Company with you. I even hear that John will play acoustic in your back seat.

(self-released; Blackwood Company --

Review by . Review posted Friday, August 21st, 2009. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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