In Review: Black Bordello - Black Bordello

The psycho-jazz troop's debut is a thing of musical, lyrical and emotional shine steeped in theatre.
Posted: 2 July 2020 Words: Miles Ellingham

“It was an extensive process that sort of drove me to the edge,” Black Bordello’s Sienna Bordello told me in a brief discussion over the phone, “it drove me to the edge financially, emotionally and creatively as well.”  Indeed, self-releasing in today’s crowded, underfunded music climate is a tricky business, but it’s this ‘edge’ – discovered by Bordello, out there on the fringe of things – that makes Black Bordello’s debut album feel so radically inventive.  

Black Bordello have built up something of an insular cult-following in recent months, garnering a name for themselves after hosting successive ‘Night at The Bordello’ events, and a sell-out gig supporting Ben Wallers’ ‘The Rebel’ at The Windmill in Brixton.  However, the live shows, so frequently spilling over with Bordello’s signature brand of weaponised, ruckus hysteria, left some wondering if a such a thing would translate well in the studio. Now the debut album is out, Bordello have rebuffed such doubts, coming straight out the gate with nuance, poise, and no small tincture of madness. 

What defines the work more than anything, is the deep lode of theatrically that spills outward across the tracklisting.  There’s this pantomime playfulness that can only come about when people are truly enjoying themselves.  What’s more, is a strange form of multiple personality disorder to the song-writing; it’s almost as if some of them come in acts, and, in quick turns, Bordello’s many faces revolve for competing renderings of the same topic. 

The character of ‘Backache’, for example, an audial painting of stasis and depression, is, in its second act, gleefully reneged on as the tempo picks up and regression falls to rebellion. The pleading mantra of “Comfort me!” is relinquished and, in its place, comes good, old Aristotelian catharsis: “One day the burnout will get you!” Likewise, ‘Prufrock,' the opening track – paying credence to the Eliot poem from which it takes its name – is unafraid to mutate away from its initial tone, and what begins as something discreet, once more falls to a quickening chaos.  This ceaselessly ever-changeable canvas, keeps the listener on the back foot, and it’s quite exciting. 

Black Bordello’s exhibitionism is not only an allusion to the various musicians who’ve put performativity at the heart of song-writing – modern dandies, Cab Calloway, David Bowie and Marilyn Manson are all defining influences – but it also harkens back to long-lost traditions of Vaudeville and the avant-garde political operettas of Kurt Weill. Like Bowie, like Manson, like Weill, much of the album is built towards a musical Theatre of Cruelty, confronting the listener and transporting them into the psyche of someone new: whether that’s playing the villain, the heroine, or the damsel in distress. 

Furthermore, I’d be remised if I didn’t talk about the virtuosity of the thing. Black Bordello is a crew of serious musicians. The rhythm section comes to the four on tracks like ‘Leeches’ – a punk pushback against systems of sexual, psychiatric and financial oppression, “I was tired and anxious / It was my disorder / Thick leeches dripping on my skin / Makes me feel older.”  Whereas, it’s the vocal’s charisma that carries ‘Baby,' a big-tent crescendo of vengeful, female sexuality.  The album ends with the supremely catchy ‘Vienna,' a song in which Bordello practices restraint, reimagining the Austrian capital, complete with ghosts of Sigmund Freud and Europe’s oldest carousel.  I’d also recommend a viewing of the recently-posted video for ‘Backache’, a strange marriage of Anna Calvi and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon

Though the DIY approach to Black Bordello’s debut album occasionally endows it with a home-made feel, the project is an illustrious championing of the idea of showbiz.  It melds academic literary reference, primal wailing-therapy and jazz finesse for a thoroughly enjoyable forty minutes.  

Black Bordello is out tomorrow (Friday 3rd July), self-released. 

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