Bambara’s 2018 album, Shadow on Everything, intertwines multiple, mysterious narratives about death and fate. Whether you describe the band’s sound as spooky Americana Gothic or Spaghetti Western post-punk, this trio (including twin brothers Reid and Blaze Bateh, along with William Brookshire) definitely knows how to create an atmosphere.
Stray, Bambara’s latest, skulks in similar dark corners. Rather than a nameless Western town, however, the 2020 album takes place in Georgia (the band members grew up in Athens before they relocated to Brooklyn). This time around, nihilism has a name: Death. He drives a copper-colored Pinto, drinks Cosmopolitans, hates fireflies and haunts Stray’s doomed cast of characters.
Those who’ve been listening to Bambara’s unique mixture of noise rock and post-punk for a while will recognize their sonic signatures throughout Stray: Reid’s twanging guitar licks, Blaze’s merciless drum beats and William’s basslines rumbling underneath. All the while, Reid growls and spits lyrics like he was watching the events unfold first hand. It should come as no surprise that Reid is also a novelist. His deliciously literary lyrics feel less like an audiobook, though, and more like a film that hasn’t yet been made.
Opening track “Miracle” eerily recaptures the sound of the Pink Room in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me; a seedy striptease of a rhythm section and evocative lyrics about a woman with a tattoo on the inside of her lip that says “meanness.” Death himself shows up for the first time in “Heat Lightning,” described as fat and greasy, laughing with a sound like pigs squealing.
While the entire album is intoxicating, it’s the middle part of Stray that’s the most affecting, starting with the incendiary “Serafina,” a song which raises goosebumps despite proffering a litany of pyromania. Even if you’ve never seriously considered arson, it’s hard to resist the allure of lyrics like this:
“’People are who they are,’ she said
“And I want their kind of love, where you’re bad together and it’s good”
“Death Croons” is another standout, featuring backing vocals from Drew Citron and Anina-Ivory Block, heart crushing chord progressions and chilling lyrics: “I am not your kind / You’ll see when you see me in the light.” The piercing beauty of the guitar riffs in “Stay Cruel” match its masochistic prose: “Try to stay cruel / For me / want your leather, your steel, your heavy heel.” “Made For Me” continues the sweet torment, from sparkling synth beats to mournful lines like “Lit cigarettes will rain / As you feed my bones to hungry strays / You’ll kiss each one and give them names / Using my ribs for little game.”
Death is, quite literally, everywhere on this album. As the narrator says in the languid, romantic “Sing Me to the Street,” “Death will find us all.” He’s a serial killer who likes to take time with his victims, continuing to terrorize them for years.
Stray’s expanded timeline, along with Bambara’s skill in conjuring a distinctly Southern kind of horror, feels akin to True Detective’s spectacular first season. Perhaps no song is more indicative of this than album closer “Machete,” which elicits creeps like a horror movie that doesn’t seem all that scary until you awaken with a pounding heartbeat in the middle of the night.
Stray was released by Wharf Cat Records on February 14.
Leslie Hatton (@theinsolent1) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.