Conny Ochs - Black Happy
2013 Exile On Mainstream Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.
An alliance with doom sovereign Scott "Wino" Weinrich has made German soloist Conny Ochs a budding underground sensation. Renaissance Man Wino seemed destined for last year's collaboration with Ochs, Heavy Kingdom, when you consider Wino had already issued his moody and introspective acoustic solo flight, Adrift. Kindred souls met and Conny Ochs corraled an entire demographic he might've silently courted but probably never expected to win over.
On his latest album Black Happy, the title is indicative of what you'll be subjected to, a man belting acoustic and low-dialed electric guitar with random guest vocals whirring at his side and the occasional bass drum and percussion keeping time. Ochs frequently writes the music in an upbeat tone even if the themes of his songs cast a beguiling range of emotions: melancholia, aspiration, despondency, sarcasm and above all, enlightenment.
It's Neil Young for the doom leagues, even if Conny Ochs' frequent troubadour's cadence puts him in distant company of another Ochs from folk yesteryear. Conny and Phil may not be singing about the same things, given the relevancy of the times impacting each man's art. Yet there's sincerity and authenticity emitting from Black Happy that would easily resonate with the folk scene along with the doom sect, both demographics being sparse and self-guarded.
Conny Ochs presents himself like a guarded man cutting himself loose in the company of lost souls in search of his crooning angst. Ochs delivers to his audience like he spent years traveling the world's neo-hippie communes in order to hone his craft. Black Happy checks in under twenty-eight minutes and Ochs is both sparing and fulfilling with his eleven self-contained numbers. "Blues For My Baby," "Borderline," "Phantom Pain" and "Stable Chaos" could've come straight out of the sixties and early seventies, while the album's honky tonkin' finale "Mouth" wraps Black Happy on such an upbeat jive despite its self-lamenting lyrics.
The opening number "Exile" will immediately endear Ochs to his newfound doom disciples with its beleaguered slides and subliminal distortion, even if the choruses sweep upwards to higher ground to keep the hapless lyrical content from submerging to the point of no return. "No Sleep Tonight," "Blues For My Baby" and "Die In Your Arms" push forth their discomforting dispositions like Ochs tapped his own skein onto the paper where he scrawled the lumbering note lines and ambivalent chord progressions. "Die In Your Arms" brings about a swirling eighties alt kick in the key of the Violent Femmes despite the happy-go-lucky harmonica almost laughing overtop the swinging minutiae. Ditto for "Trust In Love," which carries even more of the Femmes' over-the-hedge snidery.
Where Black Happy succeeds most is its search for something real and tangible with which to climb out of the initial and afterthought despair the listener is confronted with. Conny Ochs sings with conviction and with conscience. He could've easily sunk into monotone on many of these songs and yet Ochs chooses to allay and soothe with brisk projection and high pitches in order to keep his album from qualifying as straight-out dirge. There's a quantified play for something deeper than merely wallowing in misery for eleven songs. By the time he hits "Trust In Love" and "Borderline," Black Happy gravitates towards something on the edge of spiritual. The album may wrap with a downplayed thumb bite, but there's every reason to feel comforted by Conny Ochs, who brings his love of Neil Young, sixties folk and rock and old-time blues into a harping but sensuous mingling for the modern age.