Black Fingernails, Red Wine: Made Me All Mine

Self-love is my greatest struggle, by virtue of an extreme aversion to any patterned pitfalls of narcissistic behavior that, inevitably, a person will fall into, but an imbalance on the bell curve of the spectrum meets at the point of insidiousness: believe too strongly in yourself and risk perspective, criticize yourself too thoroughly and risk pleasure.

But I can’t help it: I often tell myself, “everyone hides something broken” as a grounding device, a tool to down the ante of my anxious tics and nervousness about what I do and what I like and what I want to do and who I want to like. I inhale slowly, exhale slower still, to remove myself from poseur sentiments, my impostor syndrome. But these little devices do nothing for the depressed face to which  my lust for writing yields to an ersatz sensibility that I will never write a great piece or explicate an experience well enough to satisfy my own standards. And it sounds pathetic—it might be pathetic—but the only medicine I know of which ultimately retires this mental wall is my admiration for painters. Hence the beginning of this piece about one of my favourite records, Black Fingernails, Red Wine, recently remastered and rereleased for vinyl by Eskimo Joe as part of a slow rollout of their catalog and what I predict to be a publicity tour in anticipation of a new record sometime next decade. This record is a cure to a terrible truth, I’ve only realized through a tableau I viewed at the death of 2018 in the Belvedere in Vienna, Austria.

I picture my being in the mold of man painted by Egon Schiele, a subject for The Embrace (II), a body rendered to waves, writ in shires of lush, teeming gestures, powerful yet gentle arms, shoulders, ash tree skin cresting on hills discolored by the limestone bone beneath them, before, oddly, lines cast to roll-ridden pudgy middle, before the leg just as defined in power, as with intonations of the macabre inherent to the damned riddled corpse, a visual tragedy, Herculean, wrapped, writhing, twisted; in an embrace of life or death, protector or destroyer, lover or rapist painted in a pose both admirable and abominable, a tribunal between Socrates and Nietzsche with only a tanned Adonis as witness and record keeper, his body radiating with Jekyllian terror at the evil of his subconscious, as if horrified at his own binary potential between good and evil, yet entirely unaware of his own majestic entropy; too concerned, with, he like the audience is drawn to, the Venus of his desire, peach pitch skin, a shade of foggy warmth befit for dawn in April or October, dew dipped and glowing, a canvas colored equally in shades fresh with life, yet ripening with age, ever beautiful but with each mortal coup and stroke, human, she is as he is: binary, but replete with the prismatic tones of tints and shades and hues and flesh; their embrace is at once omnipotent as it is impotent; they can not stop time, only hold moments, they can not cure nature of itself, only euthanize it, before Schiele’s eyes, taking his mentor’s, Gustav Klimt’s, Der Kuss—a collage of art nouveau, impressionist, cubist romantics, stacked into a towering tableau moderne of symbolism; breaking down every foreground form to circles, squares, shapes concentric, linework woven and embroidered, polygonal fields of lilacs and blues bordered by gilded bronze and cubist coats and whirlpool robes, Eve kneeling to an L, eyes closed, her hand on Adam’s hand and his hands and her face, nymphic, harbored and cradled together, his head protruding from the stoic posture of its golden sheath, phallic, the ivy in his oaken crown pressing the flowers in her hair, her toes curling backwards, the idyllism of Klimt’s subjects immutable yet tangible yet impossible—and breaking it.

In this picture I see an insane man and madwoman in embrace, the field of violets and bluebells bleached into a quilted pile of dirtied linens like clothespieces, makeshift, temporary, a smudged meadow for the moment to be effaced by the future, laid diagonal to swirling, formless background noises of mustards, mayonaisses and olive, colours perhaps of modernity, perhaps of psychology,  no matter; in this picture I see myself and I see my love, narcissism permitted; in this picture what I see is two nihilists, neophytes embracing the only thing they have left before that too is erased, the horror that Kierkegaard suffered, Turgenev discussed and Camus pondered. These notes are an avalanche come upon me each time I contemplate Schiele’s and Klimt’s pieces together, a barrage of inferences  collapsing upon my inward person, the id swallowing the ego whole in defiance of the superego, shaking it violently enough to the point of revaluation. If art fails to do so, then I am unconvinced that it is good1.

1This bare-minimum aesthetic theory brought to you by limited readings of 20th century psychology, ethics and an undercurrent desire to explain why the author is so enamored by Marc Chagall’s surreal oilwork in concert with more straightforward creativity just as earth shattering: sometimes the simplest art is something which shatters the emotional wall with an embroidered dept of basics paired with thread-bare themes, hence my summation for how both The Fiddler and “Under Pressure” can be considered moving pieces of human experience.

And I am, as of yet, uncertain whether Black Fingernails, Red Wine is a moving piece of art or not. I’m hesitant to assign it any some such legendary status outside of my personal canon for the same reasons that I’ve derided their first two records. Oblique devices for vague imagery of personal failings, interpersonal breakdown, innocent affection, carnal desire that like Temperley’s failings, fail to sound much more than just words to a melody, however much those words may sound more appropriate and securely connected. The big picture is defined, the details are left to the imagination—some might say this is a Van Morrison-approach to lyricism, but in practice it translates like Toto. Kavyen Temperley’s penchant to demonstrate his inability to write anything but opaque metaphors and prismatic non-seqiturs means that had I been all as flowery in my description of Eskimo Joe’s prosaic powers, you would have to ask yourself if I finally had railed lines of adderall, chugged a tall boy of Red Bull and sat down to a whooping “HUZZAH!” before launching into a bullshit diatribe-analysis about Temperley’s lesser wordsmithing moments better suited for a post-it note. My love for this long-player is not without its compromises and, much ado about Temperley’s poetry, the bass absolutely disappears in some mixes, squashed under the higher frequencies when played over lesser soundsystems, sometimes I have to really crank the bitch up before I can get her to growl. “Comfort You,” “New York” and “Breaking Up” power through this with their howling, wild wind piano and riffwork, but cuts like “Setting Sun,” “London Bombs,” Suicide Girl,” “How Does It Feel” and the like lose that swing that makes the title track and “Sarah” and “Breaking Up” and “Beating Like a Drum” so goddamn catchy. This isn’t so much a crime considering the phenomenally simple piano melodies and some passable string sections that cover it up, but the problem is still (not) there, lurking under the surface, supporting the menace exuded in Temperley’s tenor.

Yet, despite these nibbling quibbles with Eskimo Joe’s third record re discography, the fact remains that I anticipated the vinyl rerelease of this long-player with unbridled cherubic joy (just as I did for Inshalla and just as I am for A Song is a City; the cheeky bastards just can’t help but tease) and proceeded to devour it in two spins on Tuesday night, every cut on this long-player cracking open my person with a torrent of myriad aesthetic flashes just as it did 13 years ago to the month right to my predisposition to wonder on the watercolor faces of Stu Macleod, Joel Quartermain and Kavyen Temperley, lush brushed and brooding.


Because this was the record.

This was the record that launched a thousand days, accompanied a thousand dreams, sent me spiraling into innumerable replays of depressive episodes and rescued me with piano keys echoing, guitar riffs ricocheting, hooks vaulting, voice hollering from the cavernous grooves pocketed in this blood red record, disk turning on a ruby bath of pressed mid-Aughts alternative, as consequential of Seventeen Seconds, Primitive Man, Underneath the Colours and Echo & the Bunnyman as it was contemporaneous to Hot Fuss and A Beautiful Lie. And for the sake of comprehensiveness, I decided too that the CD edition, replete with demos, remixes and live versions was needed, really, I should just say wanted. The selected remixes are picked from a dancerock EP put out in the wake of the original record’s acclaimed release on June 10th 2006, an EP which I already have. And I’m not much sold on any of the other extras, live records require a headspace and the deluxe edition of Black Fingernails, Red Wine is no different, especially when considering how incredibly intricate and tech saviness the majority of the LP requires. There’s nothing there that the original twelve tracks couldn’t provide, with the demos specifically dragging Eskimo Joe back towards the genera that sounds so trite compared to the material unleashed 13 years ago upon Australian listeners expecting another regular alt-rock long-player; their second offering from Warner Bros. Australia is a tour de force record which lost an Australian Recording Industry Award (ARIA) for Best Rock Album of 2006 to Wolfmother’s eponymous debut, a fact which I’m still not salty about at all. At all.

I’m not even salty about it losing the album of the year category to Bernard Fanning’s new wave James Taylor post-uni eurotrip abbreviation of soft-rock hooks, singer-songwriter confessionalisms and a Gold Coast drawl that is Tea and Sympathy, only abated by the sense that (one) had the ARIA committee not given it to Fanning, they would have certainly given it to the Wolfmother Inc., for being syndicated by the pinnacle of mid-aughts comedy, Jackass II, and that (two) the ARIA’s are the Australian exec equivalent to the Grammies, signifying nothing but metal tinsel, champagne toasts and flaking album stickers commemorative only to the magpies in marketing murdering for some decorative scrap. This ambuscade feeds on my vanity, in both describing my distaste and hinting at what I needed; as John Rockwell debated in his essay to drum up critical & technical support for Linda Ronstadt’s career that “in rock criticism, commercial success doesn’t so much attest to quality as corroborate it,” before launching to extensive vocal analysis of Linda Ronstadt’s octave range, how it warbles along and how it wraps itself in the American Songbook as both a tribute and a triumph of the folk-rock-blues-country tradition recategorized off/underhandedly as “blue-eyed soul,” that is, whiteys singing over the black beat, whipped cream skimming on the coffee2, instead of giving Ronstadt her technical due. But I’ve neither skill nor capacity for such analysis. All I can explain is in basic terms: how Temperley’s voice rises to angelic falsetto “And I know I should’ve stayed in bed,” from the streetbeat down-on-his-luck baritone sinner singing on the boulevard of hell, “And where were you while we lay/ So drunk that we died;” how Quartermain’s percussion is exceptional in its punctuation, detailing the crescent crash on star-crossed eyes spurned with each smash of the cymbal and slap of the tom-tom; how MacLeod’s riffwork rings and shines and swoons with callbacks to Johnny Marr at his most angst-ridden musings—a whole record of nigh-orchestral “How Soon Is Now’s” along 42 minutes of neo-gothica altered-sanity; three lovesick lovers who love to love the loves who loved their love and all that Van Morrison shit despite their dying, hateful selves disseminated along every cut, even the sopping wet ones.

2Perhaps that’s why Bangs was so concerned with finding that “real” stuff, the one-hundo percent bona fide rock and roll that’ll twitch and spin your eyeballs on themselves so fast, you struggle to keep the motherfuckers sealed in your head and attached to your brain, livewired hot and steaming, but I digress, another diatribe for another time.

See, what I needed was validation: something that loved me as I loved it unto death, wearing out the point to my quivering needle, my stylus mortal, my memory a ripple in the water, so much so I’ve fallen in love, broken my heart, relapsed, overdosed on Black Fingernails, Red Wine in multiplicity and with accelerating haste every time. I would die on this record like a Zephead would die on Presence. But this is not a Zephead record—that is Wolfmother and Wolfmother are successors to the alternative power rock formula that has permeated our most recent decades: add distortion and simplify (four chords and a bare minimum beat should do the trick); the Arctic Monkeys abused this neologism for danceroom punk and garage rock for the first four long-players of their career before listening to a Nick Waterhouse LP and deciding to submerge themselves in lounge music and so did Wolfmother, a contemporary half-a-world away, suckling off the same black tar teet as the most crass Page or Hendrix or Iommi fan would gather, it’s why hard rock proto-metal stylings peaked in 1975 and plummeted since; we hurrah the arrival of a Wolfmother or an Elephant or an Attack and Release as infusion of known products, but let us writers jerk off on those, lest the musicians songwrite with all the emotional depth of a rock band at the nudies, the pornographic vaudeville theatre (Greta Van Fleet, essentially). This is not to say Wolfmother are pretending to be “deep” but that there’s only so many ways to reference a melodic equivalent of “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” before we understand what this “love” really is; I can count it on one finger. I can listen to Wolfmother once per a year and it would be enough. I could listen to one record, Black Fingernails, Red Wine, every day from here to eternity. I could clutch my last pillow as it fades on the final notes of “How Does It Feel.” If I could die in embrace of this record, I would choose so, and I would be happy.

And that is validation enough.

Album Artist: Eskimo Joe

  • Kavyen Temperley—vocals, guitars, piano
  • Stu MacLeod—lead guitars, backing vocals
  • Joel Quartermain—drums, guitars, piano, backing vocals

Producer: Self-Produced w/ Burt Reid
Label: Warner
Genre: Alternative Rock, New Wave

  1. “Comfort You”
  2. “New York”
  3. “Black Fingernails, Red Wine”
  4. “Breaking Up”
  5. “Setting Sun”
  6. “London Bombs”
  7. “Sarah”
  8. “This is Pressure”
  9. “Beating Like a Drum”
  10. “Reprise”
  11. “Suicide Girl”
  12. “How Does it Feel”

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About BenJamsToo

An insane man moonlighting as a respectable member of society from Portland, Oregon. A rock ‘n’ roller since his mother first spun The Police’s “Roxanne,” Ben is a lover of all things rock, soul, funk, jazz, blues, electronic and hip-hop. Perhaps it’s easier to list what he doesn’t like: most gangsta rap, country-western and modern metal disagrees with his stomach. Once upon a time, a friend told him to write about music. So he started doing that under the title of a Willie Bobo cover by Santana. Now he wonders about what Stu McKenzie has for breakfast, why John Congleton is the best damn record producer this side of the millennium and just how Common came to be his favourite hip-hop star. He’s been working on that last one for nearly a decade now. No answers yet.