If albums had taglines like movies do, Bambara‘s fourth full-length, Stray, could be: “Come for the music, stay for the stories”. Alternatively, its slogan could be, “Bringing storytelling back into music”, which could be applied to the trio as a whole. Reid Bateh (vocals/guitar), William Brookshire (bass), and Blaze Bateh (drums) are not just a psychedelic-infused post-punk band, but they are incredible songwriters. On Stray, they have created the musical equivalent of Frank Miller’s famed Sin City collection. It is, in other words, a dark, heavy, and astounding sonic and literary achievement.
The record, as such, must be heard in its entirety. Each of the ten songs is an individual vignette that that tells the story of multiple characters and their eventual collision. The curtain rises with the brooding “Miracle”. Conceived through immaculate conception, the young woman now spends her night entertaining men at The Cheetah. These leerers “see her and dream of young versions of their wives”. As she swirls around the pole, Miracle can only think “Meanness”, which is tattoed to the inside of her lip.
As Miracle dances, the weather outside storms on the hammering, pulsating “Heat Lightning”. With the skies turning dark, “Death rides at night in a copper Pinto”. He’s on a mission, and not even rain will prevent him from accomplishing his deed. En route, he curses meteorologists and describes them as “palm reading freaks”. If they think they can predict the future, they don’t know Death.
But death has already touched the life of our unnamed Protagonist, as described on the haunting and subdue “Sing Me to the Street”. He is lonely, emotionless man with only one thing on his mind. Yet a memory, an incident, or a forthcoming image permanently occupies his mind. He tries to convince himself that “You will go away / You will go / Can’t you see?“. That person, though, is not “Serafina”, who is at the heart of this blazing, screeching number that echoes Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. She is a firestarter in the mould of Stephen King’s Carrie, but a free spirit instead of a cursed woman. Everywhere she goes, she leaves a mark of her presence. People don’t fear her, though. They instead worship her existence because she represents free will. She represents everything we want to be. That our Protagonist wishes he could be.
Death, meanwhile, continues his journey and meets an older woman looking for a good time on the rollicking and mesmerizing “Death Coons”. Tonight, though, Death cannot be disturbed, and her life is not the one she wants. He instead sneaks away and heads on the road. An encounter, though, occurs miles away. On the smokey and foreboding “Stay Cruel”, the sleepless Protagonist sees Miracle dance for the first time. He is now a leerer, and he returns to The Cheetah each day like the creepy old men. One night, though, their hands touch, and his infatuation reaches new levels. All he wants from her is not love, but rather he seeks “no kindness, no tenderness, just cruel”.
A chance encounter is revealed on the rapid-fire (the rhythm section of Blaze and William is off-the-charts) “Ben & Lily”. The story is immensely dark and even slightly disturbing, as Reid tells the tale of two “halfwits”. Ben is a Eunuch after the fathers of the daughters he had been chasing cut him down. He met Lily at an asylum, who was similarly cut down “like rotten trees”. They break out, though, and fall in love. Eventually, though, tragedy strikes, which the Protagonist can only think what act of revenge they could do. Where they may be Death, there is also hope.
And Death is coming for him, and the Protagonist is ready. He has witnessed death, experienced pain, been in love, and now is lifeles. He says to himself on the gloomy, psychedelic western number, “Made for Me”:
“When Death comes driving through
Saying, ‘Son, take a seat.
I’ll say, ‘Only if you’re headin’ to
The Hell she made for me.’”
As he waits for Death’s arrival, the Protagonist’s hell exists in the people he meets and the images he sees in his vision. The bone-jarring, intense “Sweat” describes what he sees and hears. As Reid’s chiming guitar howls and Blaze’s and William’s rhythms heavily throb, encounters with John, Connor’s dead mom, Ed, and an unnamed woman are shared. The words of KC, however, linger like a foul taste in one’s mouth. She tells him:
“‘Son, no savior will return.
And his daddy ain’t waiting for us.
See what happened to Irene after years at the church.
Ain’t no Good Book keep maggots away from their lunch.’
The last words he said to his nurse were,
‘Pray for me.'”
Things come to a head on the magnificently dreary and pounding “Machete”. The song starts off with a stripped back approach, but it is still dark and heavy. It is the calm before the storm. But like in every previous vignette, memories fill the Protagonist’s mind. The most important is that of Crystal – the love of his life. As they fell in love, Death arrived and took her. At that moment, he did not react, but instead just watched Death take her away. This is the image that keeps him up at night and haunts him. Years later, his chance for revenge has arrived. As the song intensifies, he proclaims, “Not gonna run.” Whether he is victorious is unknown. Instead, like all great storytellers, Bambara leave it to us to determine the conclusion. They have only brilliantly laid out the path to get us to our own moment.
They have truly created a masterpiece of sonic literary art.
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