Sam Rosenthal has been the principal songwriter in Black Tape for a Blue Girl for 25 years -- ever since he started recording in his dorm room with borrowed school equipment. Though he's remained true to a characteristic gothic, romantic tone, the project has continued to evolve and change membership.
"I wouldn't want to still be writing the same album I was 25 years ago," says Rosenthal via phone, as he walks the streets of Manhattan. "I think that would say some things about me that aren't really glowing."
With 2009's album 10 Neurotics, Rosenthal made a distinct break with his past, and produced perhaps his most arresting album. Ending a five-year fallow period -- the longest in the history of BT4ABG -- he assembled a new band, learned a new instrument and developed a new way of writing. (In the interim he also collaborated with Nicki Jaine, who became a Black Tape vocalist on the support tour for 2004's Halo Star.)
"After Halo Star, I started getting divorced; suddenly I didn't really feel like making music," Rosenthal recalls. "I came back after having worked through these various things feeling free to do whatever it was I wanted."
One of the first changes was picking up an acoustic guitar. Rosenthal had always played keyboards, fashioning atmospheric darkwave indebted to acts like The Cure, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins. The approach on 10 Neurotics is more gritty Weimar-inspired cabaret -- somewhere between Tom Waits and Nick Cave. With the guitar, "you're hitting it, keeping a beat with it, which is different than the keyboards, which can be more floaty," says Rosenthal. "What resulted were songs that had more of a verse-chorus effect at times."
These musical changes dovetailed with Rosenthal's new lyrical approach. Instead of his emotionally circumspect, oft-confessional style, he uses narrative sketches and characters to explore salacious subject matter: S&M; furries; adulterers; exhibitionists; humiliation play; and anonymous sex.
"I wanted to write a whole bunch of stories where people were telling you about themselves," Rosenthal says, "and not come at it like a judge, like, 'This one is doing something really weird; we don't find this unacceptable,'" he says. "Not every one of them is in the fetish theme. Some of them are people in relationships that are ... one would say they're messed up, because they're describing this thing and you go, 'Oh, whoa.' And some of that's from real life. Some is a combination of people, but there's a lot of real life in there."
But the Black Tapes' Halo Star-era singer was "frightened by the lyrics," Rosenthal says, and suddenly, he was looking for new singers. "I was looking for people I knew were good singers but also have good stage presence," he says. "Then when they're on stage they could hold up with or keep up with the characters that they're portraying."
The final big change 10 Neurotics brought was the first-time addition of a live drummer: Brian Viglione, on a break from the Dresden Dolls. He performs on about 70 percent of the album, adding a bristle and vibrancy that supports the album's more theatrical, lively sound. It's not just pretty textures that swallow up the vocals, turning them into just another instrument. These are now miniature dramas with careening, oddball energy commensurate with that of the songs' characters.
The band arrives in Pittsburgh exactly one year after its last performance. In between, Valerie Gentile (The Crüxshadows) replaced singer-guitarist Jaine in October, prompting the inclusion of new songs. "So even though we are still playing 10 Neurotics," Rosenthal says, "we'll be doing different things off the same album."
Like the album's characters, Rosenthal has learned to accept himself for who he is and what he wants to do, rather than worrying what others might think.
"Realizing I don't have to be exactly who I was in the past is a very freeing thing," says Rosenthal. "You don't have to play yourself. You can do whatever you want to do now. With the band now I feel much more allowed to do that than at a time when I felt I had to do certain things to please imaginary people out there."
Black Tape for a Blue Girl. 9 p.m. Sat., Jan. 15. Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $12 ($15 day of show). 412-682-0177 www.thunderbirdcafe.net