The Disappearing Act—a magic trick? An illusion? Maybe a band? Well, it’s complicated, but you’re getting warmer. Ambiguous though it may be, The Disappearing Act could be roughly defined as a music project, a vehicle, an occasional, ongoing collaborative partnership between two longtime songwriting friends, Dallas’s Salim Nourallah and El Paso’s Bob Blumenfeld. “One reason we call it The Disappearing Act is that we never had any intention of being a performing band, we never had any intention of performing live, or making it into something more than a songwriting project,” Nourallah explains. “So it seemed like an amusing and fitting name for the group, because in essence the act has disappeared before it ever existed.” Existential uncertainties notwithstanding, The Disappearing Act has produced two albums to date, 2010’s The Disappearing Act (Tortilla Records), and Born to Say Goodbye (HIT Records), scheduled for release in October 2015. Disappearing? Not by a long shot.
Nourallah and Blumenfeld met in second grade, schoolmates in the way out west of El Paso. By the time they were in middle school the two were both deep into music, but their early attempts to play together proved short-lived. Salim recalls, “Bob always played guitar but he used all kinds of discombobulated tunings. My brother and I tried to play with him but it was difficult because of all his strange tunings—no one could figure it out.” The two kept in touch after high school, even as Nourallah built his musical career in Dallas and Blumenfeld continued to live in El Paso. Through the decades, music has always been the common thread of their friendship—case in point, Blumenfeld’s Tortilla Records label released Nourallah’s 90s band The Moon Festival’s second and third albums.
As a songwriting team, Nourallah and Blumenfeld have a unique modus operandi that developed spontaneously in Salim’s Pleasantry Lane Studio several years ago. On a visit to Dallas, Bob dropped by the studio to play some recent songs for Nourallah; Salim hit “record.” Still employing his trademark unconventional tunings, Bob ran through several meandering instrumentals to the amazement of his friend. “They were instantly evocative to me, like I was hearing words and melodies and ideas for songs,” Nourallah enthuses. “I was in the control room, and without telling him what I was doing I just plugged in a microphone, and then while he was playing I was singing these ideas that I had. That’s how this strange songwriting partnership began; it led to a very unorthodox way of writing songs.” While it doesn’t quite qualify as pure musical telepathy, the eavesdropping, real-time responsive nature of their collaborative process is a defining hallmark of The Disappearing Act’s art.
Salim Nourallah is a fixture of the Dallas music scene and a well-established indie icon; he’s also a go-to producer who was voted “Best Producer” by the Dallas Observer for seven consecutive years. He’s worked with the Old 97’s, Deathray Davies, Rhett Miller, Carter Albrecht, the Damnwells, Dashboard Confessional’s John Lefler and many more, and his own discography includes twenty releases in a range of approaches—solo, bands, and one-off side projects. Although it’s hard to pigeonhole, the music of The Disappearing Act inclines toward the college radio-friendly, indie-alt, singer-songwriter, confessional spectrum, with informing, detectable traces of 60s, 70s and 80s British pop, punk and rock. “One thing I love about Bob’s music, and this goes back to childhood, is that there’s an innocence to what he’s doing,” Salim says, “it’s all based on ear and feel—I get such a strong feeling from the music he writes. There’s a very childlike sort of naïve heart to all of this…”
From its eponymous debut to the new Born to Say Goodbye, The Disappearing Act’s creative trajectory continues to evolve toward the unconventional, as evinced in the second album’s atmosphere of synthetic beats, loops and electronic sounds that dot an essentially acoustic landscape. “It’s definitely different than any other project I’ve ever worked on,” Nourallah adds. And while it could be years before the project resurfaces with its third album, all the evidence suggests that the wait will be worth it. In the meantime, discover the magical, musical, evanescent abracadabra that is The Disappearing Act.
Emotional catharsis has long been a crucible of creativity for many of the great songwriters of this, or any era. And you can now add to one of the great “confessional music-as-therapy genre” Born to Say Goodbye, the second offering from the Dallas/El Paso-based project, The Disappearing Act. Lyricist/singer/bassist Salim Nourallah and composer-guitarist Bob Blumenfeld, collectively The Disappearing Act, have created a painfully personal masterpiece, with an almost ear-to-the-wall intimate atmosphere that permeates the ten- song collection, each chronicling the dissolution of Nourallah’s marriage.
“I don’t think I realized that this was going to be ‘the divorce album’ until the end,” Salim reveals. “It was just helping me survive, and it led me back to the most basic, almost primal reason that I ever got involved in the music in the first place, and reconnecting with it. I’ve only ever written songs, since I was a kid, to try to feel better…for me it’s always been a survival instinct.
The album started with Blumenfeld in El Paso, cutting instrumental guitar tracks and adding synthetic beats into the mix. He sent “mountains of stuff” to Nourallah in Dallas, and when the music spoke to him he’d respond with lyrics. “I’d come out to my studio when I was feeling particularly emotionally beat-up from what I was going through in my life and just sit down with the tracks,” Salim says. “I never put pen to paper to write the words; basically it was all free association.” Utilizing digital editing, he’d cut and paste different sections of a song into a form that worked for the narrative. “If we’d been in the 60s trying to write songs like this we’d have been cutting up pieces of recording tape and taping them together, but in essence that’s what I was using the computer to do.”
Speaking of the 60s, Nourallah is a hardcore Beatles aficionado, and some of the album’s most riveting moments are steeped in their later aesthetics. “Holiday” and “Misery Maker” are especially Beatles-esque, the latter boasting Ringo-ish drums, reverse tape effects and a vocal with raga-fied melismatic turns. Although the sonic glue that holds the album together is Blumenfeld’s acoustic guitar, dashes of Mellotron flutes, drum loops, analog synths, strings, either actual or mimicked by bowed guitar strings, add at least half a teaspoon of psychedelic frippery to the recipe.
Looking back on the journey of these songs, Nourallah notes that they seem to mirror the five stages of grief—denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “I’m seeing it all in this record,” he acknowledges. “It’s all there because I was writing while I was going through all those various stages, and the different songs represent the different stages I was in. Indeed, Born to Say Goodbye is something of a travelogue through the vicissitudes of a divorce, from the cautiously upbeat, ominous “You and Me,” to the stark abject revelations of “Failure Complete,” to the sleepless isolation of “Invisible,” through to the questioning chapter-turning of “Go,” the album’s last song. It’s a voyage through confusion, anger, lost innocence, introspection, incredulity, and resignation, and every stop along the way is a necessary one.
“I’ve come out on the other side, and now when I listen to it I do feel good about it,” Nourallah concludes. “But the hardest song for me is ‘Invisible’—it’s incredibly uncomfortable to me, but it reinforces that I’m glad that I’m not there anymore, and that is cathartic. I made it to feel better, and if someone hears it and it does something for them on some level, great…I’ve already gotten out of it what I needed to. It’s this thing that I’m proud of now, and it’s unfiltered and unedited and there’s all kind of love in it, and sadness, but ultimately I think it’s a love story. It didn’t have a happy ending for the two people who are in the love story, but there’s still a happy ending to be found elsewhere.” Stay tuned.