Day Fifty-Two: Dead Man’s Bones – Dead Man’s Bones

ANTI-/Werewolf Heart Records ■ ANTI 87047-1

Released October 6, 2009

Produced by Tim Anderson¹

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Intro
  2. Dead Hearts
  3. In the Room Where You Sleep
  1. Buried in Water
  2. My Body’s a Zombie for You
  3. Pa Pa Power
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Young & Tragic
  2. Paper Ships
  3. Lose Your Soul
  1. Werewolf Heart
  2. Dead Man’s Bones
  3. Flowers Grow Out of My Grave
It’s always a puzzle, how to present this band.

It’s difficult to throw out a description of the band itself and get people to stop long enough to listen–two amateur non-musicians write strange, semi-macabre songs that they sing and play with a children’s choir. A novelty, maybe, or a curiosity–but more likely, it sounds like something you wouldn’t want to listen to.

And there’s that other thing.

It’s kind of like trying to present Brother Ali and skip over the fact that he’s a white albino Muslim rapper. It’s a lame pigeonhole, but it gets people’s attention, and his skills generally hold him up past those facts. That’s the sort of thing that should happen here, as well, but because we aren’t talking about simple, concrete facts that we may even deal with ourselves, it becomes different. But, of course, I can’t properly discuss an album the way I do and constantly write [redacted] for one of the two “founding” members.
So let’s just get this out of the way: the gentleman on the top far right of the cover in the waistcoast is Ryan Gosling. Yes, that Ryan Gosling. Now, we know that actors in bands usually lead to things like hilarious 80s references (I’m looking at you, Willis and Murphy), or embarrassing attempts to use star power to boost a mediocre band (it would be difficult to name all of those), or hobbies and passions unintentionally elevated simply because of that star power–in any case, it tends not to go well. That isn’t the case here, and Ryan generally disappears into the music, utterly separated from his sex symbol actor-y-ness (though you wouldn’t guess it from comments on Dead Man’s Bones videos on YouTube).²

I’m sure it was my long-lived love of Gosling’s acting (a chance happening upon 2001’s The Believer planted his name in my head long before The Notebook really, really broke him) that did direct me toward the group, but I can’t actually be sure. I believe it was in the days I was still wobbling between Facebook and MySpace as means of connecting with people and–especially–bands. I know the first thing I ever saw was a live recording of Ryan and partner-in-crime Zach Shields performing their song “In the Room Where You Sleep” on piano and simple drum set up, backed by their regular co-conspirators, the youthful Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir (all dressed for Halloween, though I’m not sure it was even recorded in October). It was a surprise–it didn’t make any (ahem) bones about Gosling’s semi-nascent star power, indeed his face is scarcely visible, though not deliberately hidden either.

This album actually came out on a heavy new release day for me, back in the Borders days. I remember the day quite well, as I was also out shopping for a gift for an important birthday, and listening to the album as I made that trip–though I also had a new Mission of Burma, a new Mountain goats and a new Powerman 5000 album with me as well. (Curiously, this previously-reviewd album and a few others I’ve purchased in the interceding years were also released that day–quite a day, so far as I can tell) I remember being quite pleased with it, though a bit disappointed in the differing sound of the track I knew alone, and quite focused on it and my new favourite track from the album.

It actually starts with a simple intro, the crack of thunder and howl of wind in the distance, a woman’s voice reciting a poem about leaving a dead love, the mention of the afterlife accompanied by those environmental sounds to really establish the tone of the album.

“Dead Hearts” has a mild heartbeat in it, but is shaped largely from haunting “Oooh”s, gently strumming acoustic guitars, and the airy vocals of Zach and Ryan. The heartbeat begins to pound faster and faster, timpanis pounding loudly but intermittently, and establish the one more completely for the album by weaving it into the music. When a glass shatters, and then more follow it, vague screams and distant choral voices that all lead us back to the subdued and insubstantial vocals we started with, I’m left with remembrance of Bob Drake (don’t worry, I think that’s a meaningless association for almost everyone else in the world). The song breaks down and dissipates almost completely, becoming little more than haunted house-like sound effects–it’s a ghoulish, but cheerfully so, kind of sound, and the one that actually defines the album and the group as a whole: it’s not grand guignol-type horror, it’s not quite Universal horror, it’s not even Hammer horror. It’s something like a tongue-in-cheek, knowing-but-sincere version of the German Expressionist horror most exemplified in Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens or Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. It embraces the ghoulish aspects, and perhaps even the “scary bits”, without the 1970s (and later) infusion of gore.³

Modified from its first public incarnation in video form, “In the Room Where You Sleep” is now marked by a move from piano to organ (or at least keyboard mimicking one) for the keys, giving a bit more sting to the chords it is built on. It sounds something akin to the theme from The Munsters–not in terms of its actual melody, but in the campy horror sense. Shields’ drums are simple in both play style and recording (very “live”), though they are quite deliberately “enhanced for stereo”, engaging in a bit of panning left and right. The handclaps further engage the sensibilities of the song, keeping it in the sort of “campfire ghost story” range of horror. Ryan’s vocals are an appropriately campy croon, the kind that you might have expected in previous decades to result in a ridiculous video of him dressed in horror host style with heavy vampire makeup. It’s a simple song, but it charges along courageously, despite the limitations of our two primary bandmates. It has a moody outro of reverberating keys that lay the groundwork for the following track.

“Buried in Water” is all piano at open, ominous and dramatic in that Phantom of the Opera sense (not necessarily Webber’s, mind you, just that same kind of not-focused-on-scary approach), but it eventually becomes just solid chords, still heavily sustained, joined by the voices of the Children’s Choir, singing “Like a lamb to the slaughter/Buried in water”. It feels like the kind of practiced-but-not-a-distinguished-professional playing of a choir director, as ever confident behind the willful but uneven singing of young voices not groomed for professional vocal work. It would not be out of place in a school musical production–which is interesting, as this is actually the feel Ryan and Zach said they were going for in the entire project. When Ryan’s voice enters, it’s that of someone who knows of the town that is “buried in water”–he may be the ghost of a resident, or the one responsible, or just the guide informing us of it, though there’s the strong sense that he has a supernatural and not-entirely-cheerful aspect about him that implies that, if he is the guide, he is the guide responsible, or the undead guide from that town. The kids’ voices are used in a more expansive, normal (unquieted) fashion that lets them function more like a chorus in the background to our solo guide. The most unsure, young, and unsteady voices end the song, as if they are the final voices to be heard from that town.

The title implies it already, but “My Body’s a Zombie for You” is one of the more peculiar songs on the album (which is peculiar enough as an album–let’s be honest here). It lurches like the undead, but it’s tambourine, handclaps, bass, stomps and the semi-novelty inflected vocalizations of “Dum da-dump, ba bum bum bum bum…” And the kids answer with a similarly appropriate “Woah woah-oh…” that tells us this one is going to be a throwback to doo wop, if anything, and so it is. When the piano enters, it’s that steady, high-end hammering that marks midtempo tracks from that time frame and genre, but the voice Ryan uses straddles that and the subject matter at hand, the voice you might expect from a crooning zombie in the 50s–if somehow that seemed like something that might have happened then. Like the humourous tone of that film rendition of “My Boyfriend’s Back” (wherein he was back from the dead) but stuck into the frame and more serious performance of the original song, though a lot more downtempo. The kids just yell their line, which is exactly the title, and no more (or less). It’s all ended with a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, spelling-based chorus (“I’m a Z-O-M, B-I-E–Zombie!”) from the kids–reminiscent of schoolyard chants.

There’s no question or argument: “Pa Pa Power” is my favourite track on this album. It rides a groove the rest of the album isn’t even interested in laying down, and let’s Zach’s voice take the lead. He plays a simple drum beat that comes somewhere near sounding like the album’s fetish for handclaps, but isn’t. A synth and key hook runs throughout the song, primarily an insistent, low-end one but occasionally enhanced by the plinking fall of high-end notes that are light on their feet. The kids are used quite purely as backing vocals, but the song is dominated by the keys more than anything else, though Zach’s vocals have their place, with the rather obscure lyrics: “Burn the streets, burn the cars/Pa pa power. pa pa power…” As in many other instances: if your intention is to ignore the album, make an exception for this track, at least. It’s excellent.

There’s only one track the kids get to sing “solo”: “Young and Tragic”, the track that opens the third side of the record. It sounds like it could be something from one of the 1970s electronic artists at first, all synths oscillating and tonally blended keyboard playing, but there are lupine howls to betray its place on this album. Galloping drums take us into the song proper, but it suddenly drops when we get there, droning, funereal, somewhat bombastic. “I wish that we were magic/So we wouldn’t be so young and tragic”, the kids sing, and it’s like the sun rising warmth of a downer musical ending on a note of hope–acoustic guitars and drums, but returning us to the synthesizers. It slowly fades off, peeling off instruments and softening in general to gentle steel drums.

Returning us to the long abandoned art of the doo wop nonsense syllable, “Paper Ships” has no shame in starting with “Da dooby dum dum, dooby doo wa”, a backing melody of “Oooh” and gentle near-ukulele-pitched guitar.  Zach sings of being a ghost ship, of his love’s graveyard–the only hints as to the subject at hand, otherwise completely lost musically. The song shifts into an upbeat acoustic guitar for the chorus, which is sung by the kids with a full-fledged “Fa la la la la, fa la la la la–a ghost ship on the blue”. Ryan joins him following this, in a return to the shuffling pseudo-uke melodicism of the opening verses and their nonsense. Quavering, camp-horror keys wander around, as does a rather somber and serious cello, both of which are cast off for the outro chorus.

A good solid clippedy-clapping sound defines “Lose Your Soul”, with a rather hand-drum like feel to the rest of the percussion–dry, thin, nearly overpowered by the low-end poundings of piano keys that fill in the gaps to increase the pace without actually changing the tempo. Howling winds and expanding drums, synthesized accordion–it makes room for Ryan’s voice to begin an exceptionally low croon, uninterested in anything but the fact of his claim: “Oh, you’re gonna lose your soul–tonight”, with a lovely upswing on the final syllable. His voice is that of a ghost shrugging–it wobbles and wavers like a ghost’s is thought to, despite the lower-than-expected-for-a-ghost pitch of it. The heavy rhythm of the clapping keeps the song moving, and gives out a floor for the kids to turn in their best chorus, which rumbles along more like kids singing together than directed–feels a bit more natural to them as kids. There’s also a fantastic set of synth keys that are somewhere between clear electronics and woodwinds, used almost purely for texture. The whole thing suddenly turns shambling as it shudders to a stop.

“Werewolf Heart” sounds the most modern at first–pinging piano keys and acoustic guitar, even the addition of bass and drums doesn’t feel like it’s covering any peculiar territory. Apparently the basswork is producer Tim Anderson’s, and it’s the most obvious on the album, with a good deal of swing and professionalism. But when the voices enter? Ah, the first line is: “You’d look nice, in a grave”, and it gives a sort of gothic, macabre feel, despite the complete nonchalance, and the somewhat insubstantial approach to it. A female voice¹ does appear–the same one as in the intro to the album–and recites a few dark lines, and then begins to trade off verses with the two men who originated the project. She ends her appearance with one line: “Cause if the full moon comes/Our love is done/So forever/Towards dawn/We ride”, which signals the song to shift gears entirely: castanets and insistent acoustic chords (the kind often married to castanets) are met with the howls of wolves, screams, creaks, a growing background synthesized moan–both the hunter and the prey rising in the background–clattering, pounding, roaring, swirling–and the song ends.

I’ve always had a semi-silly affection for the semi-silliness of a self-titled song on a self-titled album (see also: Bad Company, et al.), and “Dead Man’s Bones” continues that. “Dig a hoooooole”, Ryan sings, thin, dry drums and muted guitar crunches that are expanded by a climbing bass. “Oh dead man’s bones!” sings the group of men, like a bunch of drunkards in a bar telling the newcomers of a local threat (if you’re thinking An American Werewolf in London, so am I–though this is far more cheerful as a warning, less, “Get out!” more “Oh, let me tell you a story, boys…”). Their voices lose any sense, need of, or desire for tunefulness, becoming very like speaking voices. The song rambles along, with the weird quirk of something like mid-to-latter Tom Waits or extra peculiar Nick Cave arrangements (almost more Birthday Party, perhaps). A woman crying, a sort of wail, delicate piano–and an undersung rumble of thunder bridge the gap between their verses. The lead vocals take on a very Cave-like delivery, before finishing on a mono-syllabic run of increasingly frothing words: “Six. Feet. Deep. Bones bones bones bones!”

There are just crickets and a faint acoustic guitar behind Ryan’s voice–speaking, telling a story of death and undeath (of course!), booming drums, a tambourine, and a sort of low singing-saw enter, with “Oh, oh, oh, woah-woah,” from female voices, establishing this as another doo wop fusion, replete with the short monotone repetition of keys that climbs only after numerous repetitions. “When I think about you oh-oh-oh-oh”, the kids sing almost Buddy Holly-style, and the drums and acoustic fill the song out, ending with the title: “…Flowers Grow Out of My Grave”, which seems to end it but for the sound of a probable studio error of dropped items, laughter and clapping. They fade in a repetition of the kids’ line, but seem to abandon it in favour of sustained synthesizer chords, overwhelming and reverberating which stop abruptly.

As frustrating as it is to try and explain the point of the band to someone while not latching on to the Gosling element, it’s almost more difficult to realize what a lost cause this is–as I’ve mentioned, if you go anywhere it’s almost a given that the focus is going to be on Ryan’s role in the project, and how amazing he is and so on and so forth. All of this may be true, but you never get the impression from interviews that this was his brainchild or anything, moreso that this was a truly collaborative effort between at least the two of them if not everyone that ended up working on the album.

It doesn’t help anything that it occupies a strange and unique place in general, being most closely related in my mind to The Skull Mailbox and Other Horrors that my dad passed me over my affection for the horrific things in fictional media (I guess?), which is one of the many truly random items that floats around my collection of music (and my movies are not too different for similar reasons). It’s quirky, campy, macabre, fun, ghoulish, strange–but really, there’s one word (and it’s one I often cast in a very positive light) that really shapes the joy of the album: sincerity.

Read any interview with the two of them, or any article about the album, and inevitably it comes up that they set out rules to restrict the production, performance, tweaking and other “niceties” of modern recording when they put this together. They are not professional musicians, limited their number of takes, and performed most instrumentation themselves (most places say “all”, but I’m inclined to agree with the listing below that gives roles to the people thanked in the liner notes). It shows, but not in an awful way–it makes things very real, live, and organic, and gives the whole thing an appropriate charm for what it is. And I suppose that’s what it all hinges on: whether you can appreciate the intent behind it, the sense of discovery, experimentation and clear-headed desire that drives a peculiar project right out of the park–but it’s the park they chose, and it’s a bit out of the way, and it’s a little weird, and not many people go there, and isn’t it haunted?

Yes, I think it is.

¹As is often the case for me, I find myself fumbling around for details on a release and getting distracted. Someone, somewhere, put together complete credits for an album that otherwise, honestly, doesn’t mention them. The interior of the gatefold (whether it’s CD or DVD) shows the choir, Zach, and Ryan, with first names only for each. Tim appears (as with the others, labeled only “Tim”), but some of the other people mentioned are thanked in the notes that run around the edge. Others have no record (ahem) of their appearance whatsoever, either in fuzzy profile photo, by name, or any other means. However, the matching of those names, the awareness that Ryan and Zach are both male and the choir is composed of children means I do know some female voice(s) appear in the album, and that they are, thus, otherwise unidentified. I’m not even going to try too hard to sort this out.

²There’s one other actor-infused group that hits on a sort of similar note–not as stylistically out there, but similarly averse to star-attachment, and built on a duo that seems like an honest pairing, rather than a forced grouping, and that would be Ringside. Otherwise, so far as I can recall, “actor turned musician” tends not to turn out as well as “musician turned actor”. Though I do listen to 30 Seconds to Mars as well, and what I’ve seen of Leto suggests he very successfully made the transition to charismatic frontman, rather than heart-throb actor. Maybe it’s indicative of that burbling level of fame he and Gosling both inhabit, or maybe I’m just trying to find patterns where there are none. Again.

³I’m not trying to build a case for some kind of overarching, pretentious cerebral aspect of this (nor encourage the notion that I am delving into some deeply intellectual secret myself), this is just how I actually hear the music. I am a movie fan, as I’ve mentioned in passing, and I am rather big on horror, but should not be mistaken for an expert, much as I shouldn’t in music.

Day Forty-Three: Communist Daughter – Soundtrack to the End

Grain Belt Records ■ GBR013

Released June 7, 2011

Mixed by Brad Kern
Mastered by Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Oceans
  2. Soundtrack to the End
  3. Not the Kid
  4. Speed of Sound
  5. Northern Lights
  1. Fortunate Son
  2. Coal Miner
  3. In the Park
  4. Tumbleweed
  5. The Lady Is an Arsonist
  6. Minnesota Girls

Since I moved a few months ago, there has been a serious decline in my concert attendance. Of course, that’s the inevitable difference between living twenty minutes from a venue where you can see independent artists to your heart’s content, eventually catching a small French band that was told repeatedly that they would have a great time playing there–and a place where an hour’s drive would risk reckless driving-level speeding tickets to manage for any kind of established show. As a result, I’ve been to two shows since moving, one at the suggestion of my father (to see Tom Russell in a tiny bar), and one of my own accord, intended to put my foot down on seeing an artist I’d let slip by a number of times. The latter was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, touring on the back of a live album that will work its way in here eventually.

But we’re in alphabetical order here, and “I” is a ways off. “C”, however, is right where I sit, and Communist Daughter starts with that very letter. As you might have guessed, they opened for Mr. Isbell that night, and made a very solid impression on me. I wandered over to their merch table a number of times over the course of the night, pondering how it was that I would acquire the items I was curious about from Jason’s as well as theirs, and how I would deal with carrying it all as the night went on. I found myself thoroughly enamoured of a number of their t-shirt designs, especially the generic female silhouette with its head replaced by hammer and sickle (especially in yellow on a pink t-shirt) and the “I [Hammer and Sickle] MPLS” ones. I’d not come in intending to spend a lot of money–I always keep in mind that any show will encourage it, either via tour-only music, interesting shirt designs, or something wildly unexpected, and usually plan to have some money set aside for opening acts, but I walked out of there with three shirts, a record, three posters and two CDs. To be fair, they were down to the last shirt sizes, and worked with me there and on posters.

When I mentioned the MPLS design, and that it was funny I was actually at the show in my Doomtree hoodie (their homebase is in Minneapolis, too), vocalist Molly Moore lit up and mentioned that songwriter/vocalist/guitarist for the band Johnny Solomon actually knows them, and he and I had a brief chat about P.O.S.’s recent kidney issues (he’s getting one replaced out of dire need). The two of them, and the rest of the band as they sidled up after the show (I was wandering around that table throughout the night) were extremely warm and friendly, incredibly appreciative and humble. I turned around after leaving and mentioned it was a smart idea to put a band member at the merch table, even if it was mostly for reasons of financial efficiency. Their music had enough of an effect to get me over there, and the fully human nature of the lot of them made me want to show as much support as I could manage–if I were to shake my fist at my unexpected spending, it would be with a broad wink, to say the least.

As is often the case with opening acts, I hadn’t heard a note of their music. Sometimes I do go out “scouting ahead” to be prepared and have a clean studio sound to wrap a live experience in (varying sound levels at live shows can have unfair effects on how a band sounds in that environment), but it was a show I’d left up to the last minute to finally go to, even as I was determined to see Isbell at some point.

While there’s a distant, low sound of picked strings before “Oceans” starts properly, it’s the steady muted guitar, the handclaps, and the tambourine that establish their sound immediately, the stride of it seeming to turn at the speed of a 33 1/3 12″ (which is, of course, exactly what I was just listening to it on), which is a favourite feel of mine. As an opening, it places us right into their sound, less like a fade in, but achieving a similar effect: it’s spare and light, loose in feel, but clean and tightly played; it’s not a cold open, yet it strikes the balance of an effective one kept quiet enough to maintain the ease of a fade in. Johnny and Molly come in harmonized, with keys and more guitars that act to fill the gaps left in the opening. “Or maybe now we’ve lost it all this time…” they sing, and splash cymbal adds a full drumbeat, and the song finds its full voice. Gone are the handclaps, the guitars now fully-voiced and supported at the bottom by bass, and a hazy guitar lead hides behind it all. The song is now right in front of us aurally, emotionally, and with the full weight of conviction behind it, even if there’s some doubt lingering in the words.

The title track follows it, and at first it’s a downbeat, bass-laden, muted guitar chug that reminds of the sort of things that define my less determinate youth’s radio listening (rendering me incapable of greater specificity, unfortunately), that is spiked by the addition of a much warmer set of notes from an organ. Johnny sings this one low, softened, so when Moore’s voice joins his, it’s an unfiltered beam of light along the top of his voice. As he describes a past that fell into a listless and inescapable state, seeming to ruminate quietly, she is like a subtle force moving from behind to suggest that action is still possible. Yet, they reach a bridge and their voices remain harmonized but fall out of step with each other–which, might I add, is a beautiful sound at this moment–but reunite as Johnny finishes the thought: “It’s not right to carry on/It might be over but she isn’t gone/And you never listened anyway”. It’s a kind of shrug; there’s not explicit anger at the situation, nor even self-pitying resignation, just acceptance of a strangely bright and nonchalant kind.

There are hints of the Kinks in their late 60’s heyday in “Not the Kid”, with an opening rollicking bass expanded on by the rhythmic circling of an acoustic guitar. Johnny breathes heavily for effect, singing in a voice that’s almost a morose Ray Davies, until “and spin around in circles” unexpectedly dips downward and the song is suddenly outside any sense of clear inspiration and finds its own melodic progressions. The chorus is the work of his voice kept at its restrained low end, yet moves an admirable space within the clear intention to keep things from going too far from the soft curves it inhabits. Hints of other artists from the 60s float in–especially with an echo-heavy tambourine–but are again subverted when the guitars shift into a more modern melodic approach, shakers added, but the bass and guitar most prominent and sitting in a range that would feel unusual in that time. When the guitars go electric and bells ring out in the background, all sense of the past is lost–and it makes sense. The verses are about the past, and the chorus is about that past being distant and different from the present: “I’m not the kid you/I’m not the kid you remember”.

Having been used in places people may actually have heard it without trying, “Speed of Sound” is reminiscent more of a variety of contemporary artists, though feeling more like unintended synchronicity than direct inspiration. Ethereal and beautifully harmonized vocalizations from Moore and Solomon drift gently over the  nearly-insubstantial acoustic’s rhythm, the bass subtly modifying the underlying melody as your ear is drawn instead to their voices. When Solomon starts the verse with the words, “Man I hate this town…” you would expect the words to ring out with some anger or bitterness, some sense of the hatred, but instead they come with a sort of tiredness, as if the fire of the hatred has been snuffed out by the weight of time, instead become tired and too expected to snap or flare with passion. “So I’m looking for the way out/And the life I wanted years ago is maybe not the life I should have found”, he continues and you hear now that maybe it’s so tired because there’s no fight, no search left, because no exit has been found, and none seems likely to appear. And then there’s the inevitable contradiction of the chorus, high, ghostly and passionate: “All those nights wasted on the speed of sound/I still think that I just might come around for one more…” And after it, Solomon’s voice sharpens its edge, and more is added to the thought of this inescapable life: “I’m afraid I’ll stay/It’s not because of all the things that you would say/It’s ’cause every time I fall in love is another time I watch you walk away”, and so his voice is drained again, having admitted part of the cause. The chorus, which is almost a chorus in the other sense–the voices of other entities, besides our “protagonist”, then returns and carries the song off into the ether on the waves of the first vocals we heard, the harmonized “Oohs” of Molly and Johnny.

“Northern Lights” seems to be a gentle piece, wavering hums that seem to be growing into something else, but are suddenly cut into by the full volume of heavily strummed guitars, a driving drum beat, and the lead of a bass that almost hides the guitar following it. It’s the sound of recollections as someone speeds away from the past, probably futilely–maybe physically escaping the locations of the past as described, maybe just trying to accelerate life itself past it all. The chorus is a ray of hope in this: “The northern lights through the windshield”, Moore’s voice appearing only here, both of them rising and full of hope, or at least possibility: “How I wish you could come too/For a better life, maybe another life or two”. But each verse makes itself clear, as it starts with “Down about as far as I can go…” Despite that, it’s overriding feeling is that chorus’s sense of possible futures that may not reflect that past, even if the instrumental passage that follows the chorus seems to take things back down a bit. But it’s followed by a full-fledged display of the chorus: Solomon sings with the backing flavours of Moore’s voice over the acoustic guitar alone, a lovely drum fill bringing the rest of the band back, the emphasis now established by that break.  When it all ends at a splash and leaves us with nothing but those initial humming waves, it’s a framing of the past, maybe rendering it exactly that, or maybe solidifying it.

While the title suggests Creedence, the sound is more reminiscent of the Kinks again with “Fortunate Son”: pounding drums, and Solomon’s voice suggesting Ray’s at songs like “Johnny Thunders”, rising and cracking into a less rounded, more uncontrolled crescendo. A huge slash of distorted guitar carrying a wonderfully full-throated organ line drops this association away again, and Molly’s voice furthers the distance, and it’s almost completely lost by that next slash and its drummed echo. When Johnny and Molly are left singing to the organ and bass alone, the song has become entirely its own, in perfect time for the chorus: they are left to their own devices for it, acoustic rapidly strumming behind only their voices. Interestingly, there are hints that this is not too far off in thought from the Creedence, but completely reframed, not as sneering indictment of the “fortunate sons”, but told from the view of a son who is fortunate for escaping the same call in another time, not by social placement but simply by not being the one who chose it. Guilt and a certain shame plague this, but tempered slightly by the thought that there is more to gain by others–family who still have him–despite this. It’s by far the most uptempo, biggest song on the album, and it makes heavy use of an organ, which always makes me happy when done properly (as here). We even get a few more quiet handclaps that emphasize, in a more new wave fashion, the uptempo and upbeat music contrasted with lyrics that can manage only a mild final balance of positivity.

Following in an altogether different sense, “Coal Miner” might be the most somber, quiet, and downbeat of songs. The first lines make clear that this will not be a rollicking joy as the last track–“Another day in the hole/I feel my lungs fill up with coal”. It’s the sound of a man lost in a coal mine collapse, who is trying to stay awake and alive, to hope to be found, though he seems unsure that he will be. He explains that he’s here to feed his family, that this is his home, and that the life’s blood of this home is this mine. He wants it to be understood, “Know that I did all I could/To save the others like Christians should”, but follows it with the notion that maybe this is the end anyway: “So maybe it’s just my time/Walk tall hold your head up high”, and a wash of distortion follows it, to return the internal mantra of the chorus: “All I need is to wake up…”, fading off with the thought that the repetitions of it may be failing in their aim as the song fades. There’s the clever but not hamfisted or clumsy thought of adding just the right kind of echo to the track to sound as if it is coming from the cavernous rock walls of a mine that perhaps has only had its entrance closed, rather than the entirety filled. Or maybe it’s the echo of solitude: thoughts sent out to others that actually just bounce off that rock and back to our fallen miner. Sad, but, beyond the mantra, his last words are telling those behind him to hold their heads up high–if this is it, then so it is.

Johnny’s voice alone with easy finger-picked guitar opens “In the Park”, the two instruments unified in melody and rhythm, calm, but stretching out with a kind of subdued nostalgic glaze. Only bass and Moore’s voice join him on the chorus, his guitar moving to chords from its prior plucked rhythms. It’s one of the most beautiful and aching choruses: “Nothing has gone wrong/It’s just gone on way too long/You and I are bound to make a better way”. The pull of two fingers on two acoustic strings is beautifully sad but tinged with the momentary echoes of happiness as it comes in alone after that chorus, keyboards adding the lightest notes of firm comfort to this. Like the verses of “Speed of Sound” this song benefits strongly from the limited instrumentation it employs for much of it, and makes the slide guitar’s sudden lead and the rising pound of drums and splash cymbal that much more heart-pounding in its hope. But the final notes are Johnny and Molly with that guitar’s plucked strings again, and they stop with an abruptness that’s only accentuated by the  amplifier hum that follows it.

A song that stood out at the show because it is somewhat unusual, “Tumbleweed” follows next and appears in many respects to be quite “normal”, the sound of a guitar played with barre chords way up the neck (giving it a ukelele sound, but broader and deeper), a shaker and Johnny and Molly in one of their best harmonies. A fantastic keyboard line, warping and phasing along a more normal organesque sound adds just the right alien tinge to the song to keep the weight of the lyrics from bearing too far down. The chorus seems like it shouldn’t work, like it should feel like a ridiculous choice to sing “Tumble, tumble, tumble, tumbleweed”, but it manages to work perfectly because it’s followed so appropriately by “Drift on the highway”, a few muted strums of the guitar, “and move on”, sung with a downed finality. The drums make their appearance now, the keyboard carrying the song inexplicably upward with the bright, uke-ified guitar, and managing a sort of nodding understanding of the needs of another: “If you’ve got that feeling/Feelings won’t be found/Go ahead and leave me/Just let me let you down”, and the “Woah-oh-oh/Don’t be sorry/Woah-oh-oh/Don’t be sad/Woah-oh-oh/You should leave me/Woah-oh-oh/And everything we had”. The slide guitar lead that begins to wail along in the background accelerates the drama of a feeling that is manifestly subdued, peaking and then exploding into an electronic echo. Exiting on the whirling keyboards and the isolated voice of Moore lets the song drift just as its singer hopes the one it is sung to will do. Knowing this very desire from either side, this is a fantastic representation of it, and a tumbleweed is perfectly appropriate, as is the tumbling the repetition implies.

The insistent picking and brush drums that start “The Lady Is an Arsonist” makes for an off-kilter upbeat song. The upstrokes of a smooth-toned electric guitar add to this sense, the patter of those brushes on snare moving the song at a nice clip, Molly and Johnny stopping suddenly for a half-amusing yet pleasantly fitting aside of a repeated line: “Cause I’m a Southern boy with a can of gasoline”. How in the world that could be an answer for anything is beyond me, yet even live and hearing it for the first time, it made perfect sense. The bridge’s call and harmonized response is similarly off-kilter and fitting for someone who would describe himself in this sense, too: “I’ve never been in love (Oh no)/I’ve never been ashamed (Oh no)”, and gives just the right hint of lopsidedness to the track’s varying inclusions of fire as a theme–gasoline, a liar’s “flaming” pants, the titles arsonist implications, and the inevitable result of receiving “all your flame”.

An acoustic recorded with the sound of fingers moving along strings, played at a deliberate pace, followed by the addition of Johnny’s relaxed and tired voice suggests “Minnesota Girls” is going to be the kind of closer that drops the band in favour of the drifting simplicity of a solo performance. But then the chorus swings its way in, and Molly and the bass, “So get down, you Minnesota girls/Get down to the bottom of the world/And I don’t owe you nothin’/No I don’t owe you nothin’ but blue skies”. The drums quietly make their entrance, a plaintive lap steel sound rising in the background. Now joined by single-picked electric as well as the other instruments, Johnny launches into a second verse, one that explains the tone here: “I dig it in Southtown/Where the music was my life/And the bathroom’s the place where I found it/I lost my friends/I turned off all my lights/It’s never quite as fun as it sounded”, hinting at a life that was just that: better as described than experienced. After the second chorus, roiling timpani (!), deep, echoing bass, electric guitar lead, and splash cymbals, all over a buzzing saw of guitar finally ends with a roll on a cymbal and then strings released to amplifier reverberations.

I’ve had a lot of luck over the years with opening acts. Sometimes they end up eclipsing the headliners in my listening, sometimes they float alongside, sometimes they are quite good but end relegated to a backburner unintentionally. This was an extremely worthwhile reminder that Communist Daughter deserves nothing of the kind. This album is incredibly good–professional, catchy, thoughtful, and all in keeping with a distinct, unique kind of tone. There are senses of bands I mentioned, as well as the vague impression of a Nick Drake-like detachment vocally, but none of them ever coalesce into the thought of even lazily obvious inspiration, let alone direct lifting of any kind. It’s just a sort of timeless, or perhaps temporally multiple, music. It’s largely at ease and warm, and feels like sitting in comfort and warmth, but looking out into a window at the snow. It’s pleasant, and looks lovely, and softens the edges of everything, removes responsibilities for many people briefly, but it’s a cold thing, and uncomfortable to be in after a time. It has the joy of memory for the kind of awe and enjoyment of a past where snow meant something good, as it often does to children–even if that isn’t the age of past being recalled. But it has that same distance that memory implies, of a half-smile and distant eyes, a time that’s gone, clearly out of reach but still there to be remembered.

There are a number of people–like my father–who would truly enjoy this band, and plenty more that I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head, because this is just a very well constructed set of songs. None of the choices, whether “obvious” like a harmonized married couple (I’m not sure they were married at the time, but they are now), or strange like electronic noises or even handclaps inserted into otherwise acoustic and drifting melodies–they always seem utterly appropriate and right, measured and chosen for their effect on the song, not to create a niche or gimmick. It helps, of course, that the two of them have fantastic voices–though I have to say I had no idea that was the sound that would come out of a rather big looking guy like Johnny–bearded, in worn jacket and “trucker hat”, but so soft and completely of a tone that suggests that kind of detached weariness. It’s not exhaustion, though exhaustion may inspire it, it’s not even completely cynical resignation, though there’s some of that as well. It’s a sort of acceptance of the negative, with a subtle hope for the better.

Really, really special thing this–for all that it sounds like the kind of music that would be absconded with by advertisers and television drama (the latter I’ve read has even occurred), there should be no thought that that’s any more an indication of the music itself than the fact that, for instance, Nick Drake’s songs have been used in this way. It’s representative more of the broad appeal of music played and written well.

  • Next Up: Converge – Axe to Fall
    (Yeah, this one’s a big jump in style)