Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Album Review: Ghost City Searchlight - "Wasted on the Young"

Ghost City Searchlight
“Wasted on the Young” 2012

    In the interest of full journalistic disclosure, I have to tell you right up front that I’m not an entirely objective source on this topic. I’ve known singer/songwriter Tommy Coupar for the vast majority of my life and have followed the evolution of his band, Ghost City Searchlight, for years. But as Tommy himself will certainly know by now, I love music too much to be dishonest about it. In fact, I wrote a pretty negative review to the album he made with his last band, the jammy-metal outfit Sultry Surfers of the Apocalypse (where Tommy was manning the drum kit as he learned the ropes of the Detroit music scene). But the good news is, it looks like I won’t ever have to do that with this new band, because along with guitarist Dave Brandt, accordionist Jesse Miller, bassist Joe Sleep, percussionist Jess Hanna and vocalist Sian Miller, Tommy has crafted here a fantastic album, summoning from these five tracks a primal and deeply honest --not to mention catchy as hell-- dingy barroom folk punk singalong.

    The album gets right to the point with the menacing guitar fuzz and racing drum march of “Once Upon a Time,” with Tommy spitting snaking, winding rhymes like he’s trying to outrun the drummer (even outnumbering him three to one, the rhythm section can barely wrest control of the tempo from his bluntly snarling delivery). From there, the next four songs wander between haunting melancholy (“Ghost Light) and crunchy Iggy Pop-fueled punk throwdowns (“Five Year Plan”) -- but even at their most aggressive never lose sight of the warm, earnest humanity at the center of each song. Six musicians might seem like a lot for these simple, sometimes sparse punk-folk nuggets, but when a whole band is working together like this well-oiled machine is, you might well wish they were a 20-piece.

    Guitarist Brandt conserves notes like they were bullets in a besieged fort, never generating a single sound that’s not absolutely necessary. But his conservative style allows him to shape each vibration like a fastidious artisan. From the rough jangle of “Five Year Plan” to the barely-perceptible whammy tremolo on “Ghost Light,” he’s a man utterly in control of his sound -- and the result is nothing short of assured, minimalist perfection. The closest comparison I can make is to Keith Richards, and buddy, that ain’t a comparison I make lightly. Unlike Keith, though, Dave’s minimalism offers a generous amount of room for his fellow musicians to play in, allowing accordionist Miller to step in when some flashy showmanship is required. Miller’s great too, utilizing his accordion for a surprisingly versatile sound and evoking everything from a pipe organ to a bagpipe to a poppy keyboard riff. They’re backed up by the rolling thunder of Joe Sleep’s bass and Jess Hanna’s eloquently primitive drumming. 

But of course, the real star here is Tommy Coupar, and his oddball sensibility is all over this recording. His rough-hewn vocals are sweetened slightly by the high counter-point of vocalist Sian Miller, but ultimately sound all the more weatherbeaten for it, matching his haggard, road-weary protagonists step for step. He’s a chronicler of those who’ve chosen --for better or for worse-- to blaze their own path through life, from the angry idealist of “Once Upon a Time” to the unrepentant hedonist of “Smell of Success” and even to an obvious real-life hero, The Clash’s Joe Strummer in “The Future is Unwritten.” His heroes are deeply flawed --often beaten and broken down-- but there’s a love in his voice for each one of them, even as there’s a knowing acknowledgement of their failings. Appropriately, Tommy saves the most optimism for himself, railing against those foolish souls who settle for playing someone else’s game in the jaunty, angular “Five Year Plan.” When he sings, “maybe I’m the only one crazy / maybe I’m the only one sane / maybe I’m the only one / laughing at the rules of the game,” he’s not musing about the question himself so much as challenging us to answer it.

Even as every band member gets a chance to shine, there’s a winning cohesiveness here -- an unmistakable vibe of family and genuine affection which ensures that the sometimes bleak lyrics don’t tilt the balance from Strummer to bummer. And that sense of affection and fun is infectious -- even as Tommy is belting out the lyrics he’s rarely singing alone for any extended period, and his enthusiasm for getting everyone in on the action is equal parts invitation and dare. In Tommy’s barrooms, it’s clear everyone should be singing; and it’s inclusiveness make it all the more punk rock. Frankly put, when you’re invited to a party this full of wild fun and earnest humanism, you’d be crazy not to join in.

At the end of “Smell of Success,” you can hear someone effusively shout, “Nailed it!” Damn right.

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