Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Album review: Ghost City Searchlight: "Desperate Measures"

Ghost City Searchlight
“Desperate Measures” 2015

(Full Disclosure, before we get into this: I’ve known singer Tommy Coupar for most of my life, and the rest of the band about as long as he’s known them, so you could say that I’m not an objective witness here. But as they well know, I love music too much to be dishonest about it; if I thought this album sucked, I simply wouldn’t write about it. Fortunately, it kicks ass, so I’d like to tell the world. Take from that what you will. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

“We’re gonna drink, we’re gonna dance, we’re gonna sin so well/ we’re going to H.E.L.L. HELL... hell yeah!” sings Tommy Coupar and the Ghost City Searchlight gang in A Dark and Stormy Night, the second track on their very first full-length LP. And that sums up their intentions as eloquently as one could hope for: the album is a masterclass in scruffy, debauched barroom folk shout-alongs with a mordant wit to offset their dark implications. Through eleven punk-infused slices of gothic Americana, Tommy and the gang will introduce us to drunks, addicts, bad wives and worse husbands, self-serving hypocrites, bandits, betrayers, vampires, vicious mercenaries, barroom shootouts, debauched killers of every imaginable flavor, and even the end of the world. And they’ll make it all sound like a party no one wants to leave. We’re going to hell, hell yeah, indeed.

It’s been three years since Wasted on the Young, the excellent debut EP from the Ypsilanti, Michigan-based group, and since then they’ve grown quite a bit, both in skill and in number. With Desperate Measures, they’ve added two new members to their already strident 6-piece sound -- Casey Lee on violin and Rick Dempsey on kit drums-- piling on ever more possible textures and layers to their deceptively simple folk rock ruckus. Consequently, the rhythm section --in the past notable for its primitive unobtrusiveness-- is much more assertive here, with lightning drumwork and groovy basslines occasionally clamoring to the top of the musical pile in addition to the acoustic guitar, electric guitar, violin, accordion, mandolin, banjo, and dueling lead vocals.

It’s a tricky balance to keep that many instruments going, but it can pay off in spades: tracks like the killer Dark and Stormy Night feature a clever interplay between the cocky fiddle and the spaced-out guitar noodling that perfectly carve the band a place somewhere between Charlie Daniel’s Band and Steppenwolf, with an eccentricity all of its own. On The Wall, the addition of a jangling banjo to the regular rock regimen somehow adds to the apocalyptic fever instead of softening it, and on the crunchy Killer Responsible for the Death of Five in Downtown Shooting Still on the Loose, Dempsey lets fly with a maelstrom of double bass pummelling under the slinky fiddle hook, a move which would have been impossible for the old lineup. Sometimes more really is more. Even so, the real genius on display here is the band’s restraint more than its indulgence. Considering the number of personalities and instruments on display here, their instinct for stripped-down, classically structured pop songwriting demonstrates an impressive maturity and vision. A band of musicians this good is a rare thing; a band of musicians this good with the discipline to tone it down and make room for each other -- that’s something close to miraculous.

Their effort is paid off with a run of simply terrific songs, efficient little gems of acerbic  gothic storytelling, genuine pathos, and sharply crafted pop hooks. Coupar’s genius is for compact, evocative little folk tales with a dark edge and a flurry of deftly descriptive language (check out the way he coquettishly talks his way around the word “vampire” in Bloodlust, or the keen-eyed subjective detail in the bleak sci-fi epic Last Two Legions.) He’s not much for flowery poetic metaphors, but he has a knack for turning a phrase which begs for a shout-along chorus but lingers afterwards, hitting you with its full impact only after the heady rush of the music has settled (“life is for the rich, my boy, and death is for the poor!” he gleefully shouts with characteristic gallows humor in the ironically titled Health Care Plan). Desperate Measures, for all its energetic punch, is a surprisingly mournful album, full of vivid portraits of despair with just enough of a knowing grin to make them sting afresh each time. The band plays with a raucous energy, but there’s a note of real pain underneath, running through the entire album from the very conceit --the lyrics are framed in the booklet as the final work of a dejected writer who is losing himself in his stories-- to the vocals, where singer Sian Miller’s strangely plaintive voice (sometimes a hair too low in the mix for my taste) dances nimbly around Coupar’s weatherbeaten growl. It’s this bruised heart that adds pathos and dimension to the irresistibly danceable backbeat and rousing choruses, and it’s a mark of the band’s unique voice that it deepens the pop sensibility rather than clashes with it.
It doesn’t work every time. An over-busy production slightly weakens what should be a straightforward rocker in Blood Lust (does it really need a tinkling mandolin in there?), and an ill-advised country shuffle seems like an unnecessary gimmick distracting from the caustically hilarious lyrics in Prisoner's Dilemma.* Those are minor concerns, but a bigger misstep is the turgid, vaguely martial Anna Marie, a flat-footed ballad with a cast of more names than a Dune sequel that turns the band’s usual strengths --Coupar’s descriptive, rapid-fire lyrics and the band’s generous sense of leaving room for each other-- into weaknesses, resulting in a ponderous, languid tale without the band’s usual strong melodies to hold it together.

Even with a few trifling missteps, though, Desperate Measures is an accomplished triumph for this hard-working, hard-drinking folk-punk gang. Drag The River is as perfect a murder ballad as they come, a heady blending of Nick Cave and Goodbye Earl. Damn My Eyes expertly marries gloomy blues sensibilities to a prickly feverish pace. And Auld Acquaintance --which brilliantly weaves the melody of the beloved New Year’s tune in and out of a bracing punk gallop-- feels like the masterpiece this group was always meant to create, and one that only they could create. Like nearly all of Desperate Measures, the secret is in the unlikely balance between opposites: closely observed and resolutely specific lyrics which still manage to stay evocatively mysterious, timeless melodies meshed side-by-side with brash punk tempos, dark folk tales belted out with a hearty abandon that all but dares the listener to resist singing along -- tricky balances, to be sure, but you’d never know it from the effortless confidence with which it’s pulled off here. The protagonists of these eleven songs may be reduced to desperate measures, but Ghost City Searchlight has never seemed so confident. Hell yeah!

* Which seems to be a bizarro alternate-universe version of the blues classic Delia’s Gone, with the twist that the problem here is Delia is actually not gone.

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