Review: Ghost Town Sound experiments with a large mix of musical styles
Like an old-fashioned American beef stew, the new self-titled album from Ghost Town Sound contains a lot of different elements. At times there might be a bit too many, but none of them are what you’d call typical.
In fact, the album as a whole could be the very definition of atypical.
It’s influenced heavily by reggae, surf rock, Native American teachings, slam poetry, Montana history, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Gorrilaz and Leonard Cohen.
And, those are just the ones that an average listener can pick up. There’s undoubtedly many others that are bubbling under the surface that make this Hodge-podge collection of songs hum.
Sometimes it works remarkably well. The tracks “Fingerprints” and “Ohtahku” for example, mix a variety of elements, be it Western roots, folk, Americana, and specifically the Gorrillaz’s track “Clint Eastwood,” which the track “Ohtahku” (a Salish word for “The Sound” and the original name of the area which became Great Falls) has an uncanny similarity to, but only in tone, as nothing’s really been lifted. It may even be a coincidence that they sound similar, but listening to “Ohtahku” definitely reminded me of the seminal Gorrilaz track.
I’d almost be willing to say, in fact, that “Ohtahku” does that type of sound better than “Clint Eastwood,” but that’s a debate for another article.
The story of “Ohtahku” if you’re not familiar, is that it was the name given to the area by the Salish Natives because of the sound coming from it, which many assume to be the sound of the river’s falls, however others, including Wendt, dispute that theory.
But while the blend of styles works great, other times, the combinations seem to butt heads with one another. It’s particularly noticeable on the opening track, “Vision Quest USA.”
It’s a song which blends Native American imagery, the idea of going on a Vision Quest up Big Chief Mountain in the Montana wilderness, with a style that sounds similar to what you might hear from The Beach Boys.
I’m not saying it’s a bad track.
Just, for a minute, imagine making a milkshake and instead of putting strawberries or blueberries in with the ice cream, you threw in brown licorice.
While both brown licorice and milkshakes are amazing on their own, together they don’t quite work as well, generally speaking.
But, more broadly, I’ve found the best way to enjoy this album is if you throw out the idea that you’re listening to an album with songs that have the “Intro-verse-pre-chorus-chorus-bridge-outro” structure.
There are several tracks with that structure, but most of the songs are perhaps better described as poems or stories either sung or chanted in front of various backing tracks from the talented Mr. Jimmy Foot.
Several of the tracks are entirely original such as “Vision Quest USA,” “Ohtahku” “Auditor” “Empty Town” and “American Ghost Town,” while others are either entire covers (“Boxcar” by Neil Young,”) modified covers (Tiny Montany,” a take on “Tiny Montgomery” by Bob Dylan) or poems read by Doug Wendt in his deep, grizzled half singing/half speaking voice, (“ND Waza Bat,” “Crow Testament,” and “Fingerprints.”)
What’s fascinating about this album is that nearly each song has a unique story behind it. Details about where it came from, what it covers, who created it originally all have a tale to tell.
For instance, “ND Waza Bat,” at first listen sounds like a quirky, silly little song, and it is. But, it’s also a very catchy tune — one you’ll find yourself humming to yourself hours after you first listen to it.
Plus, it comes from Keith Secola, the award-winning Native American musician who comes from the Ojibwa and Anishinabe tribes. “ND Waza Bat,” is from his first album, 1992’s “Circle.”
Wendt’s appreciation for music is evident simply by the fact that he knows this song existed and saw the brilliance in its simplicity.
This is one of two fully traditional native tracks, the other being “Crow Testament,” which is Wendt’s take on a poem by Sherman Alexie.
Alexie is a Native American poet, writer and filmmaker who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
His poem is filled with double meanings and innuendos, with perhaps my favorite phrase from the poem is the one which states,
“The Crow God as depicted
in all of the reliable Crow bibles
looks exactly like a Crow.
Daum, says Crow, this makes it
so much easier to worship myself.”
With both these tracks, Doug and the rest of Ghost Town Sound — Foot, Doug Sternberg, Steve Powell along with Marc and Cat Wendt, do their best to respect the source material and let it stand on it’s own merits.
And while these are quite enjoyable, my favorite track has to be “Auditor,” which essentially is a tribute to my hometown, Butte, America.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the dog Auditor, or The Auditor, check out this site, which does a great job of explaining how one dog lived near the Berkeley Pit for 17 years.
Wendt did his research with this track — even including more recent Butte history with the mention of an incident involving a small airplane that crashed into a cemetery in 2009.
Having grown up in Butte, I’m tickled by all of this song, but my favorite line has to be, “It wasn’t a town without pity, it was a town with a pit. It had a mournful matted dog who lorded over it and his name was … Auditor”
Finally, one last track any true fan of Leonard Cohen need check out is “Fingerprints.”
The source material for “Fingerprints” was a poem penned by Cohen in 1966, originally titled “Give Me Back My Fingerprints.”
Cohen then took the track and made a song version of it which he put on his album “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” an album considered by most Cohen fans, including Cohen himself, as being his worst album he ever created.
He once called it a “catastrophe,” mostly because of the toxic relationship that developed between himself and producer Phil Spector and the resulting mish mash of music that doesn’t sound like any of Cohen’s other albums.
In fact, during the album’s recording, Spector held a loaded gun to Cohen’s head, one of five such musicians he reportedly did such a stunt to.
The Cohen-Spector produced song, which you can hear below, is a bit of a mess, frankly. You’d be forgiven for not even knowing it’s Cohen singing because it sounds like every cheesy, cliche-ridden country song from the 1970s.
The Ghost Town Sound take on “Fingerprints,” meanwhile, takes the source material and remixes the backing track. It almost feels like the type of treatment Cohen would have given it if he were not working with Spector in 1977.
Upon picking up the album, an attentive Great Falls native may also notice the album cover as a piece of art from Deeling Gregory, Wendt’s wife. The piece is titled “Mystic Traveler.” Another of her series of large scale Ghost Town Sound paintings “Spirits Grazing” also serves as the album’s artwork.
The album was recorded at Bongo Boy, Hollow Bone, and Tuff Gong Studios in California, Idaho, England, and Jamaica.
Throughout the band’s history, Ghost Town Sound has performed at The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, Machinery Row, Alley Galleria, The Summer Music Series, and Sound of the Falls Fest in Montana, as well as Ashkenaz and the World One Festival in California and other such events in The Rockies and beyond.
This album works best when Wendt and company are tapping into that lore that comes across as a little eerie, odd and interesting. It takes a few risks, and some work great while others don’t work as well.
It’s a bold move, however, and one that may not have been possible 15 or 20 years ago. Which is to say that albums by independent artists have become easier than ever before to release. And while Wendt is trying to stay away from an online-only release, simply giving people free samples has never been easier.
I recommend checking out “Ghost Town Sound” and while I might not enjoy all of the tracks, the ones that do resonate left an immediate impact with me and I found myself listening to several of the songs three, four, five times as the album played in my car stereo.
For more information on Ghost Town Sound, or to pick up a copy of the album, visit the band’s website www.ghosttownsound.com.