The advantage to working in obscurity is the opportunity for one’s art to grow and take form without the scrutiny of the public eye. One can experiment, and even outright fail, but use the learning experience to further develop their art to the point that when the public finally sits up at takes notice, they receive a finished piece, not a work in progress. I haven’t heard 13ghosts’ five previous releases (3 EPs and 2 full-lengths), but given the melting pot of styles and genres present on the sixty-plus minutes of Cicada, I would hazard to guess the spectrum of influences to be even more far reaching the further back in their catalog you go. Cicada’s uniformly messy mixture of gospel, Americana, southern fried rock, and indie oddity is compelling and unique, but also extremely distracting. With 21 tracks, and a rotating cast of vocalists and guests, Cicada overshoots its goal, but provides a smattering of worthwhile memories along the way.
It’s certainly heartening that in the era of street teams and increasingly insidious marketing ploys, 13ghosts have ridden a wave of organic press built on the strength of their music alone. And while I’m not certain the level of praise that has been showered upon Cicada is entirely deserving, the attention certainly is, as the album is blessed with the kind of ambition that future legends are made of. This is the kind of statement that can only be made by a band with nothing to lose, and with that in mind, their third album goes for broke.
Split into two parts and featuring a Bob Marley cover, Cicada appears to be concept album, but about what in particular I haven’t quite figured out. Toby seems to be central figure in the first part, but the album as a whole seems to be infused with a sense of love lost and brimming wonder about life that perhaps only Wayne Coyne can match. Things kicks off with “Toby Dammit, Pt. 1” and its near heart-stopping perfection: A lazy porchsong waltz that bursts into sky-hugging guitar heroics in it’s latter half, yet never feels contrived. For 13ghosts, it’s these moments that make Cicada worth dissecting. “Robert J.” is another beautiful track, made for late night FM radio. Employing Mellencamp-type story-telling and a straightforward country ramble that is thankfully without a tongue in cheek in sight, it builds wonderfully, with subtle touches of percussion and piano throughout, emphasizing where it should and disappearing when it’s not needed. “The Storm” is another vivid slice of roots influenced music, delicately filtered through modern music’s gaze. 13ghosts’ true gift is being able to look back while looking forward.
Focus seems to be the operative word here, and when 13ghosts play to their more adventurous side the results are less impressive. What prevents Cicada from being fully realized is the number of cooks in the kitchen. With more than twenty contributors, the album lacks a central figure for the listener to take this journey with, and becomes somewhat disorienting because of it, especially in the latter half. Stylistically, the album suffers a similar fate. Dinosaur Jr.-styled romps and straight-up guitar rock don’t sit well beside the band’s better, and not coincidentally, more mannered, roots oriented work. The abrupt song endings and brief transition pieces are more jarring than thoughtful; you can almost see the tape splices yourself. Cicada manages to pull the listener in with one arm, while pushing them away with other.
Cicada is a final draft in need of one last revision. The band certainly has a lot of friends who are willing to help, but it proves to be more of a hindrance than a blessing. For their next effort, the band would be well advised to put the beer back in the fridge, ask everyone politely to leave, lock the door, and take hard look at their music to find out what it really is.