Despite a deceptively simple formula of R&B-inflected vocals, fluidly organic basslines, and airtight double drumming, Give You the Ghost isn’t the easiest album to unwrap or decode. Poliça frontwoman Channy Leaneagh’s effects-coated and often multi-tracked voice acts as both center and outer padding, creating an unusual sonic paradox in which Leaneagh is omnipresent, but her words are frequently obscured. It’s a tension resolved with additional listens, however, as her bandmates’ important contributions become more audible, and her lyrics become clearer — as it turns out, they’re sensual, angry, and impressionistic, much like the music. This is form following function.
The Minneapolis-based band’s origins lie in soft rock-affecting Midwestern supergroup Gayngs, for which Leaneagh was one of a number of vocalists (fellow Gayngs vocalist and Bon Iver member Mike Noyce also guests on two tracks here). Coming off the breakup of both her band, the Americana-focused Roma Di Luna, and her marriage to that band’s co-founder Alexei Moon Casselle, Leaneagh asked Gayngs mastermind Ryan Olson for help with some new songs. Although Olson opted to not join the band formally, he ended up playing an integral part as songwriting partner and producer, and he helped assemble the somewhat unorthodox no guitars/no keys lineup of bassist Chris Bierden and two drummers, Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu.
The backstory is unusually important here, not only for the autobiographical nature of Leaneagh’s lyrics, but for the role of non-member Olson. As on Gayngs’ Relayted, this is a group of Midwestern musicians largely known for playing folk and indie rock switching gears to rhythmic soul, but, to Olson’s credit, it’s a world away in tone from his earlier project. There’s zero kitsch here, no winking saxophone solos, nothing to suggest ‘80s nostalgia. Olson’s blurping electronics and the horn parts on “Dark Star”, for instance, are perfectly complementary to Leaneagh’s serious musings on failed romance and motherhood, and their inevitable intersection (“I’m gonna give her all my life / Until she, until she’s / Swooped up by the sea of love”). As a producer, he finds equilibrium in the often claustrophobic excess of the multi-tracked Leaneagh and the punchy precision of the three-man rhythm section.
In live clips, it’s clear that Poliça is very much a band effort, with Bierden, Christopherson, and Ivascu dictating the terms of performance as much as Leaneagh (whose voice is somewhat less omnipresent). Nonetheless, despite Leaneagh’s claims that Auto-Tune and other effects are an attempt to render her voice just another instrument in the mix, Give You the Ghost is decidedly an album predicated on her vocals, even if it’s not a “singer’s album” in the traditional sense. That Leaneagh’s voice seeps out of the central position afforded most recorded lead vocals and into the crevices often filled by instrumental flourishes doesn’t make it function as another instrument, but rather as many instruments. And this technique doesn’t simply fill audible space, but simultaneously camouflages Leaneagh’s intense, personal lyrics and dramatizes their overflow.
On opener “Amongster”, two hard-panned vocal tracks, both heavily processed with delay, fly in formation, split off, and swoop past each other, blurring each other as they pass. As may only be initially clear on the lyric sheet, “Amongster” is a preview of the album to come, equal parts distress and resolve, with mixed feelings (“I don’t need you, I don’t need anyone / Come back”), violent and sexual imagery (“Fire burning down at Monastery Road / Why’d you do it, lover, throwing matches in my home / How I begged him to take other women on / But he don’t know where to turn”), and concern over broken homes (“Everyone’s asking where’s your child in this plan / Why you gonna ask me if I’d cut off my own hand?”). That most of this is impossible to discern is, perhaps, the point. These are words that Leaneagh can’t or shouldn’t articulate; instead, the music gets the point across through a consonant emotional confusion. “Violent Games” takes this idea even further, the endless vocal echoes rendering almost completely incoherent Leaneagh’s disjointed, troubled lyrics (“Tremble at the taste of in his hands / Oh, what a violent game, stole but I still remain / Man be my enemy, oh but he knows / My needs”).
It may take some digging to find the lyrics and even predominant melodies behind the artful vocal smearing on Give You the Ghost, but there are a few songs that preview the rewards of doing so. “Lay Your Cards Out”, “Wandering Star”, and “Leading to Death” are relatively free of ping-ponging, delayed vocals and showcase Leaneagh as an appealing singer whose talent for melody cuts through Auto-Tune, and her bandmates as inventive and dynamic. Keep this in mind as you make your first few passes through Give You the Ghost, and the blurrier moments will come into focus, but you’ll also understand the excellent reasons behind their blurring.