The Doleful Lions have garnered an incredible amount of critical praise since emerging from Chicago in the mid-1990s. Built around lead singer and guitarist Jonathan Scott, the band released their first album, Motel Swim, in 1998, and the press immediately compared the group to the Beach Boys, Big Star, and Guided by Voices. The comparisons, while hyperbolic, stem from the band’s affinity for low-fi aesthetics and emphasis on infectious melody. Since then, Scott and his ever-shifting lineup of players have gone on to release several more albums, each one stylistically different from the others but consistently grounded in a keen pop sensibility and deft musicianship. More notably, the band has attracted attention through Scott’s lyrical obsessions, which deal with such unlikely topic matter as sasquatches, werewolves, mythological characters, demons, murderers, psychics, and other subjects hastily filed under “New Age” at your local Barnes and Noble.
Seeing that Scott’s interests are not exactly mainstream, it was only a matter of time before the Doleful Lions released an album mainly devoted to everyone’s favorite scapegoat: Satan. Now trimmed down to a duo—Scott and studio guru David Jackson—the band has created the most unlikely album that not only deals with Jesus’ nemesis, but also the Knights Templar, ghosts, kings, biblical characters, and other assorted Joseph Campbell fare. Unlike many other albums dealing with such… um… dark topics, this album is not cornball death metal. Nope, you won’t find any angry shouting or heavy riffing here. Nor is this album a pretentious prog-rock adventure, the kind laden with unnecessary drum rolls and sci-fi keyboards. In fact, there is no musical masturbation at all on this album. Instead, Shaded Lodge and Mausoleum is a collection of psychedelic folk songs that are dreamy, catchy, and often tenderly beautiful in execution. While most of the songs are less sunny than those on previous releases, all of them lean to the soft side and possess an ethereal, reflective tone. Somewhere the Prince of Darkness must be scratching his horned head, wondering where all the fake blood and black attire went.
Yes, yes, yes… songs about the devil, ghosts, warriors, blah, blah, blah can be disastrously silly and insipid. Think back to the ‘80s for examples. Or, if you have a few hours of your life to waste, watch that VH1 Most Metal Moments show for a visual encyclopedia of lyrical stupidity created in honor of Lucifer or wizards. Shaded Lodge and Mausoleum, for the most part, avoids the cliché potholes of such topic matter. Rather than treating these characters as symbols for juvenile rebellion or ridiculous fantasy, Scott writes lyrics that are informed with the detail of a folklorist. His knowledge of mythology, history, and religion is impressive, and the delicate tone of the music prevents the songs from drowning underneath their own severity.
This soft approach is used throughout most of the album. “Sham Magic in the Night Gallery”, for example, is a bouncy song that references warriors, sepulchers, and magicians. In other words, on a thematic level, it’s a Dungeons and Dragons nerd’s fantasy; musically, the song is a straight-forward pop tune, complete with a buoyant beat and jangly electric guitar. While the lyrics are downright weighty (“The fakes hung on the walls / That desecrate the halls / And lost the sacred word / To all the pilots of the sun”), Scott’s nasal drawl obscures the words and his whispery delivery gives the song a winsome, nostalgic feel. “Watch the Skies / A Boy’s Life” sounds like a medieval folk song, marked by a rolling guitar line and faint, swelling strings. Once again, the lyrics are not your typical content: “In the halls of Abel’s fault / They took our lives / So seal this offertory vault / And clean the knives….” The music is so achingly gorgeous and fragile, however, you’d swear Scott was singing about courtly love. The same goes for “Slip Inside This Gateway”, a autumnal folk song about ghosts and death. Just how the Doleful Lions make such grave topics seem gently fantastical is a wonder, but Scott’s hushed fingerpicking and Jackson’s unobtrusive keyboard playing provide an ethereal backdrop to the strange tales.
Not all of the songs, though, are charming and delicate. “Strange Vibrations” is downright creepy, perhaps because Scott’s voice is so distorted it sounds like a drowning insect, a mixture of vibrating hums and panicked gasps for air. In the background, a sinister whirl shakes back and forth over a series of interrupted beeps. “Satanic Blood” is also disquieting, mainly because it’s decidedly upbeat and chirpy. As a dance beat plays behind a buzzing drone, Scott bouncily repeats “Satanic blood” over and over, like a boy band gone to the dark side. In this case, the combination of dark lyrics and poppy music fails; Satan and blood just don’t make for a good dance song. Likewise, “Tommy Tells of Ghost Ships” is another foreboding song that falls victim to misfires, this time to Scott’s irritating and exaggerated vocal stylings (think of Bob Dylan doing an impersonation of himself).
Half psychedelic daydream and half mythological nightmare, Shaded Lodge and Mausoleum is a fascinating album that demands repeated listens. Overall, the repeated listens yield uneven results. While some—indeed, most—of the songs are nothing short of beautiful, a few are nothing short of grating. Still, this is inevitable when artists are as adventurous as the Doleful Lions, and their refusal to retread familiar, safe ground is admirable. Wherever the Doleful Lions go from here (Loch Ness Monster, anyone?), they deserve to not go alone.