Marley’s Ghost’s Spooked calls to mind the image of a group of disgruntled small-town day-shifters who congregate in the village square after work with their geetars and banjers and sing away the woes of their nine-to-fives. You can see them sitting on the porch of whatever local saloon they choose, with legions of townsfolk gathered ‘round and swaying their heads in unison, one occasionally leaning forward to offer a whisper of, “Gee, Ma, these fellas are swell!” It’s the best entertainment in town, but then, it’s also the only entertainment in town, unless you count Crazy Willie at the end of the dirt road, who rocks back and forth in his chair and shouts random swear words at passersby.
They’re a group of old dudes who play old songs, and give or take a few piano flourishes from producer/composer/moustache-man Van Dyke Parks, that’s about all there is to it. Nothing fancy-schmancy, no bells n’ whistles, just some good old-timey tunes from a group of folks who like doin’ what they do. But while Spooked is a thoroughly enjoyable record, stuffed with super-tight four-part harmonies, raucous fiddlin’, and production that sparkles with cleanliness without betraying the authenticity of the music, the selection of material weighs it down over the course of thirteen songs.
As often tends to be the case with music of this nature, the best tracks on Spooked are the upbeat stompers. The 1844 Hutchinson Family emancipation anthem “Get Off the Track” is as astoundingly catchy today as I’m sure it was a century and a half ago, playing gloriously to the band members’ strengths both as harmony singers and couriers of melody. Even better is Willard Robison and Edward H. Morris’s “There’s Religion in Rhythm”, which sounds like the lost companion piece to Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, bouncing from bass note to bass note with all the elegance of a gymnast on a trampoline, while the old fogies preach that, “There’s religion in rhythm / Ain’t you been told? / Rhythm brings joy / And joy will break old Satan’s hold”.
Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. Most of Spooked relies too heavily on dopey country ballads and unconvincing gospel ruminations that, while pleasant enough, don’t do much for the momentum of the record, and certainly have little going for them in terms of staying power. “The Ballad of Johnny Hallyday” is an excellent self-indulgent workout in geographical name-dropping, but its story of rock and roll mythology tries too hard for both enlightenment and humor, achieving neither, turning it into a laughably forgettable piece of country-and-western drivel. “Old Time Religion” is well-executed but stands no chance of achieving its mission; it may get you curious about the spirit, but you sure as heck aren’t going to feel it, not with the song plodding monotonously as it does and Dan Wheetman’s voice being about as evangelistic as the gospel-by-numbers lyrics that it sings.
Marley’s Ghost’s cover of “The Wicked Messenger” stands proudly alongside Cat Power’s “Paths of Victory” on the list of Worst Dylan Covers of All-Time; it was a nice idea, but a good Dylan cover requires attention to so many things, not the least of which being enunciation and subtlety, and Wheetman’s shrill Ralph Stanley impression is incapable of providing either of these things. The end product is an embarrassing caricature of Dylan’s original, one that sounds like it was no doubt delivered by one of the cartoon characters on the album cover (I’m not sure which one is Wheetman, but I’m guessing he’s the one with the moustache and the green hat, the one who looks like Grandpa Joe from the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
“Sail Away, Ladies” succumbs to a similar fate, though the traditional words lend themselves better to this comic-book approach than do Dylan’s; a raucous chantey rather than a moralist parable, the goofy delivery charms instead of annoys, enhances instead of detracts. But perhaps the most successful moment on the record is the closing track, the brief minute-long “Seaman’s Hymn”. an a capella number which hits home like an Irish blessing, melodically complete and emotionally present. It allows the boys to showcase their talent for harmony in an arena of tact and subtlety, and it ends the record on a supremely high-note.
Novelty act though they sometimes are, Marley’s Ghost do what they do well, even if sometimes their choice of material isn’t particularly suited to their abilities. But Spooked ultimately succeeds in charm where it fails in substance; there’s plenty in which to find fault here, but pop these guys up on the porch of any given saloon and they’re probably as good of entertainment for the townsfolk as one is likely to find, and maybe in the end that’s all they’re intended to be.