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Ghost Pirates Without Heads

(Mint; US: 15 Nov 2005; UK: Available as import)

Never has headlessness on the high seas come with so much sugar. But your booty’s safe, because these aren’t real pirates—just costumed trick-or-treaters. Your aesthetic sensibility is what’s at Jolly Roger levels of danger. On their EP Ghost Pirates Without Heads, P:ano mixes structural experimentation, odd instrumentation, and excessive cleverness and covers it all in twee finery to disguise the results of untouched brooding. The resulting stew is less somber than a cannonball over the bow, but less enjoyable than a dead parrot sketch.

Opener “Fiji” sets out the guiding philosophy of the disc with its final lines: “Sometimes I wish that there weren’t even stars at all/ They just make the world seem small and hard.” The acceptance of this “small and hard” world leads to a string of songs that respond to loss and hurt while offering a continually undercut uplift. The group sounds at time like an acoustic comedy vaudeville show, but they remind us incessantly that entertainment ultimately fails to help our spirits.

“T. Hatch Says ‘Round Ev’ry Corner’” show this process at work, epitomized by the lyrics “Oh, sugar, I’ll never love/ Anything half as much as what’s/ ‘Round every corner.” The narrator, accompanied by accordion and banjo gives up on joy in life even as he imagines a world in which “the good life and monsters… dance together” and we can bop along to a happy little ditty. The song denies the imaginative power of hope, suggesting instead that we should content ourselves with tranquilized ruminations.

At times P:ano’s attitude marks a throwback to the time of pomo distancing, foolhardy endeavor that fortunately gave way to (and at its finest actually revealed) an intense engagement with the world. The group’s songs, as they advertise, forego emotional investment in order to play formal games. Even titles like “I Felt His Presents/Doing the Can-Can” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain Sung to the Tune of Go Tell It on the Mountain” suggest the affectation that does wear thin even of the course of an EP. The band also relies on lyrical turns that call attention to the construct of cleverness (“When you garden in your garden” being representative of boring results and a run about the H.M.S. Pinafore being the finest example).

This formal disengagement makes it hard to connect to P:ano when they actually sound vulnerable. “Enchanted Forest” resists the disc’s ideology of inert escapism by putting a brighter world into reality. The singers explain, “We left happy as ever/ Safe and wet/ And we took pictures/ Lest we forget…”, and they beg for empathy with the clipped comment on the gradual loss of living. In “Foot Hills” the group again exposes itself with “Let your love-light shine/ But I’ll never let mine”, demonstrating that continued conscious resistance to feeling, even as they continue on a disc arguing the futility of further connection. After that song ends with only a dream of “growing wild”, we come back to “T. Hatch” and its pairing of the look-at-me cleverness of the hither/zither/dinner sequence and the desire to “watch our shows” rather than participate in an emotional life.

These moments of enforced apathy surprisingly add up to a deep emotional expression (one that P:ano engages by alternately hiding and revealing). The loss of engagement becomes a greater loss than anything more specific. The confidence in only inactivity becomes the blackness, with its self-defined bind of nonresistance. Where there could be something powerful in this depiction of hopelessness (and occasionally is), P:ano doesn’t give it its full weight by constantly calling attention to its artifice. The world of Ghost Pirates, filled with costumes and only fading thoughts of real adventure, is itself a disguise, and a distraction from real experience (hence P:ano’s resistance to true connection). The loss of feeling and the vacant life are laid out explicitly in closer “Animal Friends” with lyrics and music that show the emptiness of a risk-free life. The track teeters right on that division between self-reflexive art and outward yearning. That balance is P:ano’s accomplishment, but it’s also the group’s limitation.


Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.

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