There’s a moment during the conclusion of State Bird’s hoedown romp, “The Hollerin’ Mountains”, when the last fading chord takes a back seat to the band’s own incessant laugher. Boyishly chuckling at themselves, they sound like a group of misfits completely unconcerned with how good or bad their recorded take turned out. While this rambunctious coda was probably to be cut later on, its off-the-cuff inclusion is revealing, though it’s just a few seconds within the band’s latest album, Mostly Ghostly. It’s an instant where even the members of this unorthodox quintet seem to realize just how silly and bizarre they must sound to anyone uninitiated with their freak-folk sing-alongs.
Channeled by the songwriting duo of Coby Hartzler and Jared Riblet, Mostly Ghostly is the follow-up to State Bird’s 2006 debut Marching Thru the Wilderness. Drawing from the same stylistic well as Neutral Milk Hotel, Devendra Banhart and Blitzen Trapper, these unfettered natives of Dover, OH incorporate a barrage of unexpected noise and instrumentation to create a cohesive collection that is both weirdly eclectic and fun.
As Mostly Ghostly progresses through its 12 tracks, pervading throughout is the larger tale of the last Pilgrim and Indian and a central character known as the Ghost King. Fragmented with what seem like mini-movements of musical narrative and dialogued perspective, the album often feels like a play production absent of its visual stage. While altogether atypical and at many times just plain peculiar, with songs that hardly fit the mold of traditional pop music (i.e. “Cathedral Tunes”, “A Voice as Old as Fire” and the very literal “What’s All That Racket in Our Haunted Attic”), it is the band’s left-field antics that undoubtedly secure the album’s enjoyable niche.
Though Mostly Ghostly officially opens with “Story of the Last Pilgrim and Indian”, this minute-long recording of an accordion and some whistle-blowing is merely a preface to the weightier substance of “I Saw the Light”. As the song quickly skips along, utilizing a ukulele and some warm supporting brass, it is the eventual swelling mix of percussive strumming, tambourine shakes, and tribal chanting that puts the album on its intended path. For all its thematic posturing, one of the most unexpected and pleasing segments of the composition occurs when Hartzler and Riblet directly address one another by name in a unique, vocal back-and-forth concerning the disposal of Hartzler’s worldly possessions.
Throughout Mostly Ghostly there is an undeniable looseness to each song’s construction. Whether it’s the country-river twang of the aforementioned “The Hollerin’ Mountains”, with its fittingly mismatched use of accordion, banjo, and pedal steel, or the campfire lullaby “The Ghost King Pt. 2”, pairing a pedal steel with the rake of a washboard and humming distortion, State Bird never seem to acknowledge the confinement of their studio surroundings. The fact that tape was rolling during each performance comes across as merely coincidental. That is not to imply that Mostly Ghostly has no semblance of control. It’s demonstrated with their most cohesive track, “The Golden Glowing Mask”. Here State Bird’s spiritual revivalism is quietly mystic, but at the song’s halfway point it stirs into forest-inspired gospel, complete with handclaps and drifting trumpet calls.
Wayward in their delivery, State Bird feels like a band on a musical vision quest. And while Mostly Ghostly may at times seem sonically uncultivated and rough, the group’s wanderings thus far have captured a very potent sound.