[10 January 2012]
It’s not too hard for a competent folk-tinged band to casually slip Southern Gothic flavour into their shtick: some minor chords, some murder, some whiskey. It takes a rare act, like Birmingham, Alabama’s 13ghosts, to make the literary conventions of the genre creep and kill in vivid rock ‘n’ roll.
“I’m a collector of conversation, a connoisseur of silence”, Brad Armstrong sings over the rave-up of “Wicked Drink”, as if to underline the lyrical and musical dynamics that make Garland of Bottle Flies buzz. Armstrong’s narrators attempt suicide, straddle barstools, and face fatal consequences with descriptive and emotional eloquence. But, again and again, these monologues give way to silence, the “single most frightening thing” as Armstrong’s narrator calls it in “Stella”. When the addled patient visiting “Dr. Bill” finally cracks, his realization that “everything I dreamed is dead” is punctuated with nearly seven measures of sparsely accompanied drums before the guitars kick back in with Pixies ferocity – the vocals never return, the diagnosis left ambiguous. The suicide note of “While You Were Bathing” is silenced by death’s bored finger on the turntable. On the lengthy album centerpiece, “Billy Dee”, the band depicts a gap in narrative action as musical dissonance – specifically, an entire minute of feedback-drenched anticipation as the protagonist pauses mid-thought to consider his opponent in a brutal fistfight.
The familiar superficial Southern Gothic tropes are here, of course, but Armstrong knows his literary history enough to explore that southern Gothic/modernist overlap of Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and others, with its classical allusions and societal disintegrations. Most explicitly, on the slow-burning “I Have Brought Fire,” a fallen Promethean figure wonders, “Will all these children who come from my cock / Grow up to hate me?” The mythical and earthbound share space throughout, with angels and saints bumping up against fading barmaids, and dream logic giving way to grotesque reality. Sometimes, grotesque wins out. Armstrong has said that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads was an early, abandoned template for this album, and its influence shows in the gallows humour of “Billy Dee,” an intricate revenge tale told from the bathroom at a Motörhead show.
The album’s electronics-tinged, occasionally overdriven Southern rock is a perfect complement to Armstrong’s lyrical preoccupations. By highlighting the atmospherics that 13ghosts developed on Cicada (2005) and The Strangest Coloured Lights (2008), but keeping the band’s intrinsic rootsiness intact, they find a sound somewhat akin to Good Morning, Spider-era Sparklehorse, but which trades that classic album’s terrified instability for confident guitar rock energy.
The band began work on Garland in 2008, but major lineup changes – including the departure of co-leader Buzz Russell – forced Armstrong and his bandmates to enlist friends to fill out the sound and kept studio progress slow. In fact, the band took so long recording Garland that, to blow off steam after the project, they turned around and immediately cut another album – the ragged, stripped-down Liar’s Melody – which was released on the same day.
Garland‘s long gestation shows. This is an album of intense focus and detail work, yet those strategically placed blasts of feedback and ominous background effects only enhance the rugged, strummed humanity at its core.