Dirty Ghosts: Metal Moon

[21 March 2012]

By Andy Johnson

Potentially eyebrow-raising as it is, it’s best not to become too fixated on the fact that Dirty Ghosts are a band fronted by Aesop Rock’s wife. While the American rapper did sit in the producer’s chair and lend his hip-hop touch to a number of tracks, Allyson Baker is an intriguing and experienced figure in her own right, completely in control of Metal Moon‘s musical direction. Coming out of leftfield and long in gestation, here is a record which—while far from perfect—makes a noble attempt to drag the rock dinosaur into the present.

A native of Toronto, Baker was active in the city’s punk scene as far back as the mid-‘90s, and was later guitarist for southern rock outfit Parchman Farm, for which fellow Dirty Ghosts member Carson Binks played bass. Bravely, Baker and her collaborators have decided against retreading old glories and have chosen instead to help grapple with rock’s foremost dilemma—how to find a new role in an irrevocably changed musical landscape. Adopting influences from across the musical spectrum without compromising its own rock core, Metal Moon is a flawed but encouraging piece of the puzzle.

The Ghosts’ approach to this challenge involves not only marrying Baker’s solid riffing abilities with liberal use of electronic elements, but also crafting a very specific atmosphere which owes a lot to Baker’s own personality. That her vocal performances are so well filled with this distinctively combative attitude is all the more impressive considering that these songs are the very first on which Baker has sung: she reluctantly took on the role only because the lack of a singer was threatening the band’s very existence. It was a ballsy move which has been of great benefit to the resulting album. A little lacking in polish they may be, but Baker’s vocal turns are always absolutely hers, packed with unique touches which suit the songs ideally.

The impact of all this would be even greater if it weren’t for one of Metal Moon‘s foremost weaknesses – the lyrics. From a musical perspective “Ropes That Way” is a terrific opener, a real statement of menacing intent that bounces along with a classic, ragged riff – but as with so many of the songs that are to follow, the lines simply don’t coalesce into any kind of coherent logic. Less lyrically-minded listeners will every reason to thrill at other heavier numbers like “Beast Size” and especially the excellent “19 in ‘71”, but others might be left a little cold by the feeling that the record leans so much more on riffs than writing.

All it takes to hear Metal Moon at its impressive best, however, is to just revel in the distinctive swagger it carries across a varied tracklisting. “Battle Slang” suffers a little from an excessively murky production, but is an otherwise strong excursion into Latin rock, while the starkly electronic “Steamboat to Concord” shows Aesop Rock’s touch most clearly. These alternate modes never eclipse the gritty, propulsive rock sound which dominates the album but they always serve to complement it.

In the end it’s difficult to think of Metal Moon as a truly fully-fledged new mode for Allyson Baker; instead, it makes more sense as a sturdy initial launchpad for more impressive things to come. Even taken in this context, however, this debut outing by Dirty Ghosts is entirely worth a spin for those listeners who like their rock to look forward without comprising on, well—the rock.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/155439-dirty-ghosts-metal-moon/