[16 May 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you were to judge the packaging of Racing Heart’s To Walk Beside That Ghost, you might come away with an image of cheapness and amateurness: the digipack is constructed of flimsy recycled bootleg-quality cardboard, and no effort has been made to hide the high fibre content. However, once you make it to the actual CD, you realize that the album is meticulously crafted and quite well produced—a striking image removed from the cover art, printed on the same plain brown colour that grocery bags come in. The album was apparently recorded in Brooklyn on Eddie Van Halen’s old 16-track analog tape machine, but it sounds almost digital and pristine. If you listen to opening cut “This Pretty Mistake” on a 5.1 surround sound stereo system, the vocals have a certain clarity in the centre speaker while an autoharp pings sharply in the very left speaker. A lot of work has actually gone into the making of the album in terms of construction, so it’s kind of a shame that the packaging looks so hastily put together, probably deterring would-be listeners from the gentle folksy strums created by Norway’s Mathias Tjønn into a genuinely affecting and startling (though somewhat flawed) artistic statement.
Made with the backing members of both St. Vincent and Sufjan Stevens’ bands, To Walk Beside That Ghost is a retro-infused indie folk album, taking cues from the music of the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s. On the short, less than a minute “Et Ønske, Et Håp”, Tjønn multi-tracks his vocals into unaccompanied-by-instrumentation harmonies that recalls the work of the classic era of the Beach Boys. The synthesizers on “Photos” have a very Joe Jackson circa Night and Day feel to them as well. Add to that the use of keyboards that sound like Mellotrons lifted from prog-rock giants Yes on “Emma”, and you have an album that is a reference map to all things that have come before. In spite of such flourishes, To Walk Beside That Ghost sounds fresh and original, though the album sometimes lapses into James Taylor style lite-folk territory (snooze), and a large part of that originality has to do with Tjønn’s vocals itself. At times, Tjønn has a very blue-eyed soul cadence and timbre, and if you close your eyes listening to some of these songs—“Emma” in particular—you could swear that the ghost being talked about here is one of Michael Jackson. Tjønn’s singing is sweet and powerful, giving the album a certain amount of heft and gravity. Helping things considerably, too, is the aforementioned use of indie-world renowned musicians: there are parts of To Walk Beside That Ghost that are very reminiscent of Stevens’ two 50 States albums in tone and musicality. The generous use of autoharp also shares a similarity with the music and muse of Joanna Newsom.
Where To Walk Beside That Ghost lags a bit is in Tjønn’s lyrics. Being a young man, some of his concerns here come off as high school poetry full of angst and over-repetition. Proof? The album actually opens with the overwrought line: “I bled dry my heart for you”. The choruses of “This Pretty Mistake” consist solely of the titular line repeated at least six times around, which seems a bit lazy and as though the singer-songwriter didn’t have much of import to say. That all said, To Walk Beside That Ghost, as noted above, has a key strength beyond the expressive emoting of Tjønn’s singing: it is immaculately put together. In fact, the record almost feels like a producer’s showcase – the kind of album record store employees might throw onto their hi-fis to showcase the features of the stereos they’re selling to would-be buyers. Strings, horns and woodwinds practically swirl around “Turn Around” to head-spinning effect and the aforementioned “Et Ønske, Et Håp” stands tall with its angelic layered voices.
The clarity and full-bodiedness of the production do a lot to mask the flaws of the record, by and large, and you also have to admit that the songwriting itself in strictly musical terms is generally solid. Nothing amazing—there are those lapses in lite folk, after all, particularly in the first half of the record—but there are moments of the disc that are commanding. While To Walk Beside That Ghost suggests that its creator does have a bit of room to grow and mature, it is tantalizing with its promises of possibility. The album showcases Tjønn as an artist to keep an eye on, that there’s nothing but an upward trajectory from here, and is a pretty good, enjoyable slice of folk art in its own right. You’re just paying for the music, and not the packaging is all.