[12 November 2012]
With their ghoulish name, the Casket Girls may have an uphill battle in shaking presumptions that they’re just another goth band. In truth, the Savannah, Georgia-based three-piece is hardly the trite doom and gloom bearer their name might suggest. They are a band rich with dichotomies, thriving in the juxtaposition of polarities — detached and impassioned, cacophonous and melodic, creepy and cutesy, fun and funereal. The band’s name itself is the first indication of this, being a pun of sorts on superficial expectations, as “casquette girls” was the colloquial term for virginal French girls shipped to colonies of America’s Deep South.
Sleepwalking, the Casket Girls’ 10-song debut album, contains the tunes you’d expect to emanate from an antique music box in a cobweb-strewn haunted house. The record is dominated by spooky soundscapes of minimal percussion and fuzzed-out synth lines crafted by Ryan Graveface (Black Moth Super Rainbow, the Marshmallow Ghosts, Dreamend) on what sounds like instruments purchased at a toy store or a second-hand shop. Frequently, an electric church organ flares up only to be tempered by a droning feedback. The contrasting components of the music yield a thick atmosphere, a hazy aura that is not quite nocturnal but more indicative of some twilight-esque otherworld. Think of the tunes as lights through a fog, though whether that fog is born of the looming evening’s dusk or the new day’s dawn is in the ear of the listener.
Amid such eeriness, at once exacerbating and alleviating it, are the harmonizing voices of sisters Elsa and Phaedra Greene. Sweetly twee, they offer songs that could be lullabies sung by the ghost sisters from The Shining or the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides. The innocence in their whispery vocals serves to conversely set the listener on edge, for on the surface they are angelic and reassuring, yet there is the implied undercurrent that such sweetness belies the seduction of death. Whether they’re benign or malevolent, they certainly have the impression of an entity summoned by a Ouija board.
Opening cut “Walking on a Wire” rises effervescently, the tom-tom banging setting a down-tempo dirge offset by the Greenes’ folksy reflections of lonely whippoorwills and revelation blues. Their lethargic presentation represents the mundane of being stuck between two worlds, not knowing which to fall into. “Maybe we weren’t meant for these times”, the sisters repeat throughout, perhaps a self-conscious reference to the band’s own merging of anachronistic ‘60s girl-group tropes, ‘80s synth pop and ‘90s electronica. The second track, “I’ve Got a Secret”, bears a heavy influence of The End…-era Nico, lurching distorted key notes hypnotic in their repetition and a circus music-like melody. The Greene sisters tell an impressionistic tale of something wicked having this way come, the verses at times seeing their voices so high they’re about to crack while the suggestive chorus sees them dropping to unsettling lows. “I’ve got a secret / I won’t tell / I’ll take it to the grave / I’m a casket girl”, they intone like sirens. What said secret is remains unstated, though there are clues — was the protagonist the victim of childhood abuse? Did the victim kill her abuser?
Lead single and titular track “Sleepwalking” is a swaying slice of dream pop, a tune that would be saccharine enough to give you diabetes if the lyrics weren’t a deliberate middle-finger salute to the Grim Reaper. The Greenes use Graveface’s synthesizer bleeps and whistles and crunchy drum machine beats as a canvas on which to espouse their defiance of death, of not merely wading through life like a somnambulist. “There will be no starting over / It’ll just be over”, they open with in suitably deadpan fashion, a sentiment that may seem dour, but in the Casket Girls’ hands, is actually an endorsement to live in the here and now. “I’m not afraid to die / I’m willing to go before my time / You won’t see me / Sleepwalking”, they sing cheerily in the borderline anthemic chorus, “I’m not afraid of death / Maybe I’ll finally catch my breath / You won’t find me / Sleepwalking”. It’s a song that completely seizes the hallmarks of the goth genre and inverts them — the focus on death and the grimness which comes with such a fixation supplanted by a lust for life and a desire to indulge without fear of any looming repercussions. Here, the inevitability of death isn’t cause for nihilism, but celebration, as it is the borrowed time of existence that gives it meaning.
Elsewhere on the record, though, the Casket Girls reject the notion that death is truly the end. “Whistle and I Will Come” sees them calling from the other side of death amid drum blasts simulating waves crashing on a rock-lined shore. Then there is the spoken-word piece “The Visitor”, in which the narrator describes encountering the shade of her mother. The piece reads like an entry from the Alvin Schwartz classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, chilling to the nth degree with its sweeping shoegaze template and the echoing voices.
The most atypical song on Sleepwalking, though, is placed smack in the middle. “Heartless” is a full-on retro disco track, the kind of dance number you’d hear in a discotheque going for a surrealism theme. Describing the numbness that comes from the dissolution of a relationship, the narrator finds herself infected with the apathy of her former lover. “How could I miss / The devil’s kiss? / It’s like I’m heartless,” the Greenes state with next to no inflection, the feeling of being hollowed to the core conveyed in their vocals.
On the downside, the record is a bit uneven, the majority of its memorable songs pushed to its first half. The songs on the flipside aren’t any less interesting on their own, but after six or seven similar cuts, they start to get lost in the shuffle and bleed together. Thankfully, the album overall is short enough at 33 minutes that this result isn’t the lasting impression you walk away with. In point of fact, the brevity of the record lends itself to repeated listens, in part due to the way it ends. The closing song, “Give it All Away”, serves as a fitting finale, its austere keyboard twinkling segueing into a wall of noise as the Greenes duel each other with “How you gonna stop it now?” and “Give it all away” until the entire thing abruptly fades out like a séance wherein the participants lose their nerve and bring it to a halt.
Sleepwalking occupies a very specific niche in the indie music realm. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but for those who like their pop music served up with a macabre bent, you could scarcely do better than the Casket Girls.