[15 August 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Seattle Times has described the Moondoggies as “Seattle’s premier urban-rustic folk-rock act”. Nice compliment. But notice the subtext? The statement unwittingly implies there must not be just two or three, but, in fact, enough “urban-rustic folk-rock” bands in Seattle to warrant one being singled out as “premier”. In other words, there is no shortage in Seattle of bands who do what the Moondoggies do and sound like they sound. Even on a national level, the list of so-called “beard rock” bands with Pacific Northwest roots numbers out at more than a few. When you think about it, the Times’ snippet could well be satirical.
It’s not, though. And Adiós I’m a Ghost, the Moondoggies’ third album, provides glimpses that suggest the praise is well-earned. Also, the album most strongly evokes a band whose home is quite farther east. If you wish My Morning Jacket had stuck with more of the ramshackle, jammy roadhouse rock of It Still Moves, you will probably take a liking to Adiós I’m a Ghost. It’s more modest in both ambition and execution, and to pass it off as a carbon-copy would be selling it short. But as the opening bit of wordless, reverb-heavy harmonizing fades into the riff-heavy, barnstorming “Red Eye”, the similarity is clear as moonshine.
“A Lot to Give” and “Start Me Over” rumble along ominously, toeing the line between portent and ennui. “Don’t Ask Why” starts out as a good ol’, life-affirming hoedown until it hits a wall a couple minutes in. Here, it becomes evident that the Moondoggies have not mastered the epic, shape-shifting jams that MMJ do so well. Instead, the song gets bogged down in a clumsy chant of “I can see a lot better now”, from which it never recovers.
The best parts of Adiós I’m a Ghost are the more moody, haunted ones, where crystalline guitar lines snake out of the warm, comfortable atmosphere. The somnambulant “Annie Turn Out the Lights” is sublime, while “Midnight Owls” goes from strident would-be doo-wop to a cool, jangly chorus, then settles into a beautiful, swelling interlude. It’s the albums high point.
There are other, less “beard rock”-inspired moments, too. The catchy, melodic stomper “One More Chance” recalls the wide-eyed purity of early Wilco or Jayhawks, while the shuffling, twinkling “Stop Signs” is all fuzzy, pastoral vibes. Throughout, singer/songwriter Kevin Murphy’s voice is cozy and pleasant. It’s far from distinguished, but at the same time it’s a nice reprieve from the high-pitched Neil Young-isms that have come to dominate this scene.
Adiós I’m a Ghost sounds like the work of a band who have regrouped after having been away for a time. Alas it is, being Moondoggies’ first album in three years. As such, it seems a bit piecemeal, unaware of its own strengths. But those strengths, represented in the album’s best tracks, give the Moondoggies an easy edge over upstart ubran-rustic folk-rock acts such as Treetop Flyers. Adiós I’m a Ghost traffics in well-worn territory. That it manages to distinguish itself as often as it does suggests the Moondoggies might have a truly transcendent album in them yet.