[30 October 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
At this year’s Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, local band Gross Ghost managed to pin down a spot on the main stage, playing in front of the likes of Future Islands and Big Boi. It’s a big move for a local band at a festival that certain involves its local acts heavily, though it often cedes (necessarily) the spotlight to larger national acts. Gross Ghost has been gaining its name locally playing a ton of shows and putting out last year’s fuzzy pop gem Brer Rabbit.
Now, they’re back with Public Housing, their first record for Odessa, a label also responsible for great recent records by Spider Bags and Kingsbury Manx. And, if the Hopscotch set was the fruition of growing buzz behind the band, that buzz can only grow once people get a hold of this record. Core duo Mike Dillon and Tre Acklen—along with Rob Dipatri, Christopher Hutcherson-Riddle and others—have put together an excellent, angular and always shifting rock record. Public Housing is full of sweet melodies and deep hooks delivered in unruly, often barbed textures. It’s fuzzed-out plenty, but more fiberglass than gauze. These songs may seem comfortable in their catchiness, but make no mistake, there are traces and shards in there, stuff that will cut.
Brer Rabbit was an album that successfully presented white-out fuzz in recognizable shapes, delivering dream pop with a rock muscle behind it. Public Housing both clarifies those layers and distorts them further. Opener “Seeds” starts with clean bass and drums underneath Dillon’s voice, but as he admits “My perfect plans have gone to seed, / I’m just chewing up the scenery,” the guitars cut in, ringing out impossibly wide, the distortion here beyond anything we heard in Brer Rabbit. The guitars drift into different depths of this distortion over the course of the record, often moving effectively from beds of chords to razor-wire sharp riffs, the way they do on standout “Other Side” and the epic mid-album gem “Tryin”.
The album seems uniform in these buzzing textures, but it twists them in often fascinating ways. “Seeds” churns with an off-kilter stomps, while songs like “Other Side” and “You Will” deliver relentless and sweet propulsion. “They Say” cuts itself up on hard-edged hooks, hooks that seem jagged until they melt into thick chords on the chorus. “Dissolve” reimagines all these layers as a stripped-down acoustic number, a moment of quiet that still feels thick with atmosphere. Meanwhile, “Ones I Love” would seem twangy if the guitars didn’t push that twang into something far more lacerating, so deeply distorted that you can nearly hear the hooks ripping the skin of the amp speakers. It’s also an interesting turn that the album ends on “Hair of the Dog”, an electro-negative-space number, that thumps with bass and drum machine, and faint guitar fills out the darkness around them. It’s a patient turn for such a restless album, but it also drives home the long shadow under all these seemingly bright turns.
All this jumping in tempo and structure and sonics is fitting for an album that seems so thematically restless. Dillon pine for a “love that you can see” and a “love that you can feel” on “Seeds”, and we see the rest of the album stuck between past loss and a next step that hasn’t quite presented itself yet. The loss is sometimes romantic—“Howlin” finds Dillin trying to “exhume our love”—but it’s also about the work we do on many levels (“They Say”) and the places we get stuck in (“You Will”). As we see the best-laid plans drift into the past, the question of Public Housing is what to do next. How do you leave a past behind if you’re not even sure it’s past yet? If you have to dig up its corpse (as in “Howlin”) to be sure? Dillon lays out this uncertainly in his honeyed bleat, a voice as sweet as it is edged with tension, and that voice is one stuck between dreams of the future and a present that’s either indefinably oppressive or rendered static when we still “drink to diminishing ends” or some other repeated mistake.
But at the end of “Hair of the Dog”, a song whose title implies that repetition will continue, Dillon assures himself (and us) that “In between lines and in between crimes, / take our time, stars will shine, stars will shine.” Considering the wandering uncertainty of the rest of the record, both sonically and thematically, it’s a quick realization. Yet it’s also a fitting resolution, a ripple of cautious hope that not only spreads out forward into the future, but also ripples back over all the bumps and ruts in the road the album spends so much time trying to figure out. Public Housing is, in other words, a fine album, an album full of hooks and great songs that give it immediate punch and plenty of curiosities that make it lasting. No wonder these guys got a big stage at Hopscotch. It’s unlikely to be their last one.