[19 March 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Strangest Colored Lights is the fourth full-length release from Birmingham, Alabama’s 13ghosts. Since originally forming under another name in 1989, the band, focused around songwriters and vocalists Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell, has endured or incurred break-ups and breakdowns, additions, subtractions, and infringement infractions, useless degrees and youthful distractions, guest performances, drug dependencies, and death. Though all of these things undoubtedly influence the band, it’s the degrees and death that shape the songs. (Armstrong holds an MFA in poetry. 13ghosts reformed after founding member Thomas Rhodes committed suicide in 1998.)
A regular roster of band members plays a part as well. While the previous album, 2004’s Cicada, employed the talents of a score of supporting musicians, including Birmingham area notables John Strohm, Taylor Hollingsworth, and Maria Taylor, The Strangest Colored Lights pares down the line-up to its now current, consistent core of Armstrong (piano, guitar and vocals), Russell (guitar and vocals), Sammy Boggan (bass guitar), Jason Lucia (drums and other percussion), and Andrew Vernon (effects, loops and other sounds). As a result, this record is more thematically cohesive, and stylistically comprehensive, than its predecessor.
“Lonely Death of Space Avenger” has the depth, distance and dimension implied in its title. Ethereal, echoing, effects-laden vocals by Brad Armstrong are set against a spacey strumming that adds to the sense of alienation the track describes, and foreshadows 13ghosts’s persistent preoccupation with the proximity of death and the puzzle of life after it.
“Soft Houses” is a somber composition with a heartbeat rhythm. It stirs memories and ghosts and guilt, but does so with heartfelt harmonies, plaintive picking, and soft, sustained strumming. “Beyond the Door” has a sweeping expansiveness reminiscent of The Church. The ringing, swirling guitars bring to mind Will Sargeant, or perhaps Johnny Marr. Buzz Russell sings insights on the afterlife:
Here is a key as a gift to the door
And if you believe after death there is more
The horror and fear disappear
Were you really frightened?
Nobody’s here there’s just you
And the corner of a dream
These perceptions segue seamlessly into the spectral beauty of “Riverside,” which begins with dreamlike, chiming guitars, soft washes of organ and images of swans. Then the drums kick in and the riffs assume the apprehension of a shootout in the dusty streets of a frontier ghost town, heightened by the haunting horns (Chad Fisher on trombone, Chip Crofts on flugelhorn and trumpet), which could very well be leading lost souls to the other side.
“Bury Me” continues the salvation versus desolation motif. A foreboding harmonica whines and a despondently plucked banjo gives way to ominous tribal drums and slashes of distorted guitar that underscore Armstrong’s gravelly vocals as he sings, “The wind will call / And the black bird will dance with the worm / The Moon will call / And the black snake she swallows the world”. Consumption is another recurring concept on The Strangest Colored Lights . Not so much as greed or gluttony, but in the sense of being consumed. The Earth as an engulfing entity, death as a devourer: these images are threaded throughout.
“Faint Goat” returns Russell to lead vocals in what is arguably the pinnacle of an album filled with high points. The guitar work is absolutely stunning, the whole arrangement is breathtakingly grand, and the lyrics are just cryptic enough to enthrall listeners again and again. “Faint Goat” dissolves into Armstrong’s gently strummed and softly sung “King of the Thieves”, The tension mounts as the rest of the band joins in, the vocals and lyrics grow increasingly desperate and feedback and distortion escalate the sense of anxiety, which never quite resolves before sliding into “Go to Sleep”.
In fact, although it’s another Russell composition, “Go to Sleep” lets the leftover uneasiness linger. It also brings back a bit of the imposing power of “Faint Goat”, with the guitars sounding decidedly, almost deceptively, like Jimmy Page. “Please don’t turn on the light / Some things I don’t want you to see / This thing that I’ve become / Will find a way to swallow me,” he pleads over Boggan’s monstrous bass line and some incredibly John Bonham-esque beats from Lucia.
“Soon When I’m Gone” Is a woeful yet uplifting ballad in the Appalachian tradition. “Now the soil is like a thousand tongues / swallowing me down / the rain drops in the spittle of / the softly mourning ground,” laments Armstrong before loosing a litany of life-affirming, almost idyllic, lines:
I hear the secret conversation of the whippoorwill in flight
I hear the hell bent aspiration of the morning sun to rise
I hear the singing of the roses and the chorus of the sky
I hear the rattle of the teardrops as they fall out of your eyes
Up next is “Underground”, with a mournful musical saw-like sound keening in the background as Russell, sounding a bit British again, sings sweetly of ceaseless sleep. “Whip Poor Will” layers otherworldly effects, electronic beats, and a wailing riff with Armstrong’s throaty rasp. Lifting the mood a little and picking up the pace a bit, “Photographs” is a rambling, shambolic Southern rocker built around barroom piano and self-effacing lyrical confessions that features a verse with vocals by Amber Quick, sounding for all the world like a young Emmylou Harris.
“Transmissions” calls up comparisons to Pink Floyd, both in its arrangement, and its vocal presentation, which sounds eerily like David Gilmour. The song dissolves to one lone cycling organ chord that suddenly stops, its abrupt absence is unnerving. But the end is not always the end. After several seconds of the whispering sound of wind receding, or perhaps of stillness in the distance, the music starts up again. Spare acoustic guitar accompanies intense verses about the lost words of a Carter John Leibowitz becoming food for foxes, the buried songs of a Margaret Turtledove suffusing the soil, and the hidden magic of an unnamed friend being swallowed up by the earth. Though unread, unheard and unseen, these undocumented artistic impulses still sustain the living.
The band may be haunted by the past and by things which are lost, buried, or hidden, but the creativity recorded on The Strangest Colored Lights assures that 13ghosts will not languish unheard and unseen. It’s more than a whisper. It is alive.