In “Give Me the Beat”, a winning little song halfway through Codename: Rondo, Ghostland Observatory singer Aaron Behrens struts down the boulevard of some seedy nighttown. A “pusherman” offers him ups and downs, whites and greens; a guy in a Cadillac tries to sell him some hot jewelry; a pimp extols the services of Sheila and Jeanine (“Legs for days, they go both ways!”). To each of these characters Behrens politely replies, “That ain’t for me / Just gimme the beat!” Then the swinging electrobeat in question bounces him along on his merry way. Listening to this pollyannaish story, it’s hard not to worry for the guy. He might as well have a target on his back.
The two guys in Ghostland Observatory are from Austin, Texas, but they seem to wish they resided in the Dark Underbelly of the Myth of America. Onstage, programmer and instrumentalist Thomas Turner wears a cape, just like Shelia and Jeanine’s pimp. Their songs crawl with fortune tellers and cops; ne’er-do-wells Dmitri, Jim, and Codename Rondo himself work some sinister “job”. The music’s equally dark. It’s all sparse, dry beats with minimal synth lines, occasional guitar, and effects distorting the vocals. These guys aren’t shy about their scrounge-rock influences. “Glitter” swipes Gary Glitter’s most famous groove. “Body Shop” blatantly mixes the drums from Prince’s “Hot Thing” with the car-sex metaphors from 1999. When Codename Rondo’s boss sends him to the Slurpee Station for a “drank”, he orders — what else? — a “Suicide”.
Frankly, Ghostland Observatory’s music is minimal it often sounds like they tried to do as little as possible to create it. About half the songs have what you’d call “hooks”, while others are simply monologues, Vocodered and otherwise, over insistent two-chord vamps. Sometimes they pull off cool sound effects: a cowbell hitting inside the echoey concrete shell of a public bathroom (“Time”), a slam up and down the synthesized fretboard (“That’s Right”). Pleasant as they are, few of Ghostland’s songs reach out and grab you. They’re lucky Turner makes such appealing beats, because usually those beats are all that keep you hanging on.
The lyrics certainly aren’t up to that task. As refreshingly detailed as their illicit narratives can be, Ghostland Observatory songs rarely explore beneath their rock-noir surfaces. In “Mama”, the slow one (and the worst one), Behrens sings a loping farewell to you-know-who, telling her “the time has come to leave again.” (That “Bohemian Rhapsody” nod may be a response to all the Freddy Mercury comparisons he gets.) He moans, “This lonely road can be so dark, can be so cold,” but he never explains which road he’s singing about. Is it the boulevard he was strutting down earlier? The road of crime that leads to prison? The Walk of Life, applicable to all? Or is this farewell just an isolated page torn from his diary? The same thing happens in “Miracles”. The fortune teller screams, “The future’s like the weather, baby / There ain’t no guarantees… that’s a guarantee!” Good advice as far as it goes, but Behrens leaves us with no idea why the advice might matter (or, for that matter, why he’s delivering it with a British accent). If this were a Springsteen song, we’d see the fortune teller’s advice pan out in the narrator’s life, to rueful or devastating effect, or we’d see that the narrator’s future is all too determined, and we’d reflect on how none of us can escape fate, or providence, whatever you wanna call it. We all are fortune’s fools…
That’s silly; this is a dance record. At times it’s a pretty good one, and I haven’t even mentioned the best song yet. “Kick Clap Speaker” closes the album with a shot of squelchy acid house, Speak & Spell vocals, and laser fire. It’s the richest, fullest-sounding track out of 10. Ghostland Observatory should make a whole album as gripping. First, they’ll have to realize that a beat isn’t always enough.