Downpilot aren’t the kind of band you’d hire to play your wedding, your housewarming, or any other occasion that calls for jubilant celebration. That’s not to knock the band’s abilities, but rather to make an attempt to describe their M.O., which tends to be as low cast as their handle tends to imply. Considering the fact that they hail from Seattle, a city that bears the twin reputations for being home to morose musical types and to its inclement weather, that distinctly disheartened sound comes as little surprise. Then again, the band’s had its share of bumps in the road, courtesy of various upheavals that have seen its members come and go, especially early on.
Fronted by singer/songwriter Paul Hiraga, the band got started some 15 years ago, but became derailed almost before they began. Midway into the recording of their first EP Thrive in a Short Season, Hiraga has a falling out with his colleagues, forcing him the finish the record himself. When the time came to begin recording the group’s first full length, LeavingNot Arriving, the line-up had gelled with Hiraga, drummer Jeff Brown, bassist Eric Eagle and violin/viola player Anne Marie Ruliancich. Two more albums followed — 2006’s Like You Believe It and 2009’s They Kind of Shine — but with 2011’s New Great Lakes, things had once again dwindled down to Hiraga himself.
Downpilot’s new album, the haunting Radio Ghost finds its muse in a drawing Hiraga’s father made of a mountain that he once drew as a child while imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp in the Nevada/California desert during World War II. The result is a languid song cycle intended to encapsulate the emotions felt by those victims of governmental paranoia, the longing, sadness and sense of betrayal that accompanied their transport to a place far removed from the life they’d once known. In musical terms it brings to mind Jeff Buckley and hints of Leonard Cohen in its forlorn futility, but given the subject matter at hand, that sense of despair is altogether appropriate. Songs such as “Radio Ghost,” “Reno” and “Suzanne (The Silence)” are weary and yet resilient, testament to the hard luck happenstance from which they draw their inspiration. The ethereal aura of “My Paper Sons” and the determined press of “Rosaline” help add to the ambiance, creating a sense of isolation and disenfranchisement that underpins the proceedings overall.
Radio Ghost is a thoughtful piece of music, not cheery in the least, but compelling in a strange sense regardless. Hiranga’s got all the makings of a literate auteur, a quality that will hopefully continue to be borne out through Downpilot’s successive efforts. Should that be the case, then Downpilot may have reason to soar.