Maybe it’s because, as members of indiemo artrock bands Cap’n Jazz and Joan of Arc, Victor Villarreal and Sam Zurich got tired of reviewers lobbing charges of pretentiousness. Or perhaps it’s their first opportunity to express themselves now that they’re out from under the thumb of vocalist Tim Kinsella — who had a penchant, among other things, for referencing Godard. At any rate, in their new incarnation as Ghosts and Vodka they’ve adorned their album with cartoons and stories that would make a sailor blush and a five-year-old giggle. Musically, however, the effect is quite different, with the unapproachability of the past giving way to accessible instrumental pop in which this writer distinguishes neither a hint of self-congratulation nor a tang of smirking irony.
For those of you who may not have been haunting Chicago’s Empty Bottle in the late ’90s, Cap’n Jazz and later Joan of Arc staunchly inhabited a place in the growing postrock scene. Skeptics claimed their songs stubbornly refused to offer audiences any kind of hook, and that their lyrics were deliberately obscure. Fans cheered (well, okay, they didn’t cheer — they came to shows in droves and stood silently with their arms folded) at what they thought was a glimpse of the future. And indeed, the success of bands like Mogwai — who I was recently shocked to discover sprawled across several fine print pages of Rolling Stone — would suggest that loose song structure, opaque vocals, and a subtle but unshakable affinity for Big Black might in fact be the shape of rock’s future.
Or is it? From their cheerfully expressed fondness for poop (details later) to the song titles (“Futuristic Genitalia”) and the twisted homilies accompanying the songs (each of which has its own leaf in this elaborate and slick packaging), it is obvious that GNV are anxious to dispel the, ahem, ghosts of their Chicago days. If you picked it up in a record store you would think this was an album from some sort of pop-punk grossout outfit whose highest musical aspiration was to make 13-year-old boys snicker.
The music on this instrumental album, however, sounds like the kind of music Polvo would make if they could just get over that silly distortion thing (or whatever it is that makes their songs sound like they are coming in through a wall of trembling jello). And, true to their emo roots, this music has a lot of drive and energy without ever seeming to be ripping its heart out. To GNV’s credit, I don’t think they’re smirking, either — just playing tight, poppy, melodic stuff that will probably find its way instead to the record collections of twentysomething boys wearing hornrims and with huge knobs of keys hanging from the beltloops of their Goodwill old-man pants.
Each instrument in this four-piece works to create a sound at once lush and simple. The drums are almost always syncopated and, along with the bend-the-strings-’til-they-break guitar, they are what most remind me of Polvo because of all the cymbals and the stuttering beat. Sam Zurich’s bass is mobile and fat, and never only a supporting character. The two guitars alternate between jangle and wail and, as I’ve said, often seem to be a cleaned-up version of Polvo’s assonant harmony and distorted melody. Every once in a while there’s a blip or bop added by Scott Shellhamer, but this isn’t the “electronic experimentation” that characterized Joan of Arc’s later days.
Most impressive was the second cut, “It’s All About Right Then”. In the liner notes, Sam Zurich explains, “An exercise in post-Elvis / pre-Madonna rock, It’s All About Right Then is all about right then”. (I won’t reproduce his further musings inaugurated by the question “But when was right then?”) It starts with lovely strumming and jangling arpeggio, and is soon joined by the aforementioned cymbal-heavy drums and punchy bass. I don’t have to tell you there’s no discernible connection to the stated aims — though it almost feels like music for a John Hughes film, all earnest and striving and careening and blue. The main hook goes through several different arrangements before both guitars finish it off with a lovely little flourish of a figure.
Also notable to these ears were “Laser Guided by God” (which REALLY sounds like Polvo!), “Four Red Brains” (the cartoon for that one depicts a monkey shitting the brains along with a pool of green slime) and “Nicholas Prefers Dinosaurs”. All are good old-fashioned rocking fun. I leave it up to the reader to decide if owning an album which among other things declares “I want to salt your poop and wear it on my face like a beard” would be too much embarrassment, despite its indispensability as a fashion accessory (given GNV’s roots). I myself enjoy the thought of some of my hipster acquaintances weighing this decision.