If We Were Moons/If We Were Ghosts
ome for the silk-screened album covers, stay for four different unknown bands. The last two releases in Columbus, OH’s Tract records in the If We Were… series, If We Were Ghosts and If We Were Moons, have the mildly exotic appeal of foreign candy—predictable sweetness in unfamiliar measures.
Moons, which boasts the prettiest artwork of the four to date, is also the stronger of the most recent two, though it tests the listener’s tolerance for moon references (five in the song titles alone) as four bands—Carbonic, Tiny Vipers, Boo Hiss, and Viking Moses—ransack their rhyming dictionaries and thesauruses in tribute. It is an album to accompany solitary contemplation of our solitary satellite.
Starting strong with four tracks by Carbonic, Moons evokes a sort of lunar high noon populated by werewolves, wanderers, and insomniacs. Carbonic, a mostly solo project, wrings an astonishing quantity of mournful melody from bewitched acoustic guitars and spellbound vocals. The songs always have an eye on a punishing emotional climax, like the coarse, feline voice multiplies over itself in chords structured like Gothic arches. On “Wolf Is My Name,” the quiet confession “I want to put an end to this / But I don’t know how to stop,” gives way to desolate howling, and what should have been a cringing gimmick becomes the essential, slow-beating heart of the song, a forlorn, helpless call and response echoing through a night-lit valley.
The rest of Moons is somewhat wan in comparison. Tiny Vipers’ contributions harp on minor transitions from the unison between open and fretted guitar strings, shifting gradually, note by wary note, imperceptibly transforming the harmony, while Viking Moses adopts a painterly approach, invoking the moon as omen rather than muse or mistress.
If the title of If We Were Ghosts means anything, it is a tribute to the dissipated omnipresence of ghosts, so close yet never quite there. The album opens as though catching the leading edge of a coalescing jam; the listener is ambushed by a verse almost as soon as the Virginia Reel begins its shambolic groove. The performance is crackly and raw and sounds like a single take, as does much of the rest of Ghosts. Where Moons has the obsessive, minute cleanliness of solo-or-almost projects, Ghosts presents a harsh and occasionally muddy sonic palette, a collectivized clatter comprising meandering harmonies, mis-mixed pianos and drums that seldom keep time, as though nothing is quite solid enough to lean on.
Charming as Ghosts is on first listen, much of it pales rapidly on subsequent listens. The Strugglers’ lo-fi contributions have a measure of the discomfiting charisma of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and a similarly nasal approach to vocals, but can’t quite muster the requisite potency of sound to capitalize on their reedy, cross-eyed promise. But the Strugglers appear positively accomplished alongside the high-school-talent-show awulness of Pink Nasty, who are everything their name portends. Nasty’s country-on-the-cheap cover of Usher’s “Burn,” reframed as lesbian kiss-off, labors under the trite phrasing of an “American Idol” entrant, and matters are not improved by a limp-as-old-lettuce cover of “Is This It?”
But Ghosts is redeemed by the Black Swan’s “Autumn, Autumn,” a ten-minute-plus epic of extreme close-mic’ed movements that equate voice, accordion, harmonica, and violin, each leaning to the ear to whisper alchemical secrets of transmogrification as a foot beats on the floor. The episodic song, reeling fiddle introducing fingerpicked guitar introducing voice, seldom fields more than a single instrument at a time, as though a country-baroque tune was spread-eagled for autopsy. Jerry DeCicca’s voice has the wounded, tremulous beauty of a wasted Leonard Cohen, and he sings an a cappella verse so soft and sweet his congested breathing and the swift, smacking uptake of his harmonica are as much a part of the sound as his depleted vocals. Finally the song merges into something like a conventional song, in a resolution as fragile as it is lovely and imperfect, the simple guitar pattern undermined by unpicked, half-muted minor strings while DeCicca sings “Come on outside / There’s a day to live for / Come on outside.”