have a confession: I knew I would like Ghostland Observatory a long time ago. But I was busy. I assumed someone else would do the honors of an appropriately lavish write-up—certainly no decent excuse. It all caught up with me at a festival when I unexpectedly came across the band at a Playboy party. We were enjoying that most quintessential of festival experiences, waiting in line, and it gradually dawned on me that I recognized the music that was being piped out to pacify the queue, and that the music was live. Five minutes later we were watching Aaron Behrens do his cobra-style punk-funk emcee act, while Dracula-caped Turner played Gandalf to his Frodo behind the decks.
Prepared to like the album, I tried not to. I listened to it while sitting down. Walking around in traffic. Writing dull essays. Running (which always makes a series of demands on music). On bad headphones. On good headphones (or the closest available thing). Foiled.
In the light of the follow-up album, the Observatory’s debut, delete.delete.i.eat.meat, sounds like a warm-up, a prefatory throat-clearing before the hyperventilating glory of Paparazzi Lightning. delete is rather too deferential: too many guitars, too much sobriety from Behrens. Not so on Lightning. On the opening track, “Piano Man,” he arrives in one hell of a lather, apoplectic and shrill, and it isn’t ’til several songs later that it becomes clear that this is not some stunt of track arrangement: this is just how he rolls—his m.o. is panic. He takes breathers, but they seem to be as much for Turner’s benefit as his own respite from chronic sexual desperation. The album’s cover draws a cunning visual pun between camera and giant flash bulb and old, HMV-style gramophones—the flaming bulb on the back cover is a statement of intent.
If that intent isn’t restoring hysteria to rock, it’s only because Ghostland Observatory are having too much fun to proselytize. Turner provides potent sonic settings for Behrens freakouts: deconstructed pianos punctuated by cracked-ice high hats, garage rock that precision engineers its slovenliness to dancehall specifications, strutting guitar seduced by vibraphone cadences.
Barely half an hour long, Paparazzi Lightning is short enough to be dominated by a couple of stone-cold classics. “Move With Your Lover” sizzles more literally than any track I can name, a persistent whoosh-hiss igniting Behrens’s frantic exhortation as he wrestles with a triple-thick rhythm track. If this song is about sex, as much of Lightning purports to be, it can only be stolen, illicitly hurried moments at the margins of a coked-out dancefloor. It could be about dancing, I suppose, though the song leaves so little space for a lover that it would probably have to be pole dancing; no mere mortal could survive the sort of treatment Behrens is getting at.
“Sad Sad City,” on the other hand, is something like Springsteen-techno, perhaps. Or a more transcendent, panicked version of LCD Soundsystem’s “All of My Friends,” obsessively fencing loss in with current-carrying beats. “Sad Sad City” also suggests that Behrens’s froth isn’t just covering for inadequacies—he has a classic-rock ear for the emotional heft of a phrase even when he defers to the band’s electronic proclivities.
The title track, a campy bit of techno-noir that owes a debt of gratitude to “Billie Jean,” casts Ghostland Observatory as an old school buddy act, Turner’s relentless club cool offset by the rule- and gender-bending Behrens, who sounds like the ghost of a young Robert Plant. If the album’s more experimental moments—the grimly atmospheric “I’ll Be Suzy,” the slo-mo funk of “Midnight Voyage”—don’t raise the roof like the very high highs, they hint at the sort of hidden depths that any sophomore album is lucky to have. Ghostland play at freaks, but Paparazzi Lightning is no freak of chance. Keep your eyes on the Observatory.