Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Day Fifty-Two: Dead Man's Bones - Dead Man's Bones

ANTI-/Werewolf Heart Records ■ ANTI 87047-1

Released October 6, 2009

Produced by Tim Anderson¹

Side One:Side Two:
  1. Intro
  2. Dead Hearts
  3. In the Room Where You Sleep
  1. Buried in Water
  2. My Body's a Zombie for You
  3. Pa Pa Power
Side Three:Side Four:
  1. Young & Tragic
  2. Paper Ships
  3. Lose Your Soul
  1. Werewolf Heart
  2. Dead Man's Bones
  3. Flowers Grow Out of My Grave
It's always a puzzle, how to present this band.

It's difficult to throw out a description of the band itself and get people to stop long enough to listen--two amateur non-musicians write strange, semi-macabre songs that they sing and play with a children's choir. A novelty, maybe, or a curiosity--but more likely, it sounds like something you wouldn't want to listen to.

And there's that other thing.

It's kind of like trying to present Brother Ali and skip over the fact that he's a white albino Muslim rapper. It's a lame pigeonhole, but it gets people's attention, and his skills generally hold him up past those facts. That's the sort of thing that should happen here, as well, but because we aren't talking about simple, concrete facts that we may even deal with ourselves, it becomes different. But, of course, I can't properly discuss an album the way I do and constantly write [redacted] for one of the two "founding" members.
So let's just get this out of the way: the gentleman on the top far right of the cover in the waistcoast is Ryan Gosling. Yes, that Ryan Gosling. Now, we know that actors in bands usually lead to things like hilarious 80s references (I'm looking at you, Willis and Murphy), or embarrassing attempts to use star power to boost a mediocre band (it would be difficult to name all of those), or hobbies and passions unintentionally elevated simply because of that star power--in any case, it tends not to go well. That isn't the case here, and Ryan generally disappears into the music, utterly separated from his sex symbol actor-y-ness (though you wouldn't guess it from comments on Dead Man's Bones videos on YouTube).²

I'm sure it was my long-lived love of Gosling's acting (a chance happening upon 2001's The Believer planted his name in my head long before The Notebook really, really broke him) that did direct me toward the group, but I can't actually be sure. I believe it was in the days I was still wobbling between Facebook and MySpace as means of connecting with people and--especially--bands. I know the first thing I ever saw was a live recording of Ryan and partner-in-crime Zach Shields performing their song "In the Room Where You Sleep" on piano and simple drum set up, backed by their regular co-conspirators, the youthful Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children's Choir (all dressed for Halloween, though I'm not sure it was even recorded in October). It was a surprise--it didn't make any (ahem) bones about Gosling's semi-nascent star power, indeed his face is scarcely visible, though not deliberately hidden either.

This album actually came out on a heavy new release day for me, back in the Borders days. I remember the day quite well, as I was also out shopping for a gift for an important birthday, and listening to the album as I made that trip--though I also had a new Mission of Burma, a new Mountain goats and a new Powerman 5000 album with me as well. (Curiously, this previously-reviewd album and a few others I've purchased in the interceding years were also released that day--quite a day, so far as I can tell) I remember being quite pleased with it, though a bit disappointed in the differing sound of the track I knew alone, and quite focused on it and my new favourite track from the album.

It actually starts with a simple intro, the crack of thunder and howl of wind in the distance, a woman's voice reciting a poem about leaving a dead love, the mention of the afterlife accompanied by those environmental sounds to really establish the tone of the album.

"Dead Hearts" has a mild heartbeat in it, but is shaped largely from haunting "Oooh"s, gently strumming acoustic guitars, and the airy vocals of Zach and Ryan. The heartbeat begins to pound faster and faster, timpanis pounding loudly but intermittently, and establish the one more completely for the album by weaving it into the music. When a glass shatters, and then more follow it, vague screams and distant choral voices that all lead us back to the subdued and insubstantial vocals we started with, I'm left with remembrance of Bob Drake (don't worry, I think that's a meaningless association for almost everyone else in the world). The song breaks down and dissipates almost completely, becoming little more than haunted house-like sound effects--it's a ghoulish, but cheerfully so, kind of sound, and the one that actually defines the album and the group as a whole: it's not grand guignol-type horror, it's not quite Universal horror, it's not even Hammer horror. It's something like a tongue-in-cheek, knowing-but-sincere version of the German Expressionist horror most exemplified in Murnau's Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens or Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. It embraces the ghoulish aspects, and perhaps even the "scary bits", without the 1970s (and later) infusion of gore.³

Modified from its first public incarnation in video form, "In the Room Where You Sleep" is now marked by a move from piano to organ (or at least keyboard mimicking one) for the keys, giving a bit more sting to the chords it is built on. It sounds something akin to the theme from The Munsters--not in terms of its actual melody, but in the campy horror sense. Shields' drums are simple in both play style and recording (very "live"), though they are quite deliberately "enhanced for stereo", engaging in a bit of panning left and right. The handclaps further engage the sensibilities of the song, keeping it in the sort of "campfire ghost story" range of horror. Ryan's vocals are an appropriately campy croon, the kind that you might have expected in previous decades to result in a ridiculous video of him dressed in horror host style with heavy vampire makeup. It's a simple song, but it charges along courageously, despite the limitations of our two primary bandmates. It has a moody outro of reverberating keys that lay the groundwork for the following track.

"Buried in Water" is all piano at open, ominous and dramatic in that Phantom of the Opera sense (not necessarily Webber's, mind you, just that same kind of not-focused-on-scary approach), but it eventually becomes just solid chords, still heavily sustained, joined by the voices of the Children's Choir, singing "Like a lamb to the slaughter/Buried in water". It feels like the kind of practiced-but-not-a-distinguished-professional playing of a choir director, as ever confident behind the willful but uneven singing of young voices not groomed for professional vocal work. It would not be out of place in a school musical production--which is interesting, as this is actually the feel Ryan and Zach said they were going for in the entire project. When Ryan's voice enters, it's that of someone who knows of the town that is "buried in water"--he may be the ghost of a resident, or the one responsible, or just the guide informing us of it, though there's the strong sense that he has a supernatural and not-entirely-cheerful aspect about him that implies that, if he is the guide, he is the guide responsible, or the undead guide from that town. The kids' voices are used in a more expansive, normal (unquieted) fashion that lets them function more like a chorus in the background to our solo guide. The most unsure, young, and unsteady voices end the song, as if they are the final voices to be heard from that town.

The title implies it already, but "My Body's a Zombie for You" is one of the more peculiar songs on the album (which is peculiar enough as an album--let's be honest here). It lurches like the undead, but it's tambourine, handclaps, bass, stomps and the semi-novelty inflected vocalizations of "Dum da-dump, ba bum bum bum bum..." And the kids answer with a similarly appropriate "Woah woah-oh..." that tells us this one is going to be a throwback to doo wop, if anything, and so it is. When the piano enters, it's that steady, high-end hammering that marks midtempo tracks from that time frame and genre, but the voice Ryan uses straddles that and the subject matter at hand, the voice you might expect from a crooning zombie in the 50s--if somehow that seemed like something that might have happened then. Like the humourous tone of that film rendition of "My Boyfriend's Back" (wherein he was back from the dead) but stuck into the frame and more serious performance of the original song, though a lot more downtempo. The kids just yell their line, which is exactly the title, and no more (or less). It's all ended with a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, spelling-based chorus ("I'm a Z-O-M, B-I-E--Zombie!") from the kids--reminiscent of schoolyard chants.

There's no question or argument: "Pa Pa Power" is my favourite track on this album. It rides a groove the rest of the album isn't even interested in laying down, and let's Zach's voice take the lead. He plays a simple drum beat that comes somewhere near sounding like the album's fetish for handclaps, but isn't. A synth and key hook runs throughout the song, primarily an insistent, low-end one but occasionally enhanced by the plinking fall of high-end notes that are light on their feet. The kids are used quite purely as backing vocals, but the song is dominated by the keys more than anything else, though Zach's vocals have their place, with the rather obscure lyrics: "Burn the streets, burn the cars/Pa pa power. pa pa power..." As in many other instances: if your intention is to ignore the album, make an exception for this track, at least. It's excellent.

There's only one track the kids get to sing "solo": "Young and Tragic", the track that opens the third side of the record. It sounds like it could be something from one of the 1970s electronic artists at first, all synths oscillating and tonally blended keyboard playing, but there are lupine howls to betray its place on this album. Galloping drums take us into the song proper, but it suddenly drops when we get there, droning, funereal, somewhat bombastic. "I wish that we were magic/So we wouldn't be so young and tragic", the kids sing, and it's like the sun rising warmth of a downer musical ending on a note of hope--acoustic guitars and drums, but returning us to the synthesizers. It slowly fades off, peeling off instruments and softening in general to gentle steel drums.

Returning us to the long abandoned art of the doo wop nonsense syllable, "Paper Ships" has no shame in starting with "Da dooby dum dum, dooby doo wa", a backing melody of "Oooh" and gentle near-ukulele-pitched guitar.  Zach sings of being a ghost ship, of his love's graveyard--the only hints as to the subject at hand, otherwise completely lost musically. The song shifts into an upbeat acoustic guitar for the chorus, which is sung by the kids with a full-fledged "Fa la la la la, fa la la la la--a ghost ship on the blue". Ryan joins him following this, in a return to the shuffling pseudo-uke melodicism of the opening verses and their nonsense. Quavering, camp-horror keys wander around, as does a rather somber and serious cello, both of which are cast off for the outro chorus.

A good solid clippedy-clapping sound defines "Lose Your Soul", with a rather hand-drum like feel to the rest of the percussion--dry, thin, nearly overpowered by the low-end poundings of piano keys that fill in the gaps to increase the pace without actually changing the tempo. Howling winds and expanding drums, synthesized accordion--it makes room for Ryan's voice to begin an exceptionally low croon, uninterested in anything but the fact of his claim: "Oh, you're gonna lose your soul--tonight", with a lovely upswing on the final syllable. His voice is that of a ghost shrugging--it wobbles and wavers like a ghost's is thought to, despite the lower-than-expected-for-a-ghost pitch of it. The heavy rhythm of the clapping keeps the song moving, and gives out a floor for the kids to turn in their best chorus, which rumbles along more like kids singing together than directed--feels a bit more natural to them as kids. There's also a fantastic set of synth keys that are somewhere between clear electronics and woodwinds, used almost purely for texture. The whole thing suddenly turns shambling as it shudders to a stop.

"Werewolf Heart" sounds the most modern at first--pinging piano keys and acoustic guitar, even the addition of bass and drums doesn't feel like it's covering any peculiar territory. Apparently the basswork is producer Tim Anderson's, and it's the most obvious on the album, with a good deal of swing and professionalism. But when the voices enter? Ah, the first line is: "You'd look nice, in a grave", and it gives a sort of gothic, macabre feel, despite the complete nonchalance, and the somewhat insubstantial approach to it. A female voice¹ does appear--the same one as in the intro to the album--and recites a few dark lines, and then begins to trade off verses with the two men who originated the project. She ends her appearance with one line: "Cause if the full moon comes/Our love is done/So forever/Towards dawn/We ride", which signals the song to shift gears entirely: castanets and insistent acoustic chords (the kind often married to castanets) are met with the howls of wolves, screams, creaks, a growing background synthesized moan--both the hunter and the prey rising in the background--clattering, pounding, roaring, swirling--and the song ends.

I've always had a semi-silly affection for the semi-silliness of a self-titled song on a self-titled album (see also: Bad Company, et al.), and "Dead Man's Bones" continues that. "Dig a hoooooole", Ryan sings, thin, dry drums and muted guitar crunches that are expanded by a climbing bass. "Oh dead man's bones!" sings the group of men, like a bunch of drunkards in a bar telling the newcomers of a local threat (if you're thinking An American Werewolf in London, so am I--though this is far more cheerful as a warning, less, "Get out!" more "Oh, let me tell you a story, boys..."). Their voices lose any sense, need of, or desire for tunefulness, becoming very like speaking voices. The song rambles along, with the weird quirk of something like mid-to-latter Tom Waits or extra peculiar Nick Cave arrangements (almost more Birthday Party, perhaps). A woman crying, a sort of wail, delicate piano--and an undersung rumble of thunder bridge the gap between their verses. The lead vocals take on a very Cave-like delivery, before finishing on a mono-syllabic run of increasingly frothing words: "Six. Feet. Deep. Bones bones bones bones!"

There are just crickets and a faint acoustic guitar behind Ryan's voice--speaking, telling a story of death and undeath (of course!), booming drums, a tambourine, and a sort of low singing-saw enter, with "Oh, oh, oh, woah-woah," from female voices, establishing this as another doo wop fusion, replete with the short monotone repetition of keys that climbs only after numerous repetitions. "When I think about you oh-oh-oh-oh", the kids sing almost Buddy Holly-style, and the drums and acoustic fill the song out, ending with the title: "...Flowers Grow Out of My Grave", which seems to end it but for the sound of a probable studio error of dropped items, laughter and clapping. They fade in a repetition of the kids' line, but seem to abandon it in favour of sustained synthesizer chords, overwhelming and reverberating which stop abruptly.

As frustrating as it is to try and explain the point of the band to someone while not latching on to the Gosling element, it's almost more difficult to realize what a lost cause this is--as I've mentioned, if you go anywhere it's almost a given that the focus is going to be on Ryan's role in the project, and how amazing he is and so on and so forth. All of this may be true, but you never get the impression from interviews that this was his brainchild or anything, moreso that this was a truly collaborative effort between at least the two of them if not everyone that ended up working on the album.

It doesn't help anything that it occupies a strange and unique place in general, being most closely related in my mind to The Skull Mailbox and Other Horrors that my dad passed me over my affection for the horrific things in fictional media (I guess?), which is one of the many truly random items that floats around my collection of music (and my movies are not too different for similar reasons). It's quirky, campy, macabre, fun, ghoulish, strange--but really, there's one word (and it's one I often cast in a very positive light) that really shapes the joy of the album: sincerity.

Read any interview with the two of them, or any article about the album, and inevitably it comes up that they set out rules to restrict the production, performance, tweaking and other "niceties" of modern recording when they put this together. They are not professional musicians, limited their number of takes, and performed most instrumentation themselves (most places say "all", but I'm inclined to agree with the listing below that gives roles to the people thanked in the liner notes). It shows, but not in an awful way--it makes things very real, live, and organic, and gives the whole thing an appropriate charm for what it is. And I suppose that's what it all hinges on: whether you can appreciate the intent behind it, the sense of discovery, experimentation and clear-headed desire that drives a peculiar project right out of the park--but it's the park they chose, and it's a bit out of the way, and it's a little weird, and not many people go there, and isn't it haunted?

Yes, I think it is.

¹As is often the case for me, I find myself fumbling around for details on a release and getting distracted. Someone, somewhere, put together complete credits for an album that otherwise, honestly, doesn't mention them. The interior of the gatefold (whether it's CD or DVD) shows the choir, Zach, and Ryan, with first names only for each. Tim appears (as with the others, labeled only "Tim"), but some of the other people mentioned are thanked in the notes that run around the edge. Others have no record (ahem) of their appearance whatsoever, either in fuzzy profile photo, by name, or any other means. However, the matching of those names, the awareness that Ryan and Zach are both male and the choir is composed of children means I do know some female voice(s) appear in the album, and that they are, thus, otherwise unidentified. I'm not even going to try too hard to sort this out.

²There's one other actor-infused group that hits on a sort of similar note--not as stylistically out there, but similarly averse to star-attachment, and built on a duo that seems like an honest pairing, rather than a forced grouping, and that would be Ringside. Otherwise, so far as I can recall, "actor turned musician" tends not to turn out as well as "musician turned actor". Though I do listen to 30 Seconds to Mars as well, and what I've seen of Leto suggests he very successfully made the transition to charismatic frontman, rather than heart-throb actor. Maybe it's indicative of that burbling level of fame he and Gosling both inhabit, or maybe I'm just trying to find patterns where there are none. Again.

³I'm not trying to build a case for some kind of overarching, pretentious cerebral aspect of this (nor encourage the notion that I am delving into some deeply intellectual secret myself), this is just how I actually hear the music. I am a movie fan, as I've mentioned in passing, and I am rather big on horror, but should not be mistaken for an expert, much as I shouldn't in music.
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