Blessed are the freaks, the loners, the outcasts, the off-centered, the isolated, and the not-right, for they will show the rest of us what is possible. Which does not mean that the alt-country y’allternative set—with their studiously average looks, sound, raggedness, and earnestness—will cotton to the Hawkwinded Crazy Horse-isms of downstate Illinois’s Grandpa’s Ghost. The Ghost first hit in ’95 with the full-house of no-depression bona fides; the melancholic lyrics, the inchoate yearnings of high lonesome Americana channeled through a countrified rock instrumental palette. The occasional odd touch surfaced—like the feedback and fuzz opening their debut, Machine—but today, the odd touches trump all else, and Grandpa’s Ghost now bury country-rock’s standard notions chin-deep in prairie-psych organ drones, fuzz bass, and endless repetition.
You could not have predicted this. Their second LP, Click and Drag, from 1996, is mostly a snooze. The band’s slavishly stuck in serve-the-song sonics, so everything rests on leader Ben Hanna‘s writing (a plus) and vocals (a minus). On disc Hanna often undercuts himself with self-consciously shaky singing. (Strangely, he projects much better live.) His audible straining for sincerity and pathos, as well as a sometimes cowering manner, is better suited for lesser practitioners of emo-for- thirtysomething-professionals. Given all that, you could easily have written the Ghost off after Click and Drag. But their great leap forward came later that year, with Gun Shy and Trigger Happy.
While staying firmly within the accepted palette of country-rock instrumentation, on Gun Shy the Ghost dredged new atmospherics from guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel, and harmonica. Drummer Pat Kennett spends “Ghost of an American Rocker” doing nothing but rustling the snares beneath his snare drum. On “Bleed” Hanna detunes his guitar so low that hard-strummed chords produce alarming, wow-ow-ow-ing blasts at unexpected key intervals. Elsewhere on “Bleed,” guitarist Bill Emerson is credited with playing “Fender Tremolux amplifier,” and the song is studded with short backward bursts of piano and unplaceable static fuzz folded low into the mix. Gun Shy is also Hanna’s best collection of tunes, and reprises his contribution to the lonely-guy canon, the aching mind-fuck “Cheater.” Which begins as a straight telling of some no-good fool-around, but the last verse finds the narrator in a hopeless search for “another one like you/a cheater/who‘s gonna break me in two,” leaving you unsure if the woman fucked him up so badly he wants it again, if pain is what he always chases, or if any of it actually happened. And dysfunction-heads will grant cred for “Bleed,” likely the first song written from a cutter‘s p.o.v. More importantly, its aforementioned stunning sounds make the melodramatic lyrics (“Tommy‘s got a knife/Please, Tommy/Put it down. . . . Don‘t cut yourself. . . . I need to fly away”) sound significantly creepier than they read. It was on Gun Shy that the Ghost first broke free from sleepwalking through simply-serving-the-songs. Shifting the focus to sound itself distinguished them from the flannel-rockers of their native Midwest.
Obsession with mere melodies and words is why most y’allternative bands suck, even if their melodies and words don‘t—and why it’s so great that such notions get very nebulous on the Ghost’s new Il Baccio. The opener, “The Kiss,” begins as a lengthy collage—found vocals, a buzzer, organ drones and washes—and more than 15 minutes pass before you get to a bona fide song. Il Baccio‘s compositions might just be one groove repeated for over 10 minutes: like “Spin” fading into a woman repeating “spin my head/shpin my kopf.” And then the murk descends again, and another song emerges, to be swallowed whole once more. “A Kiss Is Not a Kiss When You Don’t See It Coming” is a more natural-sounding version of Spacemen 3’s stoned-gospel moments, what with its dazed, hymnlike call-and-response and its sparse, slow backdrop of tapped bass and gently echoing guitar notes. Il Baccio perplexes as it comforts. The repetition makes you lose track of time and sequence. But its unplaceableness, the way it sounds different each time, addicts.
At their debut NYC show last month at the urban-cowpokey Rodeo Bar, the Ghost bummed out patrons expecting hokey honky-tonk by opening with a long drumless drone, and segueing into “Spin” ‘s one riff, which repeated a couple hundred times before Hanna started singing. Both his and Emerson’s guitars were heavily tremoloed. When they slipped out of phase with each other, the effect was physically disorienting. Most of the audience left. Weighted by expectations of what a band playing a country bar should sound like, those who split didn’t notice one of America’s best bands standing in front of them. They weren’t aware— though you could hardly blame them—of an obscure outfit’s evolution from slightly off genre-players to first-rate musical oddballs; they weren’t aware that Grandpa’s Ghost brainstormed this remarkable evolution at the fringes of perhaps the most reactionary subgenre around. All the while, the Ghost, oblivious to the thinning crowd, played its dizzying dunt-dunt-dunt-dunt-dunts over and over and over again. Like if they played long enough, the rest of the world would figure it all out as well.