New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Roadkill Ghost Choir’s Big Anthems: Cynical Commercial Move or Genuine Originality?

To what degree is an artist’s motive important in experiencing a work of art? Doesn’t that motive – if it’s fair, or even possible, for an observer to impute one – become a moot point if the experience of that particular work turns out to be fun? More specifically, in the case of Florida band Roadkill Ghost Choir, so what if they seem to be on a quest for corporate radio airplay? Their anthems sure are catchy, even if there’s more than a trace of cynicism in how they assemble them. And that cynicism might well evaporate when the band brings those motoring, propulsive tunes to the Mercury tomorrow night, Oct 14 at 8 PM where they’re playing the album release show for their new one, In Tongues (streaming at Bandcamp). General admission is ten bucks.

The music business these days is weirder than it’s ever been. The only reason there’s even a shell of the corporate record labels left is that they no longer manufacture physical product: outside of an ever-shrinking payroll, their costs have essentially been cut to zero. And as much as DIY has supplanted the old system of lawyers and publishers and managers and middlemen of all kinds, and Bandcamp and Youtube have moved into the space occupied by radio for so many decades, there are elements left over from the past century that haven’t disappeared into the ether yet. After all, acts like Coldplay still exist, and an aging crowd still comes out to see them, if in smaller and smaller numbers. Do Roadkill Ghost Choir aspire to being the new Coldplay – a scenario which could never happen at this point, anyway – or do they genuinely like writing suspenseful minor-key hooks that build up to big, catchy, singalong choruses?

And is it even fair to compare them to Coldplay, when they’re a way better band? What seems to be cynical is how Roadkill Ghost Choir adds just the slightest touch of Americana – a lingering steel guitar phrase here, a little thirdhand bluegrass there – for the sake of roping in the Deer Tick crowd. And how they use the same chilly faux vintage synth sounds as all those inept Bushwick bands. But maybe, frontman/songwriter Andrew Shepard just likes mixing up Americana, and new wave, and a big arena-rock sound. Other than Americana, which continues to supplant straight-up rock as this generation’s default music outside of hip-hop, those other styles have been done to death. Strange as this may seem to some people, this band’s mashup of well-worn tropes is absolutely original.

And they do it over and over again, putting all those parts in place like a giant musical Lego. The production is on the flat, digital Protools side: it’s obvious that this album wasn’t made in a big live room. But in an age of mp3s, nobody other than vinyl heads are going to even notice. And the band keeps the hooks coming, and keeps them interesting: a bluesy interweave of guitars; washes of organ; resonant guitar accents deftly ringing out against each other in opposite channels. A purist might well dismiss this band as crassly commercial, and that would be shortsighted. The new album is best experienced not as individual tracks but as a soundtrack for an imaginary late-night, contented drive home along a long coastal highway – or as an energetic, fun thing to experience live in a small club.

Denise Mei Yan Hofmann’s New Works Hold the Audience Rapt at Spectrum

Spectrum was packed last night. Granted, composer/guitarist Denise Mei Yan Hofmann used to be in a popular rock band, the wickedly catchy, lyrical Changing Modes, but all the same it was awfully cool to see a venue filled to capacity with young people listening intently to serious composed music. A tantalizingly brief program of new chamber works revealed that Hofmann is a young composer who’s already developed a distinctive and thoughtfully compelling voice. Her harmonies transcend the tonal/twelve-tone dichotomy; her narratives are vivid, she doesn’t waste notes and is rather meticulous about that.

Hofmann performed the opening diptych, a more-or-less steadily strolling miniature featuring lots of close harmonies and flitting exchanges between her terse, minimalist guitar and Salome Scheidegger‘s piano. Hofmann described it afterward as “harsh” – as a depiction of push-pull, lost in the wilderness, randomly searching and then very purposefully seeking a way out, it hit the mark.

Scheidegger played Hofmann’s Dear Son of Memory solo, an aching and dynamically rich depiction of letters never sent. It turned out to be a considerably challenging work. Scheidegger didn’t shy away from it, beginning almost as a march and then negotiating through starlit austerities, flitting sort-of-segues and then a rather violently percussive crescendo before finding home in the calm beyond it. One of Hofmann’s signature tropes seems to be working tension against a central point, raga style, a prominent and effective device here.

The final piece was a triptych for string trio, Deep Calls Unto Deep – another 2014 composition – performed elegantly by violinist Francesca Dardani, violist Yumi Oshima and cellist Xue Yang Liu. With a little editing, this could be something really special. At the core, it’s a rondo, a carefully articulated exchange of voices which began with a rather wounded, austere tone, picked up the pace with a precise, balletesque pulse in the second movement and then with a more resonant, angst-fueled quality in the third even as the rhythm came back to the forefront. The Debussy String Quartet seems to be an influence.

If there’s any criticism of what Hofmann does, it’s that she needs to work on her transitions. There were places throughout both the solo piano and trio pieces which came across as momentary lapses. Full stops would have been one answer; fleshing out those fragmentary segues to eliminate jarring with what came before and after would also be an option. So would nixing them completely. But those are minor quibbles. Here’s looking forward to what this individualistic and auspicious new voice has in store.