Harmony-driven gothic Americana band Bobtown‘s new album, A History of Ghosts, recently reached #1 at the Roots Music Report. They’re playing the album release show on the big stage downstairs at Hill Country on 26th St. just off 6th Ave. at 9:30 PM on Jan 14. A lot of things distinguish this band from the others in their field: their otherworldly, gorgeous four-part vocal harmonies, for one. The fact that the band has not one but four first-rate songwriters, who all seem to save their best material for the group, doesn’t hurt. And while there’s a whole demimonde of carnivalesque Americana bands who write gloomy minor-key songs about backstreet murders and drunken depravity, Bobtown’s songs are all the more creepy for how lighthearted they can be – on the surface, anyway.
How about a slow, summery pastoral reminiscence – about a public execution? A blithe, bouncy waltz with chipper, round-the-horn vocals, about drinking yourself to death in a dead-end town? Those are just two examples of what percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom and bassist Fred Stesney come up with on the album, streaming at their site. The womens’ crystalline vocals blend with the fretwork of lead guitarist/banjoist Alan Lee Backer, who long ago established himself as one of the most diverse and incisive players in the New York Americana scene, a guy who’s just as fluent with electric honkytonk as he is bluegrass.
The song about the execution is Morning Sun, written and sung by Stesney, the women’s vocals adding an eerie shimmer behind the tale of the guy on the gallows who’s finally run out of time. The grimly funny dead-end town waltz is Rumble Seat, by Etzel, a good way to get acquainted with the singers’ individual voices. That’s Dahlstrom, McDearman and then Etzel as they make their way through the first verse.
Dahlstrom’s Across the River opens the album on a delicate, purist country gospel note: if the Dixie Chicks’ record label’s marketing department had left them alone, they might have sounded something like this. She also contributes the cynically brooding, bolero-tinged Our Lady of Guadalupe Street.
McDearman takes over lead vocals on her trio of songs here (co-written with producer Joe Ongie): the subtly enigmatic, banjo-fueled bluegrass tune Girl in Blue, Darlin’, a plaintive, wistful waltz, and Oh, Undertaker, which sets a ghoulishly amusing lyric to a morose tune fueled by Etzel’s accordion. Etzel’s two other songs here are the elegantly orchestrated, ethereally intriguing Fosse Grim, and the rousingly gospel-flavored Stitch in Time.
Stesney also contributes the phantasmagorically shuffling circus rock anthem Kentucky Graveyard – which ends with a hilarious surf music quote – as well as the title track, a grimly catchy litany of ways to reach your final resting place. It’s may be early, but this is a strong contender for best album of the year.
If you’re wondering where the band got their name, it’s a neighborhood near Etzel’s old Iowa hometown.