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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 oneĀ – 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 tropesĀ 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.

Intriguing Original Americana Rock From Roadkill Ghost Choir

Most Americana rock bands take country themes and make rock out of them. Florida group Roadkill Ghost Choir are a rock band, first and foremost, who color their songs with country motifs from steel and acoustic guitars and banjo. Their Quiet Light ep is a catchy, imaginatively arranged mix of surreal, darkly lyrical songs. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

It opens with Beggars’ Guild, a morbid bluegrass banjo groove, to which they’ve added funeral organ, way up in the mix. It’s a trick that works like a charm. The lyrics follow a surreal narrative to hell and back…sort of. The second cut, Drifter, takes an upbeat, bouncy new wave groove and puts eerily keening steel guitar in the background. Devout is a more new wave-flavored take on paisley underground psychedelia. With its dreampop tremolo-picking mimicking a mandolin, it seems like a retelling of the Abraham myth.

The most pop-oriented track is Tarot Youth, jangly guitar mingling with echoey Fender Rhodes electric piano. Bird in My Window brings back the dreampop guitar raindroplets, blending with an oldtime, fingerpicked country blues. It could be a murder ballad, or a murder/suicide ballad: between the singer’s ersatz southern accent and the litany of strange images, it’s hard to tell. With its subdued, martial sarcasm, the final cut, In the Lion’s Mouth alludes menacingly to the Iraq war:

Shut your bloodshot eyes
In the morning light you’ll go to the war that’s televised…
In the lion’s mouth where the sun don’t shine
Take a long deep breath and say your goodbyes