Sweet Ghosts speak of Certain Truths

I have to admit that most often I learn about great new bands from other bands. It’s not from emails or ads or links on my facebook feed, it’s from listening to what bands are saying about other bands or their straight out recommendations. In this case the thanks is owed to Dry River Yacht Club, I owe a lot to DRYC for their tips on great bands over the years, which makes sense as I have been following them for over half a decade, so they’ve certainly had the time to share their musical interests and adorations with me. The first time I saw Tucson’s Sweet Ghosts was last fall at the Dry River release show and they were magnificent and I was sure that they had a few albums under their belt. This was not the case, they only had a sampler disc of songs from their forthcoming debut that  they were handing out that night. I am certainly glad I kept in touch with them because this month they release  a singularly beautiful album called Certain Truths.

I remember being entranced by their performance the night I first saw this band from the southern land of lightning and sand, simply stunned by the pure beauty and harmony found in the combination of Ryan Alfred and Katherine Byrnes. It turns out that both are seasoned musicians of their own accord Alfred tours the world with Calexico as a bassist and Byrnes sang harmonies on Amos Lee’s Mission Bell tour. Together though they create something completely their own, a uniquely Southwestern Arizona sound that smells of desert rain and the distant scent of sagebrush, the reflections of an enormous sky filled with more stars than you’ve ever seen and the taste of monsoon dust in your teeth.  I found them enormously compatible that evening with The SunPunchers and I would love to see them paired up with decker. as an authentic desert music psychedelic Americana show.

The music on Certain Truths is both out of time and timeless, it appropriates so many sounds from so many eras that it becomes wholly original in its presentation and setting, it comes off as what I like to call a perfect “Sunday Morning Record.” It’s an album best listened to alone in contemplative times when you have the moments to spare for both music and lyrics, it may also do well shared with a loved one, if only because it’s a very intimate album. The stories told here are painted at times in stark arrangements and at other lush orchestrations, the gamut of genres is run as well. It’s difficult music to define, but it sure is easy to enjoy.

It opens with the haunting “Detroit” which tells three tales found in that far off city amidst a mist of subtle synthesizers, propelled by a brilliant banjo and upright bass.  The vocals of course are enchanting as they relate an encounter with a cryptic homeless woman, a Vietnam vet barkeep and an abandoned automobile factory. The lyrics are stunning right from the get go painting precise pictures of their subject with lines like “Boy, Before I was old enough to drink, I was watching boys die in the jungle, Down in the trenches where you just sink, Into the mud, Covered in the blood of somebody’s son” and “For a day with such welcoming skies, Half of the towers that shadow this city, Are as vacant as a junkie’s eyes” and this is only the first track.

“I’ll Come Running” is a perfect beautiful ode to love and dedication with a great hook. It’s also, sensibly, one of the more upbeat numbers in the album.  Here the arrangement and the musical flourishes far outshadow the lyricism, most especially during the mesmerizing and dizzying bridge. The chorus repeats “‘l’ll come running home to you” and the music underneath makes you viscerally feel the running. In the sparse “Not Quite December” they sing the reflections across the span of an entire relationship over little more than guitar and piano, which is all it needs since the most powerful instrument here is their amazing harmonies. The song is rich in metaphors for the kindling, rekindling, trials and tribulations found in a long term relationship. It’s an amazing ode to nature as much as it is to love and the cycles that seem to command both.  Simply lush and beautiful.

The tale of “Sweet Angeline” is yet another of their songs that paints a picture so clear with their poeticism that its achingly beautiful in how crisp the imagery if the story is related.  You can see this woman walking into the liquor store, paying with a bundle of ones, squinting, even hunching from the severity of the sunshine as she walks home pondering her life as a dancer, to ultimately arrive and drink herself into the submission of her dreams. Here to the violin work of Ben Nisbet is key in conveying the dizzying effect of her fantasy as well as her ultimate loneliness.  Alfred carries the lovely “She” which finds amazing orchestrations that sound like they are out of records from 40 years ago–recalling something that would have been perfect for Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. It’s best summed up by the chorus, ” She lays like a river in my bed, And she is a melody that plays in my head for days, And sways to the tune, like a reed in the wind, And I know I’ll never sing another song again.” Beautiful

The centerpiece of the album is the angst laden waltz “Finally Come Home.”  Here again Nesbit shines with the emotional weight that his violin adds, especially in the dizzying bridge that in this case seems to convey musically the downfall of a man as he returns to the people who raised him. In the end the music explodes almost manically, spinning to dizzying heights of loss, degradation and madness. It is one of the albums finest moments. It is immediately followed by the story of “The Painter” which is another of their songs that literally paints the story for you with crisp poeticism. Telling the tale of a man who is having a love affair with an artist, it paints every moment that exists with precision of a moment that can’t last more than ten minutes in reality. It’s an amazing tale told with only guitar an keys accompanying it, while the scene is explained with lines like ” The painter’s asleep in the bedroom, Naked on top of the sheets, She’s long, smooth, and wet , From an August night’s sweat , And the smell of sex lingers in the heat.” Intense imagery throughout.

“Just Be Here With Me” explores the deep felt need for authenticity, love and a craving to be with that one person with whom you are willing to share your vulnerability.  It’s a wonderful slow dancing number that is literally about a slow dance.  This could well have been composed in the 1940s save for lyrics like ” Let your dress fall, From your shoulders, To the floor, Let me see, Something beautiful , In this ugly world.” A truly swooning number if there ever was one.  Meanwhile, “Jellyfish” seems to tell the tell of a man who is frightened of intimacy and though the romance he paints is picture perfect, in the end ” I thought running was the safest bet, The two of us could make, I feel so old choosing safety, Can’t you see I can’t run fast enough?” This song is Alfred on his own and it truly explores the power of his voice rivaling a few vocal legends I can think of in his delivery, it’s both amazing and slightly harrowing.

In comparison, “The Bed We Used To Share” is Byrne’s vocal shining moment, recalling the best vocalists of all eras, think Patsy Cline and simply go from there through all that tried to emulate her. But Byrne isn’t trying to emulate anyone, she’s just a natural. In this case it is a tale told of a woman that comes running to her former lover in his time of trouble an its told perfectly as all their tales are told, ” I don’t need to know, How she hurt you this time, Or why the number that you called was mine, Just let me hold you like I used to, Run my fingers through your hair, And lay me down in the bed we used to share.” The song is both sad and beautiful at once ending the album on almost a lullabye note, drifting off into a dream of an era that this record seems to create, but never really existed.  The one certain truth I gather from Certain Truths is that this record is wise beyond its years, filled with a poetic lyricism with unequivocal imagery, bathed in a luxurious backdrop of timeless, textural music that touches the heart and soul. This is truly one of the most fascinating records I have heard in a long time, anachronistic to say the least and distinctively drawn out of the geography from which it was bred. Each song does indeed explore a certain truth in no uncertain terms an one thing I am certain of is that I will be listening to this album for years to come.

Sweet Ghosts will be playing their first show in Phoenix since their album was released and after an amazing tour and featuring a full band, I have no doubt that this will be an amazing show. Be sure to check them out on Saturday, June 14th at Rogue Bar when they are playing with El West, Goetta, Flashbulb Fires (CO) and  Snake!Snake!Snakes! I cannot wait for this show and it will be the first time I’ve seen them since they helped launch Dry River Yacht Club’s latest masterpiece. Take a listen to the album below and lose yourself in the desert dream.