Sound Bites

Album review: Singer John Grant leaves behind soft rock for jaunty, dancey sound in Pale Green Ghosts

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 28, 2013

Pale Green Ghosts, the titular creatures in the second album by American troubadour John Grant, aren't slimy apparitions circling your peripheral vision.

The reference is much more comforting. It alludes to those Russian olive trees which stand as sentries along the I-25 highway near Grant's family home in the tiny town of Parker, Colorado.

"Pale green ghosts at the end of May/ Soldiers of this black highway/Helping me to know my place", that unmistakable croon of his slides in the opening song of the same name. It's a driving tune about restlessness, homecoming and remaining anchored amid a sea of changes.

Even more shocking is how electronic the song and the rest of the album sound. How blithely he has moved on from the soft rock template of his 2010 debut Queen Of Denmark, lushly produced by his friends, Texan band Midlake.

This time, he's upped and gone to Iceland to get Biggi Veira of Reykjavik electro pioneers GusGus to give his songs a drastic makeover.

The results are rivetingly good, a jaunty dancey immersion in the singer's troubled mind, as he wrestles with demons ranging from alcoholism to substance addiction to homophobic abuse.

He lacerates ex-lovers but mostly, he self-flagellates, in excellent literary double-speak.

In Ernest Borgnine, a disco-relic Erasure soundalike but less camp and more arch, he describes his father's reaction when Dad heard he was HIV-positive: "Dad keep looking at me says I got the disease/Now what did you expect, you spent your life on your knees."

It's a horror family drama played out in a discotheque with pizzicato strings and laser reflecting off a mirror ball, blinding you momentarily.

Irish siren Sinead O'Connor - clearly his female kindred spirit - appears in several songs, often providing velvety- smooth vocal accompaniment to Grant's droll purr.

Yet, in one song, Why Don't You Love Me Anymore, her voice shatters the icy sheen, rising to a chain of breathless shrieks. She works as perfect counterpoint to his ever-controlled monotone, as the song ends in synthesizers made to sound like a high energy chainsaw slicing through the emotional detritus.

The beats get dancier and his voice increasingly altered when the pain becomes intolerable.

And when the listener gets to the final song, Glacier, Grant reaches some level of equanimity.

Over calmly redemptive strings and a repetitive piano plink, his voice is stretched like some endless echo ricocheting in the cathedral of nature: "This pain/It is a glacier moving through you/And carving out deep valleys/And creating spectacular landscapes."

And so here you stand too, far away from hecklers, at peace in this pristine expanse - if only for a while.

Alternative rock

ST 20130328 KCSOUND28EELS 3586339m



E Works/Vagrant/Love Da Music


Has Mark “E” Everett lightened up? The indie-rock ironist of Californian band Eels is positively buzzed up in his 10th album, declaring that he wants to “open the window man and smell the peach blossom” (Peach Blossom). Wonderful, Glorious is thrillingly uplifting, but not in a frilly-frothy way. You sway, even as you wonder when the dark clouds would creep up. For now, happiness is hard-earned through sadness and strife. In the doozie of a title track, E digs deep as he proclaims over a lovely mix of scuzzy riffs and jaunty drums: “A wretch like me can make it through.”


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Girl Who Got Away


RCA/Sony Music


You barely miss her five-year absence, but then Dido, the British queen of vanilla sad synth-pop, has always been elegantly unobtrusive. The slightly trippy, mostly hummable Girl Who Got Away isn’t a giant leap over her Vaseline-smooth balladry, but you start to appreciate her decency after witnessing a horde of barely covered popmoppets who can’t wait to get their knickers off (Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Rihanna). Hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar plays the Eminem role this time, rapping in Let Us Move On. Meanwhile, Dido floats along like a goddess of mercy on her lotus flower, somewhere into the ether.

Alternative rock

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Specter At The Feast

Black Rebel

Motorcycle Club

Abstract Dragon/Love Da Music


Personal tragedy informs the sixth record by San Franciscan rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC). Occasional guitarist and bassist Robert Levon Been’s dad Michael died of a heart attack mid-tour in Belgium in 2010. They paid tribute to him by covering his former band The Call’s 1989 hit single Let The Day Begin – and what an eviscerating cover it was. The same fervour permeates BRMC’s high energy set. Whether it’s a febrile Rival, with its speed-fire riffs and liquid drums, or the strange, spooky Lynchian Fire Walker, the guys do not take life for granted. Everything is at stake here. Audaciously, they walk out, facing whatever slings and arrows life may throw at them.


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Major Label/Sony Music


Hype has a way of biting you in the butt. Tell that to the handsome Mancunian duo Hurts who really do dress better than they sound. Not that they sound bad at all. No, far from it: Singer Theo Hutchcraft, who has actually modelled for designer Hedi Slimane, sounds perfectly messed-up in such mopey but stadiapleasing anthems such as Only You, The Road and Somebody To Die For. In fact, he sounds like Bono’s love child tossing about in the echo chamber. The effect is a cloying amalgam of Joy Division, The Killers and U2, synth-pop hastily stitched to strings and dirty guitars as if Frankenstein is too busy with his Monster.