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  Hearts and Coffins  
  Old Ghost  
  Infinite Universe  
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Back in 2004, I reviewed Light Returns, the debut album Seattle's Old Ghost. At that time, I thought they played rather mournful music in a vaguely archaic country style. It wasn't the most uplifting of albums, but the band certainly knew how to construct a pretty tune, despite the overall sad tone. Since then, I haven't heard much about Old Ghost, until Hearts and Coffins, Old Ghost's new 5 song EP showed up on my desk.

After the first listen, Hearts and Coffins is a natural follow up to Light Returns. It has the same slow pacing with occasional minor-keyed variations as their previous release. However, on the EP the band has emphasized both the violin and organ, which only serves to draw attention to the inherently mournful nature of their music. However, unlike the earlier record, the production quality on Hearts and Coffins is quite good, so that everything blends together nicely and lead Ghost Paul Hutzler's voice doesn't have quite the overwhelming presence that it did previously. The material comes across as something by Leonard Cohen backed by Will Oldham and Bill Callahan after being locked in a studio together and not being let out until they came up with a collaboration.

As an example, the EP begins with Black Crow, a slightly jaunty tune with violin in the foreground. In this case, Hutzler's vocal style and tone remind me of early Bob Dylan while the slightly syncopated rhythm makes me think of a slow version of Things Better Left Unknown by The Possibilities. For Old Ghost, this song is positively upbeat and provides a nice starting point. From there, the band moves on to Home is Where You Find It, which slows things down, thus emphasizing their melancholy style. Here, the violin and organ act as a counterpoint to the slow pacing, which gives the music a more expansive and full sound so that things aren't too claustrophobic.

The third song on the EP, Wherever You Are, remains slow-paced, but with a nice syncopation that feels almost bluesy. It's on this song where the Leonard Cohen comparison seems particularly apt, for once the violin plays only in the background, without the sadness that characterized its earlier notes. Things, however, return to normal (for Old Ghost, that is) with Put My Watch Away, which reverts to the country-esque feel of the earlier songs. However, Hutzler's vocal phrasing feels a bit like Vic Chestnutt and the tune of the song itself features some nice chord progressions that keeps things a bit more cheerful than the music I've come to expect from this band. Still, the song maintains a deliberate pacing and is a little too short to really change the tone of the Hearts and Coffins.

The EP ends with a cover of Hank Williams's I Saw the Light, and more than any other tune on Hearts and Coffins, their take on what has become a classic country gospel tune points out the difference between Old Ghost's style and that of the old-style country artists. Williams' I Saw the Light was a cathartic song about finding God that built up into the classic chorus. In contrast, Old Ghost turns this into a dirge, with melancholy keys and violin that counter the ostensibly uplifting lyrical chant of "I saw the Light, no more darkness, no more night". Nevertheless, I Saw the Light shows off Old Ghost's mournful charm better than most anything else on the EP.

All of this is not to say that Hearts and Coffins is a bad EP. Rather, you have to get into the right mindset to enjoy it. On a dreary rainy morning, as I sip my coffee and read the newspaper, this EP is a near perfect reflection of my own mental state. However, on a bright sunlight day, as a gentle breeze comes through my house, Old Ghost is a little too dark to be that enjoyable. Nevertheless, as I continue to say, this band has its own distinctive sound which ought to be heard, provided the listener knows what to expect.

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     Album: Light Returns


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