Dark Hollow Bottling Company’s second full-length album sees the five-piece string band play to their strengths with songs that are simple, brief and catchy. Their combination of folk and bluegrass comes straight from the backwoods but the lyrics are surprisingly more sensible and thankfully less twangy than what a casual listener might expect from those particular genres.
American Ghosts is built around carefully plucked guitar and banjo melodies that are beautiful without being too complex. Admittedly this part feels very familiar because the band has taken a traditional approach to the musicianship. The inclusion of mandolin, fiddle and squeezebox helps round out the somber and light atmospheres of each song quite well. Vocalist Corey Ramsey matches the rustic tones of the music in his performance but the most fun is had when the band harmonizes, like during “High On a Mountain.” The group vocals are sometimes rough around the edges yet retain a warm and relatable charm.
Mood-wise American Ghosts is very gray, favoring a darker attitude over the upbeat. “Marrow” is the trump card, an emotionally confused and distant narrative that starts with haunting bare-bones strumming before building to its tense climax. There’s a fistful of gems on the less serious side, too, especially “My Own” and its rapid delivery and playing that go unmatched elsewhere on the album.
The only disappointment, as slight as it is, is just how by the numbers the music seems. You feel like you know the songs as soon as you start listening, and given their sing-along nature I do consider this a good thing, but I’m hard pressed to find anything here that I could say is breaking new ground. There’s still a great deal of fun to be had here but I hope that DHBC will allow themselves to experiment more in the future. They’ve certainly got the talent to warrant taking such a risk.
This new wave of Americana, it has become one of my many enemies. I don’t care if it’s The Avett Brothers or a dozen other bands with Brothers in their name, it does nothing for me. I hate banjos. I prefer the future to the past. While Mumford and Sons are playing the Eastern Prom this summer, I hope to be out of town so as to not hear their British shanty take on this already overdone sound. Basically, if you’re not The Band, it’s going to take a bit to win me over.
But without trying very hard, Dark Hollow Bottling Company does just that with American Ghosts. The songs are simple, effortlessly catchy, well-played, dirty, roughly produced and most importantly, feel real. This isn’t some bullshit, I’m-just-going-to-throw-on-suspenders-and-play-an-acoustic-guitar act. There’s pain and regret and danger. While there are enough elements to connect DHBC to all of the groups I bashed in my intro, the band is closer in tone to acts like the Drive-By Truckers or Steve Earle. “Why We Dream,” which sounds more than a bit like the Jayhawks, starts things strong and while the bridge of “Sold” would usually bug me big time, the chorus and message is too good to write off. But “Marrow” is the peak, utilizing all of its seven minutes brilliantly and displaying true emotion. It’s the type of song that is so good it could make the rest of the album useless, but luckily does not.
“Black Tears” follows and with the change-up in lead vocals and energy, is the second high point of Ghosts. While there is some fluff scattered throughout (“My Own”, “High On the Mountain”, “Watch Your Back”), the record as a whole works extremely well and, between the alternating voices and the variety of hooks, flies by which is quite a feat considering how serious most of it is. Greg Klein, Corey Ramsey, Riley Shryock, Nick Scala and Jim White have created not just a solid album from a genre I would never listen to by choice, but have also put out one of the best records I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing in 2012.