Album Review: State Broadcasters - Ghosts We Must Carry (Olive Grove Records)
It can sometimes be tricky to write about music which has achieved an amazing amount of early press reaction without inadvertently absorbing the influence of all those words. However, for a variety of reasons I appear to have spent much of the last month in something of a travel-induced bubble, insulated from much that's going on – even in terms of blogs and sites I'd normally read. Throughout this time, a constant companion on my travels has been this record – and it has accompanied me throughout what became a very strange and interesting dash around the UK. But quite apart from the fact that it's a beautiful soundtrack to the view from a train window or the bustle of a rush-hour station buffet, this collection of songs managed to become something of an old friend over the course of this time. So much so in fact that I find it hard to imagine a time when this wasn't part of personal soundtrack. Being asked to write about this record also presented me with a surprisingly tough task – not least because this is a record already close to the heart of some here at Peenko. But ultimately, "Ghosts We Must Carry" is just too impossibly good to pass up the chance to enthuse about here.
The record is ushered in by crackling pre-digital recording artefacts and a sumptuous cello drone which sets the scene – and from the outset there is an air of quiet, desperate ache about both the music and the stories woven into Graeme Black's lyrics. Waiting for a significant phone call is the unmistakeable 21st century vigil at the centre of "The Only Way Home". It's simple - unembellished acoustic guitar and stand-up bass until the brass section appears to elevate it skyward where it's joined by a gnarled knot of guitar noise. I've read that this is in fact a tribute to fellow musicians who fell by the wayside, namely Mark Linkous and Vic Chesnutt. In that respect it's a fitting, deeply moving opening to "Ghosts We Must Carry" - an album riven with loss and regret, but often defiant in the face of these unwelcome visitors. The pace picks up with a pair of tracks which have served as tasters for the album in the shape of the wistful, gorgeously arranged "Trespassers" followed by the pared down, folk-inflected brand new single "Kittiwake". Both tracks seem set on tackling loss, grief and remembrance by different means – firstly by attempting to erase the past entirely and latterly by cataloguing missed opportunities, and visiting and revisiting shared terrain. In both though there is a sense that the weight of these burdens is only just bearable, and that everything could so easily collapse. It's just this edge-of-the-seat tension and sense of dignity in the face of disaster which appears to lie behind much of what is remarkable about this record.
Dealing in middle-of-the-night doubts, fears and ruminations the title of the following track and its relationship with that genuinely odd Japanese TV show seems only to illustrate the lack of useful distractions available to avoid dark thoughts at 3am. "Takeshi" appears to begin with the sound of the endless run-out groove at the end of a 78 of Wurlitzer music, but swiftly mutates into a heartfelt, chiming ballad with brass and bright guitars. It's one of the few tracks here performed as a traditional duet, and the voices weave in and out of the simple, clean palette of instruments effortlessly. The crackle of static and lack of fidelity serving only to make this feel closer, more uncomfortably like your own early-hours crisis. In a complete stylistic shift "The Writing's On The Wall" is reminiscent of the mighty Teenage Fanclub at the height of their powers. With a passing nod to Winston Churchill in the line "the black dog's on the prowl again", this deceptively upbeat track deals with depression and the redemptive powersof a relationship. Its hazy, woozy guitar lines and vocal harmonies manage to evokea lazy, summery country-pop feel which tenses another string of State Broadcaster's bow for release, and one which they pull off remarkably well and which serves as a challenge to the inevitable genre pigeonholing which will descend on "Ghosts We Must Carry". Strangely, the album hinges on a track which is by far its simplest and least adorned by the plethora of instruments at State Broadcasters disposal. "The Old Table" is almost entirely built from a drone of harmonium and a choir of voices which describe a recently vacated room in minute detail. It sounds a harmless enough proposition, but the emotional payload carried by the lyrics of absence and abandonment seem to capture the message at the heart of this record – that there are unseen, unspoken things we're all living with all of the time – and that it's State Broadcasters' unenviable task to give them voice and musical form. With only the tiniest fragment of the whole story to work on, the catastrophic events which led to the need to rescue a family "from certain capsize" are implied rather than described. And it's here that the strength of the songwriting is most apparent. These dramas, tiny in the scheme of things take on significance – there is a cinematic sense of storylinehere which makes me think of Mike Leigh's improvised, sometimes painfully gritty realities.
There have been a fair number of songs written about "NewYears' Day" over the years – some great, some otherwise – with the schmaltzy, boozy wistfulness of the occasion something of a gift to the sentimentalist. However, the State Broadcaster's take is characteristically simple and direct. Faced with the clock ticking towards midnight, the heroine of the piece flicks back through the previous year, and settles on just one person she has to 'phone. We've almost all done this I'm sure – in the midst of a crowd of people celebrating, desperate for a connection via an overloaded network at that pivotal moment when every single mind is focused on assessing the losses and gains of another year under the belt. Here it is distilled to the simplest of emotional messages, delivered in beautifully uncomplicated, honest terms and providing a redemptive and hopeful message in the dying moments of "Ghosts We Must Carry". State Broadcasters are carrying these ghosts with us – and turning the hopes and fears we never dare speak of openly into wistful, sometimes dark songs which have the power to make us feel like we're not travelling entirely alone.
Despite a remarkably diverse and healthy national music scene, it can't be easy to be a Scottish band right now. For starters there is that very specific expectation that you are just that – a Scottish band – and thus that you're part of something bigger than just a local music scene. It's not often expressed, but this expectation weighs heavily on some younger, newer acts whonever quite seem to escape from under its yoke. Then there are the limited number of acceptable pigeonholes which seem to be available within the scene – and that inevitability that if you deploy traditional instrumentation or dare to perform quiet acoustic numbers, you're one of those folk bands. In the midst of this dash towards the common denominator State Broadcasters have just delivered a second album – one which will surely find people wishing to squeeze it forcibly into these narrow boxes. Well, having listened fairly obsessively to this record for the past couple of weeks, the news is that it's not going to fit. This is a varied, nuanced record which spans huge musical territory in the same way that it spans a vast lyrical and emotional sweep. It's a much bigger, much more assured and direct collection of songs than I dared expect – full of surprises, twists and devastatingly acute observations. And it sounds incredible too...
Olive Grove Records release "Ghosts We Must Carry" on 17th September. You can download the recent single "Kittiwake" above.