DM Stith – Heavy Ghost

stith

DM Stith – Heavy Ghost (Asthmatic Kitty Records, released March 10th, 2009)

Ten years ago, Sufjan Stevens and some friends started a small boutique label called Asthmatic Kitty Records. Their claim to fame (besides for releasing Sufjan‘s records) is that they’re known for bringing together strange and eclectic new sounds. Their list of clients reads like an all-star festival of weird: My Brightest Diamond, Castanets, Rafter, Cryptacize, Fol Chen and Bunky, just to name a few.

(I got temporarily sidetracked on their website just now and ended up going to eMusic and downloaded some of these wonderful and strange new sounds…)

Back to the review now- David Michael Stith was actually working as a graphic designer in Brooklyn up until being approached by Shara Worden (she of the amazing voice behind My Brightest Diamond) and was corralled into producing their 2006 breakthrough album Bring Me The Workhorse. He then started writing his own music as an experiment, recorded a demo called Ichabod & Apple, kept honing his songwriting, released an EP (Curtain Speech) at the end of ’08, kept writing, recording and the album Heavy Ghost is the end result of all that hard work.

Since their isn’t a track on the record called Heavy Ghost, I’ll just have to say that the name captures the feel of the record- it’s somber, haunting and reflective. Stith‘s vocals are lilting and ethereal, the sparse guitars and reverb-drenched pianos are at times juxtaposed by strange percussion (or none at all); it’s a charming and creepy psychedelic folk album that at times abandons what could be considered “western popular music structure”. Take the opening track for example: Isaac’s Song, a clanging and dissonant piano over an unsettling rhythm with scary sounding vocal runs- I wouldn’t listen to this record after midnight or with the lights out.

But Pity Dance shows that Stith is indeed concerned with things like melody and tone quality; that’s exactly what this record is full of, a palette rich in dark colors and earth tones. Creekmouth sounds like a tribal gathering- the driving and rhythmical drums and bass line bubble underneath, carrying the song towards an electro-synth finale and into Pigs, which is more subdued in mood and eerier, yet there’s an indescribable beauty involved here, as if in communion with a spirit world.

A perfect segue into Spirit World, as Stith continues to haunt the listener’s ears with his spooky apparitions. There’s some backwards-masking over a deep and dubby bass, the spectre is gone as quick as he arrived; into the ether. Providing a bit of commentary is the next track BMB, imploring, “…what did you say?” over and over; it’s as if this song is begging the ghost that visited in Spirit World to answer. Thanksgiving Moon is a sparser composition; it’s just Stith, guitar, an unidentifiable instrument (some type of organ or possibly a hurdy gurdy?) and some barely-there horns that give way to a chilling choir- he’s masterful at creating a mysterious and ghastly setting.

The album’s most beautiful and fully-realized song, Fire Of Birds, is fleshed out of a combination of all the elements that make this record what it is; acting as a distilled version and boiling down the entire scope of the full-length’s 44 minutes- it’s at times shiver-inducing and creepy; the next beautiful and life-affirming. Then it appears sparse and frail; then it’s dense and sturdy. It’s this delicate balance that makes this record so outstanding. On Morning Glory Cloud, Stith mentions it as a dream: “I have a dream and it’s gone, Catholic clouds rolling on…”– which now makes a whole lot more sense to me; I was raised Catholic and I’m familiar with our superstitious love/hate relationships with “ghosts” (the Holy Ghost, exorcisisms, risen from the dead after three days, etc…) so it leaves the impression that Stith, too, was influenced by his religiosity. That song rolls to a full boil until it gently fades into the stark piano piece GMS with its soft and mournful wails. The only other instrument on this song is a plaintive violin, giving it a melancholic vibe.

Braid Of Voices is a reflexive piece in that it sounds like it could be looped end-to-end and never resolve; the slow building intro gives way to the semi-explosive middle section and then the hanging, single-note fade into the minor chord piano outro that mimics the intro section. It’s a nice lead-up to the album-closer, Wig, and its buzzsaw-like quality of sonic waves, and that familiar churning hurdy-gurdy sounding thing.

The album unfortunately comes to a close here, I could go on listening for another hour (at least), DM Stith creates a creepy and fragile (yet insanely interesting and charming) alternate reality within this record- it’s a haunting reminder that some of our waking hours are inhabited by unseen forces that can be a burden; or we can acknowledge them and try to make peace.

Tracklisting:

1.   Isaac’s Song
2.   Pity Dance
3.   Creekmouth
4.   Pigs
5.   Spirit Parade
6.   BMB
7.   Thanksgiving Moon
8.   Fire Of Birds
9.   Morning Glory Cloud
10. GMS
11. Braid Of Voices
12. Wig

DM Stith