Marley's Ghost,
(Sage Arts, 2006)

Marley's Ghost is a West Coast folk band formed two decades ago, but this is the first of its recordings I've heard. Spooked proves a fine place to start. No less than Van Dyke Parks -- who finds a vibe that feels, strangely yet captivatingly, at once lush and minimalist -- produces, and no less than R. Crumb -- with whom band member Dan Wheetman played long ago in the semi-seminal Cheap Suit Serenaders -- does the cover art.

Generally speaking -- there are a few country and early-jazz flourishes, too -- Spooked has the sound of an old-time string band wedded to a 19th-century village brass ensemble. At least ostensibly, none of this has anything to do with present time, but the humor, which is abundant, is sly, at points even seditious, and thoroughly modern. This is a band that loves to pull rugs from under unsuspecting feet. A downright reverent reading of the venerable hymn "Palms of Victory" (known as much for the bitter secular parody "Pans of Biscuits" as for the original) is followed by the at-first all too familiar "Old Time Religion" which then, the expected bows executed, moves on to swear allegiance to the real old time religions:

Let us worship Zarathustra
Just the way we used to...
Let us worship Aphrodite...
She doesn't wear a nightie.

Mark Graham's "Last Words" is a dead-on skewering of those lugubrious Victorian parlor ballads (and their descendents in early country music) set at the bedsides of dying relatives. If you aren't listening to the rapaciously cynical lyrics, you'll think it is one of those songs, and you'll miss the riotous twist at the end. "The Ballad of Johnny Hallyday," by band member Jon Wilcox, may be the only song -- in English anyway -- ever written about the would-be Gallic Elvis ("Johnny's concept of rock and roll failed to impress us/ But I'll always remember his hair").

On the other hand, the political subtext of "The Wicked Messenger" -- a neglected Dylan song (from his 1968 John Wesley Harding) -- is hard to miss if you're paying any sort of attention. That great, mysterious album, sort of the anti-Sgt. Pepper, has the resonance of a lost book of the Old Testament. The suddenly apposite lyrics about the "wicked messenger ... with a mind that multiplied the smallest matter" -- and whose lies are precisely the ones his followers demand to hear -- could pass as the testimony of a prophet who foresaw 2006 in a vision. (I realized upon hearing this version, incidentally, that the melody is borrowed from the traditional "Jack-a-roe," which Dylan would finally record as its own self on World Gone Wrong in 1993.) Parks' arrangement gives "Messenger" the ambiance of ballad from the Old West. Either that, or a chronicle of the last moments before the end of the world.

Spooked opens with a straightforward reading of the archaic mid-Tennessee dance tune "Sail Away, Ladies" and closes, at least officially (there's a jokey hidden cut), with another traditional, "Seaman's Hymn." Among the 11 cuts between is a deceptively antique-sounding tale from Jesse James' blood-soaked career, "High Walls," in fact composed by Nashville hit-merchant and Emmylou Harris ex-husband Paul Kennerly (his last name is misspelled "Kennerley"). The obscure "Get Off the Track" is a real find -- a pre-Civil War abolition anthem set to the nearly forgotten (at least till Bruce Springsteen revived it on his recent Seeger Sessions) minstrel-show piece "Old Dan Tucker." More than that, in the sentiments it expresses, it could pass as a very early draft of "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Which, come to think of it, they may very well be. You could do a whole lot worse than take them in with Spooked as the soundtrack.

by Jerome Clark
3 June 2006

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