13ghosts
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13ghosts

Birmingham, Alabama, United States | INDIE

Birmingham, Alabama, United States | INDIE
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In late 2004, Birmingham, Ala.-based 13ghosts self-released their third full-length, Cicada, in an outsize, bulky package that was perhaps eye-catching in stores but a bane to anyone hoping to shelve it between 10,000 Maniacs and 50 Cent. Coming just over a year later, this new reissue on local label Skybucket is housed in a digipak and includes new artwork, but that original box remains a pretty good metaphor for the band's sound, which is similarly unwieldy. Cicada is chockablock with ideas, encompassing an impressive breadth of styles and sounds-- sharp Southern rock, drowsy gospel, laidback 1970s pop, buzzing indie lo-fi, Sparklehorse-style self-destructive folk, percolating lounge rhythms, threadbare Americana, a little country, a little blues, a few drum machines and some George Harrison-style guitarwork-- all jammed together in 21 tracks with unusual arrangements, jostling transitions, and abrupt endings that musically enact the lyrics' obsession with untimely death and departure.

The core of 13ghosts, which takes its name from the William Castle horror flick (filmed in Illusion-O!), is duo Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell, who trade off vocal and songwriting duties throughout the album and whose voices and influences often contrast dramatically. Russell's songs, including "Trodden Way" and "The Trouble With Actual Organs", pair strong pop melodies with spacey atmospherics, recalling bands like the Comas and Modest Mouse. Armstrong has a slightly wider range; in fact, I thought he was two different people at first. He alternates between a low-key, world-weary voice on tracks like "Just Got Dead" and "Song from Down Here" and a louder, brasher rasp on "The Storm" and "Worldshaker". His "Robert J." is the album's centerpiece; perhaps the most straightforward melody and arrangement on Cicada, it's a cautionary tale about a local singer scared of being swallowed up by his music, and it sounds like it could have been written by or about The Band. Armstrong doesn't romanticize or sentimentalize Robert J., but he and Russell clearly identify with him and certainly sympathize with his predicament, especially when 13ghosts' own music threatens to swallow them up.

Cicada sounds larger than just two people. Thanks to a cast of supporting musicians-- including Azure Ray's Maria Taylor, who sings on "Three Little Birds (After Bob Marley)"-- the music itself is always changing, swirling unsteadily around them, barely controlled. For example, the soft, spacey "Toby Dammit Part One" ends with a loud guitar outro that leads perfectly into "Wormhead, My Dear", which itself changes shape as it transitions into "Ain't It Low". It's not simply that anything could happen at any time on Cicada, but, more crucially, that everything seems to be happening all at once, as if the band felt life was too short or death too near to withhold any ideas or deny any possibilities. If Cicada sounds long, messy, and unfocused, it is-- but fascinatingly so. That scattershot aesthetic proves to be the album's life force, as the music derives its power from the crawlspaces between these sounds and styles. It makes for a strange, often unsettling listen, but one no less exciting for being so constantly disorienting.

16 Jan 2006
- Stephen M. Deusner


There's something to be said about formulas; they provide that vital conduit in which pleasure is perhaps greater than the original. And you know what? That's great, and 13ghosts' Cicada consists of indie-fied presentations that can't seem to stay on balance with lovingly recreated seventies rock formulas. Cicada is a joyous album that has no problem practically punching the mundane boredom of emo with the despair of folk. But perhaps that is its curse, too. At times 13ghosts seems to emanate from another time, which while refreshing also gives their songs ambitions that are remote from much of indie rock. While much of the music that has come to define college radio fare is purposefully mundane and full of well timed accidents and vocal creaks, 13ghosts revive full on songwriting and have little problem providing an emotional palatte that seems bombastic and relatively unpretentious. It's also possible that this album catches a band over a good amount of time; the first half of the album is abashedly nerd rock, while the second half could be The Band. What 13ghosts do well is to make un-self-conscious rock that's unafraid to admit to its origins -- and, for that matter, bask in them.

Summer 2006, Issue #22
- Andrew Jones


Some of you out there have known and loved 13 Ghosts for a while now; they've released a couple of albums and a couple of EPs, and a quick scan around the Googleverse brings up some nice reviews of those efforts. Unfortunately, I haven't heard them. Still, from what I can piece together, Cicada is quite a step forward for the band, in terms of both scope and maturity.

Any discussion of Cicada's strengths has to begin with 13 Ghosts' core duo, Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell -- two songwriters with distinct styles whose compositions complement each other beautifully. Other such duos have created some powerful tunes in the past; the names of Tweedy and Farrar come to mind. While it's a bit too early to make comparisons to Anodyne, Russell and Armstrong drink from the same deep well that inspired Tupelo's best work. Their guitars speak fluent golden-age Nashville, of course, but also know the value of a strong crunch. Moreover, just like their contemporaries in The Drive-By Truckers and My Morning Jacket, Armstrong and Russell adept at reimagining the best of Southern rock and filtering it through a modern sensibility. It all adds up to over an hour in which there are few wasted moments.

Oh, and I'm not positive, but it might be some sort of concept album.

After "Introduction to Part One (La Fosa Oomun)", which almost sounds like a Being There outtake from south of the border, the disc meanders into the quiet and melancholy "Toby Dammit Part One", whose highlight is an almost slowcore guitar-heavy outro. That closing wash blends smoothly with the demi-rocker "Wormhead, My Dear". All crackly guitar and raw Slobberbone vocals, it plays the clever trick of removing all percussion save a cymbal riff, as well as the bassline's punch, until the closing bars. It ends up sounding like a long windup, culminating in a deliberate foul ball (albeit one that flies well out of the park).

In point of fact, the band makes its listeners wait 'til Cicada's seventh track, "Toby Dammit Part Two", before it finally unleashes a full-tilt rocker. The intervening tracks, especially the eerily beautiful and sparse "Trodden Way" and the laid-back rock shuffle "Just Got Dead", expand and fill out 13 Ghosts' repertoire. Later, we experience the resigned menace of "The Glorious Death of the Fruit Fly", with its demand "give me my killing machine." And, finally, "Robert J.", an expressive and truly beautiful cut, leaves us with a memorable sing-along melody, great guitar interplay and a great shuffling beat.

And then there's the album's other half.

That's right: all of that magic happens in Cicada's first ten tracks. Rather than tell you how good the rest of it is, I'm going to leave it to you to discover. I will, however, note that by the time I got through all 62 minutes of Cicada, the first thing I did was listen to the whole thing again. It remains to be seen whether Armstrong and Russell will end up as legendary as Tweedy and Farrar -- but if they can keep producing work this strong, it's not out of the question.

18 Jan 2005
- Brett McCallon


A strangely kaleidoscopic effort, bumping up against rickety folk (“The Glorious Death of the Fruit Fly), moody guitar rock (“A Model Citizen Flip”), and quietly ruminative narrative/character sketches (the devastating look at a local musician, “Robert J”), Cicada is predominantly the work of songwriters Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell. Alternately shambling and woozy and yet, at times, sharply focused, the 21 songs here fit together like jagged puzzle pieces, the lush sigh of “Just Got Dead,” which comes across as a bizarre faux Neil Young effort, melting into “Toby Dammit Part Two,” a willful plea for sanity (“You like to drink and drive / It makes you feel more alive”). Though the barrage of disparate ideas and varied musical backdrops threatens to derail the project, this group displays enough offhand soul and talent to last a half dozen bands a long run. A record worth diving into…

Issue #62
Spring/Summer 2006
- Luke Torn


The advantage to working in obscurity is the opportunity for one’s art to grow and take form without the scrutiny of the public eye. One can experiment, and even outright fail, but use the learning experience to further develop their art to the point that when the public finally sits up at takes notice, they receive a finished piece, not a work in progress. I haven’t heard 13ghosts’ five previous releases (3 EPs and 2 full-lengths), but given the melting pot of styles and genres present on the sixty-plus minutes of Cicada, I would hazard to guess the spectrum of influences to be even more far reaching the further back in their catalog you go. Cicada’s uniformly messy mixture of gospel, Americana, southern fried rock, and indie oddity is compelling and unique, but also extremely distracting. With 21 tracks, and a rotating cast of vocalists and guests, Cicada overshoots its goal, but provides a smattering of worthwhile memories along the way.

It’s certainly heartening that in the era of street teams and increasingly insidious marketing ploys, 13ghosts have ridden a wave of organic press built on the strength of their music alone. And while I’m not certain the level of praise that has been showered upon Cicada is entirely deserving, the attention certainly is, as the album is blessed with the kind of ambition that future legends are made of. This is the kind of statement that can only be made by a band with nothing to lose, and with that in mind, their third album goes for broke.

Split into two parts and featuring a Bob Marley cover, Cicada appears to be concept album, but about what in particular I haven’t quite figured out. Toby seems to be central figure in the first part, but the album as a whole seems to be infused with a sense of love lost and brimming wonder about life that perhaps only Wayne Coyne can match. Things kicks off with “Toby Dammit, Pt. 1” and its near heart-stopping perfection: A lazy porchsong waltz that bursts into sky-hugging guitar heroics in it’s latter half, yet never feels contrived. For 13ghosts, it’s these moments that make Cicada worth dissecting. “Robert J.” is another beautiful track, made for late night FM radio. Employing Mellencamp-type story-telling and a straightforward country ramble that is thankfully without a tongue in cheek in sight, it builds wonderfully, with subtle touches of percussion and piano throughout, emphasizing where it should and disappearing when it’s not needed. “The Storm” is another vivid slice of roots influenced music, delicately filtered through modern music’s gaze. 13ghosts’ true gift is being able to look back while looking forward.

Focus seems to be the operative word here, and when 13ghosts play to their more adventurous side the results are less impressive. What prevents Cicada from being fully realized is the number of cooks in the kitchen. With more than twenty contributors, the album lacks a central figure for the listener to take this journey with, and becomes somewhat disorienting because of it, especially in the latter half. Stylistically, the album suffers a similar fate. Dinosaur Jr.-styled romps and straight-up guitar rock don’t sit well beside the band’s better, and not coincidentally, more mannered, roots oriented work. The abrupt song endings and brief transition pieces are more jarring than thoughtful; you can almost see the tape splices yourself. Cicada manages to pull the listener in with one arm, while pushing them away with other.

Cicada is a final draft in need of one last revision. The band certainly has a lot of friends who are willing to help, but it proves to be more of a hindrance than a blessing. For their next effort, the band would be well advised to put the beer back in the fridge, ask everyone politely to leave, lock the door, and take hard look at their music to find out what it really is.

18 Apr 2006
- Kevin Jagernauth


Unusual might be the first word to pop into your head as you listen to the latest offering from 13ghosts. The Birmingham, Ala.-based band has divided their new record into two distinct parts and provides sonic introductions to both—the first in Spanish. Part One exudes a slow, classic-rock vibe with a twist. Imagine Pink Floyd with banjo and you’ll get the idea. Highlights include the angry “Wormhead, My Dear” and the subdued “Ain’t It Low.”

Part Two kicks things up a notch with heavy percussion, overdriven guitars and mysterious, electronic noises. Pay special attention to “Worldshaker,” in which the melodic verses belie the heavy lyric: “When I come home in the middle of the night / I’m scared I’ll find your body cold.” Cicada is the sophomore release for 13ghosts, and the record clearly brands the group as one of the more innovative unsigned acts in the market today.

1 July 2006
- Mare Wakefield


Rarely does a band so aptly name its CD as Birmingham-based 13ghosts did with Cicada -- a haunting, honest, and distinctly American album. The CD was re-released by Skybucket Records this year after being self-released by the band in 2004. Like a cicada, or a July-fly to Southerners, the band's third full-length release perfectly captures the atmosphere of a warm, late summer evening int he South. Moody and diverse, 13ghosts are able to traverse a musical landscape almost effortlessly with only a bump or two along the way.

A long list of contributors -- ranging from Maria Taylor (Azure Ray) to Daniel Johnston -- helped to magnify the songwriting prowess of 13ghosts' Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell. Armstrong and Russell call upon the influences of classic rock, garage, folk, gospel, and Americana to create songs that are reminiscent of a modern-day Kris Kristofferson. This influence is especially apparent on "The Storm" and "Ain't It Low." A surprising twist in the band's sound is the use of a drum machine on "The Trouble With Actual Organs, a track that sounds nothing like the rest of the album but somehow manages to fit in with the CD's concept.

With 21 tracks divided into two parts, Cicada does have moments of disjointedness, but overall, the CD lends itself to repeated listens. What can be seen or even heard as a lack of focus or oversights in productions seem more like an effort by the band to make sure its diverse sounds were all captured on this one CD. Although it's not the final track on the CD, "The Good Life/Fight" would have been a fitting last song as it fades out to the sound of the cicada's call. It is a vivid reminder that some of the best times, and music, always make it feel like summer.

1 July 2006
- Chuck Norton


If 13 ghosts weren't a band but a married couple, the story of how they formed, disbanded, and reunited years later after the original bass player's funeral would have already made the daytime talk show circuit. So, if anyone from "Oprah" is reading, what are you waiting for?

On to the music... There's a saying in Michigan, "If you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes." Same could be said of 13 ghosts' latest, Cicada, which introduces new genres, styles, instruments, formats, etc. every few minutes. However, I'd recommend against skipping ahead. While the album has its clear standout tracks ("Robert J." among them), you really need to spend all 62 minutes with the album in order to fully appreciate it. Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell split songwriting duties (which could explain their wandering style) and finish each other's thoughts like the old friends that they are. Together they build a collaborative narrative — one soaked in beer and nostalgia — that would be a shame to interrupt. The number of "sounds like" comparisons I've read in reviews could fill the screen and I'm already running long, so I'll just say this: enjoy the weather.

4 Mar 2006
- Staff


I was a slack-jawed idiot after I first bathed in the astral delight that is Cicada, and I’m still catching flies. Every note—whether plucked on an earthy acoustic guitar, chunked up with fat, fuzzy distortion, sung in either a rugged sigh or a spacey warble—is sweet. The whole time you’re listening, there’s a lump in your throat. With a serious-but-not-all-there vibe, Cicada is like a more indie Springsteen mixed with latter day Ween (no shit). Made me say, “Goddammit, I’m so lucky to be hearing this” twice out loud.

15 Feb 2006
- Jason M.


REAL DETROIT WEEKLY:

13ghosts? More like 13genres. Here’s a record that has a serious identity crisis, but that crisis is the crux. There are slightly more tunes reminiscent of Sparklehorse than anything else, but there’s folk, Strokes-rock, Neil Young-inspired alt-country and a million other things here in Cicada’s 21 tunes. Genres change with each song, but there’s a strange cohesiveness.

BK
12 Apr 2006


MIAMI NEW TIMES

This sprawling 21-track album is the work of the Birmingham, Alabama-based duo of Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell, recorded with the help of twenty guest musicians. The tunes flow along like a dark folk-rock river, almost silent as it whispers over a bed of mossy pebbles, and aggressively noisy as it waterfalls over a jagged precipice. The tunes deal with death, loss, and the mysterious processes of life, each cryptic little message sounding like a note written while dancing along the edge of a cliff, pretending that the abyss isn't inches away. Not everything hits the mark, but making up for the near misses are tracks like "Wormhead, My Dear," a snarling fuzz-guitar dirge that morphs into a demented drum solo; "Toby Damnit, Part Two," a bright, poppy ode to drinking and driving; and the unsettling "The Trouble with Actual Organs," a quavering meditation on emotions about to go out of control.

J. Poet
4 May 2006


ORLANDO SENTINEL

There are 21 songs on Cicada, the third full-length release by five-piece indie-rock outfit 13ghosts, out of Birmingham, Ala.

That's a lot of music to coalesce into something consistent, especially for a band that strolls down as many different roads as 13ghosts. The long list of songs is split roughly in half, with the first 10 leaning more toward the melodically grounded noise of Wilco's recent music. The second half, which might as well have been on a separate disc, is more solitary and acoustic: traditional-sounding songs that echo The Band, in that group's more traditional moments.

There are good things in both modes, although the latter portion of the album is more consistently pleasing. Still, there's something compelling about this band, whether it's cruising through the understated gospelly chorus of "Ain't It Low'' or dropping some dissonant distorted guitars on the otherwise straightforward country of "Just Got Dead.''

Cicada's signature song is "Robert J.,'' an acoustic ditty about a departed anonymous musician. It sounds like a simple strum-along background, but the chord changes from major to minor always seem to echo the poignant twists in the lyrics: "There were those who rejoiced, who knew all of the words even when Robert didn't,'' sings Brad Armstrong, who shares writing and singing chores with bandmate Buzz Russell. "There were those who had come to see him fail.''

The rock songs are good, but I favor the stretch of quieter material in the album's homestretch, most notably the delicate harmonies on "The Storm.'' But whatever 13ghosts is doing at any particular moment, it also seems to sound perfectly natural.

Jim Abbott
26 May 2006


NEW HAVEN ADVOCATE

Like Sparklehorse before them, 13ghosts were born in the junkyard of Americana. Their full-length, Cicada (Skybucket), is a ragged, sprawling dumpster of varied visions, a record that haunts, rocks and also entices you to sip whiskey on the rickety front porch.

Ryan Kearney
13 April 2006


THE DAILY TEXAN

The sound of Cicada fits perfectly into a lazy, hot weekend afternoon. It doesn't confound with overtly experimental arrangements, opting instead to mellow the listener with the fundamental power in the forms of folk, jazz, rock and ballad. Still, despite its grounding in familiar sound, it remains unconventional as a hodgepodge of styles and instruments, lingering on the bridges between genres and tones.

Although Cicada is not a perfect record, its core of sparkling melody rewards listeners with its abounding, unexpected musical twists. Core members Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell present their excellent aptitude for songwriting while trading singing duties throughout the record, backed by 20 guest contributors.

The first trio of tracks is a strong run of powerful melodies, recalling the strength of modern folk-rock touchstones such as "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" in the atmospheric layers coloring the background of its songs. "Trodden Way" is proof of the duo's mastery of digital samples and manipulation, with a melody that rivals the melancholy beauty of songs by The Clientele. Bookmarking the center of the album, "Robert J." is a gem of balladry, the kind of tune that seems impossible to dislike. A one-two punch of amazing songs, "The Storm" and "The Trouble with Actual Organs," lurks near the record's close.

For all its obvious strengths, which seem to correlate to the stronger, melodic songs, Cicada sometimes gets muddled with sound and unfortunate missteps (occasionally veering into - gasp! - a drum solo), and the album's - Various


Discography

13ghosts (EP, 1999)
two (EP, 2000)
we are the sun (LP, 2001)
oh my demon! (EP, 2002)
your window is burning (LP, 2002)
cicada (LP, 2004, re-issue 2005)
the strangest colored lights (LP, 2008)
liar's melody (LP, 2011)
garland of bottle flies (LP, 2011)

Photos

Bio

13ghosts will release two albums in 2011- 'Liar's Melody' with This Is American Music, and 'Garland of Bottle Flies' with Skybucket Records. Garland of Bottle Flies has been a work in progress since early 2008 and is a production record. Liar's Melody was written and recorded in January and February of 2011 and is a mostly live record with a much rawer sensibility than previous albums by the band. It features Maria Taylor singing harmonies on two songs (one of them, Broken Objects, is available above).

Both albums are at the beginning of building a critical following. There is an upcoming interview/review in Paste Magazine, and many blogs and magazines have features/reviews already out or forthcoming.

Armstrong was a contributing member of the Dexateens until recently, when the band was officially retired. 13ghosts' show schedule has been sporadic for the last couple of years because of the hectic, constant touring that the Dexateens did, but 13ghosts have now begun to tour more regularly again. For dates, please visit them at facebook.com/13ghosts.

Below are some press excerpts.

PRESS

One half of the songwriting team behind 13ghosts, Brad Armstrong sings like Richard Buckner at a closed-casket viewing and favors intensely Book of Revelations imagery. 13ghosts continue to reinvent themselves with every song, trying on new sounds and styles to see what fits…The Strangest Colored Lights is a persistently somber, mostly humorless album, but it's so musically vigorous that you wouldn't mind if they dwelt on death for the rest of their lives.
-Pitchfork on “The Strangest Colored Lights” (7.6 Rating)

“Cicada is chockablock with ideas, encompassing an impressive breadth of styles and sounds-- sharp Southern rock, drowsy gospel, laidback 1970s pop, buzzing indie lo-fi, Sparklehorse-style self-destructive folk, percolating lounge rhythms, threadbare Americana, a little country, a little blues, a few drum machines and some George Harrison-style guitarwork-- all jammed together in 21 tracks with unusual arrangements, jostling transitions, and abrupt endings that musically enact the lyrics' obsession with untimely death and departure.”
-Pitchfork on “Cicada” (7.8 Rating)

“Early Space Oddity Bowie glam-folk crawls over some indie beard-rock grooves, like they've fallen from some universal troubadour as he flew back into the future. Smooth vocals and strangely groove-aware beats stick out under the folktronic myths and stories. Some guitars and drugs hit, and there is a darkness that haunts the sounds of these ghosts; a fuzz, noise and a desire to rock that creeps out like some haunted memory of something you can't put your finger on. There are also indierock epic sounds that are like waves and trumpets that blow you back like some demented outcast from a shoegazed version of Hair, and yeah – that spooks me out.”
- Big Takeover (On The Strangest Colored Lights)

Authenticity is a word that is often thrown around in music circles, and while it’s hard to pin down exactly what quality it is that makes a band authentic, you know it when you hear it. 13ghosts are a band that possess that indefinable quality. They have been around for a long time, and they sound like it.
-Wireless Bollinger

“…this group displays enough offhand soul and talent to last a half dozen bands a long run.”
-Pop Culture Press

The band may be haunted by the past and by things which are lost, buried, or hidden, but the creativity recorded on The Strangest Colored Lights assures that 13ghosts will not languish unheard and unseen. It’s more than a whisper. It is alive.
-popmatters

“13 Ghosts’s music acknowledges the realness of death but at the same time exposes the wonders of life…Underneath the band’s haunting vocals and incredibly textured, atmospheric sounds, its soul and story creep out of a layer of mourning and beg to be heard.”
- Vice Magazine

“Cicada is a joyous album that has no problem practically punching the mundane boredom of emo with the despair of folk.”
-Skyscraper

“13ghosts’ true gift is being able to look back while looking forward.”
- PopMatters

“Cicada is the sophomore release for 13ghosts, and the record clearly brands the group as one of the more innovative unsigned acts in the market today.”
- Performing Songwriter

”…a haunting, honest, and distinctly American album.”
-SE Performer

“…you really need to spend all 62 minutes with the album in order to fully appreciate it.”
-3Hive

“I was a slack-jawed idiot after I first bathed in the astral delight that is Cicada, and I’m still catching flies.”
-75 or Less

“Like two consciousnesses colliding, Russell's sparkling but solemn indie pop intertwines seamlessly with Armstrong's beautifully morose roots rock, which together serve up different textures of melancholia... During the course of 21 songs, which clock in at just over an hour, Cicada charts a vast expanse of musical territory — pop, country, gospel,