This Week in Music, June 4, 2013: Summoning “Ghost Brothers” with John Mellencamp, Stephen King, and T Bone Burnett

Various Artists: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

New release (Hear Music/Concord; tour dates)
Photo of Burnett, Mellencamp, and King by Kevin Mazur

Indiana cabin, mid-1900s: Two brothers argue over a girl. One brother accidentally kills the other, and then the fleeing brother and the girl accidentally drive into a lake and drown.

True story. John Mellencamp learned it after burying the cabin in the early 1990s.

Soon after, Mellencamp got the idea for a musical based on that story. By 2000, he had begun work on the score (both music and lyrics) and asked Stephen King to write the book.

The result: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which keeps the cabin but moves it to Mississippi. It also keeps the doomed brothers as the titular ghosts, Andy and Jack. But it adds a third brother, Joe. What’s more, there’s another set of brothers, Frank and Drake. Joe is their father, and he has brought them to the cabin to tell the truth about their dead uncles. The story is set in 2007, when the ghosts of Andy and Jack are haunting the cabin, but the story shifts between that time and the brothers’ fateful year of 1967, when they were 21 and 18 (and Joe was 8).

Mellencamp brought in T Bone Burnett as music director, and the hope was to eventually take Darkland to Broadway. But there were delays. At one point, as Mellencamp told The New York Times, Liv Ullmann was interested in directing the show but ultimately bowed out.

Then, in 2011, Mellencamp said: “I personally don’t care if we go to Broadway or Washington, D.C., or the moon.” In 2012, they ended up in Atlanta. What was variously billed as “a riveting Southern Gothic musical” and “a sultry Southern Gothic mystery with a blues-tinged, guitar-driven score” was staged for a month at the city’s Alliance Theater. And then, in early 2013, the following update was given by the Alliance’s artistic director, Susan V. Booth, who had directed the show there: “Subsequent to the show’s close in Atlanta, Steve and John did significant rewriting and restructuring of the book. What we learned . . . is that this work only succeeds if it commits to being something unique unto itself.” Today, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County has morphed into a touring production that’s staged in concert form as a live radio play. Twenty dates are currently scheduled in the Midwest and South, beginning October 10 in Bloomington, Indiana, near Mellencamp’s birthplace.

But first, 13 years after Mellencamp officially began his project, we have this extraordinary recording. It was produced by Burnett, who helped round up an impressive slate of artists to sing the characters’ songs — led by real-life feuding brothers Phil and Dave Alvin (as the ghostly Andy and Jack) and Sheryl Crow (as the ghostly girl, Jenna). Also featured: Kris Kristofferson (Joe), Rosanne Cash (Joe’s wife, Monique), Will Dailey and Ryan Bingham (Frank and Drake), Neko Case (their girl, Anna), Taj Mahal (Dan the caretaker/bartender), and Elvis Costello (a devilish specter known as The Shape).

The album’s Standard Edition is a CD of 17 songs alternating evenly with 18 excerpts of dialogue. Kristofferson both sings and speaks his character, as does Costello. But in all other cases, actors handle the dialogue. So whereas Bingham sings Drake, Matthew McConaughey speaks the character’s lines, and whereas Cash sings Monique, Meg Ryan does the dialogue.

This can be somewhat confusing, and the song/dialogue/song/dialogue structure makes for a choppy listen. All told (and sung), King’s book comes across as the weakest link on the CD: The excerpts are too brief to actually give us enough of the storyline, and the language we do get tries a bit too hard to adopt some Mississippi slang.

Conceivably, King fares better in the full libretto (which was unavailable for review). It’s included on the Standard Edition’s disc, which is an enhanced CD. The Deluxe Edition adds a making-of DVD. Then there’s the Hardcover Edition (distributed by Scribner), which further adds a printed version of the libretto and a CD of the songs only. For some reason, the second half of that bonus CD’s song order is different from (and less effective than) that of the Standard disc. Of course, you can always program playback of the Standard disc to skip the dialogue excerpts. Either way, the score deserves to be heard on its own.

And now, 13 years after I began this review (or so it seems), we reach the best thing about this project: Mellencamp’s songs and Burnett’s production. Indeed, Ghost Brothers is a career high for each.

Mellencamp succeeds right off the bat with “That’s Me,” making us shiver by having the Shape introduce himself like so: “You know that voice you hear in your head? / That’s me, baby, that’s me / And you thought you were just talking to yourself / But it’s me, baby, that’s me.” Anna details her own devilish tendencies in “That’s Who I Am.” It’s a stroke of genius to have Andy and Jack’s argument in “So Goddamn Smart” interrupted by Jenna’s heavenly reflection. And later, in “So Goddamn Good,” the three of them wrangle as if Mary Magdalene were joining the argument between Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper in Jesus Christ Superstar. In these songs and the best of the other tracks, Mellencamp’s words have both a sharp focus and a potent sting, and his music vividly conjures the byways of the South.

It certainly helps that Burnett, whose recent productions have tended to share the same old T Bone signature, breaks out of his mold to heighten the moods here. There’s some crazy electric guitar lurking around the Shape’s “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Me,” and Dan’s “Tear This Cabin Down” may leave you thinking of a trenchant chain-gang stomp. Yes, the music’s blend of roots, blues, and folk is second nature to Burnett these days, but he makes it sound fresher and edgier than he has in years.

Still, none of the above would matter if the performances by the singers were lackluster. Happily, they’re uniformly excellent. Crow is especially solid in her multiple appearances, whether sparring/harmonizing with the Alvins or, on her solo numbers, turning things up for “Jukin’ ” or musing on the beautiful reverie of “Away from This World.” Case and Cash make the most of their single performances — respectively, the casually seductive “That’s Who I Am” and the sorrowful plea of “You Don’t Know Me.” And Costello, wonderfully, doesn’t even sound like Costello on his two numbers, filling his Shape with sly debauchery.

Broadway? Ghost Brothers of Darkland County may continue to take the hard way, but it’s a noble journey for Mellencamp and company — and a distinctly American soundtrack for lives both down-to-earth and otherworldly.

Queens of the Stone Age: . . . Like Clockwork

New release (Matador; tour dates)
Photo by Nora Lezano

“Keep Your Eyes Peeled” has riffs that are among the most sinister animals you’ve ever heard. “I Sat by the Ocean” is a peppy, hooky song that gets noisy but never stops us from humming and tapping. “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” bears down hard on a piano ballad. “If I Had a Tail” sounds like an inside-out pop tune heard from the bottom of a whisky glass, under the bang of big chords in the chorus.

All bases covered in just the first four songs — an indication that this album is gonna be vintage Queens of the Stone Age. Over the years, Josh Homme has sometimes seemed like a king of diminishing returns, losing/dismissing band members and misplacing his knack for songwriting. But . . . Like Clockwork, laughingly appearing 6 years after Era Vulgaris, is a huge return to form, mingling Rated R with the Desert Sessions side projects.

Back to the tracks: “My God Is the Sun” is fast and fleet, “Kalopsia” is all over the loud/soft map, and . . . well, hear for yourself. I don’t want to give everything away. Know, however, that the rest of the album confirms this isn’t punch-the-clock rock but a genuine revival, reminding us why we were compelled to bow down in front of Homme’s Queens in the first place. Also know that some previous associates are along for the ride — including Dave Grohl, who drums on most tracks, and even Nick Oliveri, who sings on “If I Had a Tail” and . . . wait for it . . . “Fairweather Friends.”

Ben Folds Five: Live

New release (ImaVeePee/Sony/Legacy; tour dates)
Photo by Autumn de Wilde

Hot on the heels of last year’s The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the studio reunion of Ben Folds Five, comes the band’s first official live album. It was recorded on the 2012-13 Mind tour at various locations, both domestic (the Warfield in San Francisco) and overseas (England, Japan, Australia). Nearly half the songs are from the first two albums: the self-titled debut’s “Jackson Cannery,” “Underground,” and “Uncle Walter” and Whatever and Ever Amen’s “Brick,” “Song for the Dumped,” “Selfless, Cold, and Composed,” and “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.” Also here: four Mind numbers, the rarity “Tom & Mary,” and the Folds solo track “Landed.”

Renaissance: Grandine il Vento

New release (Symphonic Rock Recordings)
Photo by Richard Barnes

This is the first studio album by Renaissance since 2001, when longtime torchbearers Annie Haslam and Michael Dunford regrouped with Terence Sullivan and John Tout for Tuscany. A few years ago, a reunion tour with all five members of the 1970s band, including Jon Camp, was apparently in the planning stages but never materialized. A new lineup emerged instead, and after getting road-tested, it has now made Grandine il Vento. Dunford finished composing the tracks (with lyrics by Haslam) and recording his parts before his death last November from a cerebral hemorrhage. (That followed the death from cancer in 2011 of the band’s ’70s lyricist, Betty Thatcher.)

I’ve heard four of the eight new songs, and from that evidence, this album reminds me of the last major work from the band’s heyday, 1978’s A Song for All Seasons. “Cry to the World” is an intimate, acoustic-guitar-led number (with flute by Ian Anderson) that breaks into a lofty chorus. John Wetton duets with Haslam on “Blood Silver Like Moonlight,” a dramatic piano ballad. The 8-minute closer, “The Mystic and the Muse,” has enough Renaissance hallmarks (long instrumental intro, active bass lines, numerous themes, diverse arrangement) to make me eager to hear the 12-minute opener, “Symphony of Light.” Yet, for now, I’m most taken by something as ostensibly simple as the sweeping melody of the title track.

Oh, and believe you me: Haslam’s remarkable voice seems changed not a whit since she first held us spellbound more than 40 years ago. What’s present is Prologue? Fans who go all the way back would be wise to seek out this album.

Other new releases

Eleanor Friedberger: Personal Record (Merge; photo above by Roger Kisby)
Second solo album by the singer of the (currently on hiatus) Fiery Furnaces. It’s an album full of love songs, but — says Eleanor in a press release — “they’re also love songs to music: how you feel on stage when you do something spontaneous and it works, how you feel when you hear someone sing a song for the first time, what it’s like to watch a friend perform, how you can feel close to someone you barely know because you both happen to love the same record.”

Barenaked Ladies: Grinning Streak (Vanguard)
Speaking of loving music, here’s what guitarist/vocalist Ed Robertson says in another press release: “Pop is a form that I love; it can be high-energy and intricate. When I think of pop music, I think of the Cars and Squeeze; interesting, melodic rock is what I gravitate toward and what I’m always striving for. I want guitar-heavy pop/rock that’s intelligent, evocative, and thought-provoking. I want it to be singable and relatable, and I want there to be other layers in there for the people who want to go deeper — because not everybody does.”

Dave Davies: I Will Be Me (Cleopatra)
Kinks guitarist’s first solo album of original material since 2007. Guests include members of the Jayhawks, Anti-Flag, and Dead Meadow.

LeAnn Rimes: Spitfire (Curb)
Among the country singer’s co-writers: Dan Wilson, David Baerwald, and John Shanks. One of the Baerwald tracks, “What Have I Done,” features Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski. “Gasoline and Matches,” a song by Buddy and Julie Miller, features Rob Thomas and Jeff Beck. CD version is a Walmart exclusive; downloads are available from iTunes and Amazon.com.

Lonestar: Life as We Know It (4 Star/The Orchard)
Ninth studio album from the country-crossover outfit — and first since the return of original lead vocalist Richie McDonald.

Megadeth: Super Collider (Tradecraft/Universal)
Fourteenth studio album from Dave Mustaine and crew. Ends with a cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Cold Sweat.” An edition sold exclusively at Best Buy includes three bonus tracks.

Future Bible Heroes: Partygoing (Merge)
First CD in 11 years by the electro-pop project of the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. According to Merge, “there are fewer vampires and space aliens on Partygoing than on the prior two albums, though as always there are plenty of songs about dancing, drinking, and death.”

Capital Cities: In a Tidal Wave of Mystery (Capitol)
More electro-pop, this time by two jingle writers who met on Craigslist. Inspirational titles: “Patience Gets Us Nowhere Fast,” “Farrah Fawcett Hair,” and — attention, S&V devotees — “I Sold My Bed, but Not My Stereo.”

Filter: The Sun Comes Out Tonight (Wind-up)
Richard Patrick is at it again, with another revamped lineup, on Album No. 6. Inspirational (and possibly related) titles: “We Hate It When You Get What You Want,” “This Finger’s for You,” and “Take That Knife Out of My Back.”

Camera Obscura: Desire Lines (4AD)
Produced by Tucker Martine.

Portugal. The Man: Evil Friends (Atlantic)
Produced by Danger Mouse.

Rory Block: Avalon — A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt (Stony Plain)
Fourth album in the blues singer/guitarist’s Mentor Series, following nods to the Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Son House.

George Benson: Inspiration — A Tribute to Nat King Cole (Concord)
Benson is backed by the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, which uses the original arrangements by Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins. Guests include Wynton Marsalis and Idina Menzel.

Mason Williams: The Mason Williams Phonograph Record; The Mason Williams Ear Show

Reissues (Real Gone)

Both released in 1968, these are the first two solo albums by composer/guitarist Mason Williams, who, at the time, was also the head writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Phonograph Record is the home of the hit “Classical Gas,” which would go on to win three Grammys as an Instrumental. Fun facts: Whereas two of the Grammys went to Williams for the piece’s composition and performance, one went to the album’s producer, Mike Post, for the arrangement. Post would later become a celebrated writer of TV theme songs, from Hill Street Blues to Law & Order. More fun facts: Musicians on Phonograph Record included Jim Gordon, Jim Horn, Lawrence Knechtel, and other members of the Wrecking Crew — the L.A. session players who helped create a similar sound for another 1968 hit, Richard Harris’s recording of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.”

The follow-up album, Ear Show, makes its CD debut here. Both reissues include new liner notes by Gene Sculatti.

Other archival releases

Frank Zappa: A Token of His Extreme (Eagle Vision)
This DVD is the first official release of a live music program that Zappa taped for TV on August 24, 1974. Backing the guitarist were keyboardist George Duke, saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock, percussionist Ruth Underwood, bassist Tom Fowler, and drummer Chester Thompson. Said Frank at the time: “This was put together with my own money . . . and it has been steadfastly rejected by the American television industry. It has been shown in prime time in France and Switzerland, with marvelous results. It’s probably one of the finest pieces of video work that any human being has ever done. I did it myself.” With animation by Bruce Bickford.

Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions (Mosaic)
Limited Edition box set of nine album on seven CDs, chronicling the jazz trumpeter from 1974 to 1987.

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