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Spectre Folk - Compass, Blanket, Lantern, Mojo

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Artist: Spectre Folk

Album: Compass, Blanket, Lantern, Mojo

Label: Arbitrary Signs

Review date: Nov. 23, 2009

There’s a thin line between aimless and exploratory that Pete Nolan seems more than content to ignore. The Spectre Folk albums often feel disconnected, not simply from song structure, but from any underlying purpose. Events are perfunctory, drums exist only to keep the tracks from going off the rails, solos circle endlessly, production is muffled, vocals barely qualify as such. To this end, Nolan has chosen a scarily accurate moniker: his are songs that have given up their ghosts. He can create an early-dawn trance that’s hard to match, but it often takes a lot of work to get there.

Nolan keeps at it on his latest, Compass, Blanket, Lantern, Mojo. The album earns a lot of good will simply for avoiding most of psych-folk’s trappings – faux-Anglicism, pointless centerpieces, unearned dread. Though obviously indebted to the past, there’s a unique, post-modern voice underlying the tracks: most modern psych albums automatically feel a bit embalmed, so Nolan gets credit for at least pointing this out. Unfortunately, the results are necessarily hit or miss. “Falling Off the Map,” “Toot! Toot!,” and “Ages Have Passed” all feature depressingly similar, constantly shifting chord changes on the rhythm guitar, with some occasional guitar arpeggios and atmospheric sounds dropped in and around. These tracks remind me of Dana Carvey’s bit about guitar players acting surprised whenever they change chords. It’s not very hard to throw a bunch together, and if the whole point of the project is to foreground detachment, haziness, and half-formation, the lack of vision is unfortunately underlined. It makes rootsy, wholly devoted folks like Jack Rose look a whole lot better.

However, the sweet spots show that Nolan’s on to something. “8 Foot Wings” is cut from the same cloth as flower-child Bobby Brown’s great 1978 live album: filled with forward momentum, but with a gently swirling acoustic/electric blend. It really could and should last longer than its three minutes. And “Dusty’s Rag” is terrific bummer-psych, all throb and groove, covered in appropriately flat production and driven by a steady beat that almost sounds like a Casio. It’d be fantastic if, like Brown, Nolan made all of this seem like intimate human expression, rather than a mood piece or an abstract exercise. But I suppose that the hearts left with the ghosts.

By Brad LaBonte

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