The 71's was literally the first band I ever covered professionally, and I've always been impressed by the energy and passion of front man Keeton Coffman. He's equal parts indie pretty-boy with a soul and punk-rock attitude. But what's he like away from his band?
The Ghost is six tremendous songs that offer a completely new sound for Coffman. Impeccably produced by Jay Snider, it has a really deep sound that was often missing from 71's albums. Nothing to do with the music, you understand, it's just that its fast-paced nature lends itself to a flatter tone.
Coffman carries most of his songs on his own back, pushed to the foreground of the music. That allows the listener to get a better depth perception, like a good 3D eye puzzle.
He starts strong as hell on "The Hunter and the Hunted," an empty, wailing tune that shows off Coffman's low register in a way he rarely bothers with. It's a great example of dark Americana, both soothing and haunting.
EPs are great because they are often strongly thematic. It's easier to give an identity to five songs than ten, even for the masters of the concept album. Ghost is a little harder to quantify than most, though. I wouldn't call it a heartbreak record exactly, nor would I classify it as Christian, even when Coffman uses that old imagery on "The Morning Sun."
Gun to my head, this is a post-apocalyptic production of a type you rarely see. Ever beat Portal 2, where Chell emerges from the bowels of Aperture Science to find a deserted world gone to garden in every direction? It's regretful but peaceful, which is the same kind of tone Coffman strikes here. You feel like he's on the other side of a hell of a fire.
"The Morning Sun," by the by, is one of the greatest pop-piano performances on a Houston record for years. It sometimes takes a back seat to his guitar playing, but Coffman is quite the gifted pianist as far as simple pop riffs go. He knows how to build emotion key by key like G'N'R's Dizzy Reed used to.
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The true gem of the album is "The Magician." It's arguably the most experimental outing on The Ghost, but it's daring in its premise. Much like Lou Reed did on the song of the same name on Magic and Loss, it's an examination of the differences between what we perceive, what we hope, and what we actually are.
It's actually a little sarcastic, but with a vaudeville beat that turns it into a sad-clown tune. That's how I picture Coffman performing it, on a dark stage in hobo clothes doing second-rate sleight of hand with a painted-on frown. It's the sort of song you kill yourself to.
The only song that really harkens back to Coffman's roots is "The Ocean," which frankly does sound a little bit like a 71's B-side. By the time you've waded through the soft razors of the previous five songs, though, it caps the album nicely. It's like the closing-credits song for a depressingly beautiful indie film.
If this is what Coffman can be on his own, then it's the best local-gone-solo project since Chase Hamblin rose from the ashes of Penny Royal. I always knew to keep an eye on this guy.
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