By Jay Diamond
I’ve always been quite fond of re-telling the story of Skip Spence, one-time member of the 60’s country-psych band Moby Grape, and his only solo album: the classic and haunting Oar — an album whose legendary growth is almost unmatched in the second half of the twentieth century (considering, of course, that upon release in 1969 and for some years after, the album was one of Columbia ‘s lowest-selling ever, any growth would be a change). The story begins with something about Spence taking too much LSD, smashing a band mate’s door down with an axe, and getting committed to New Yorks (in)famous insane asylum, Bellevue.
It was during this time, while Spence was not allowed to use pen or pencil, that he wrote the lyrics and music of Oar inside his head. Immediately upon release he drove a motorcycle to Nashville to record the album that thirty years later would be revisited by artists like Tom Waits, Beck, and Robyn Hitchcock on the tribute More Oar: A Tribute to Alexander “Skip” Spence. And while the idea of a musician composing an album that is both completely affecting and totally organic is a rare feat that is nearly impossible to duplicate, I believe the songs on DM Stith’s Heavy Ghost may have been festering inside the artist’s cranium for quite some time and, aside from a bit of tweaking, they may have come out exactly as he had been planning all along.
While the comparisons of DM Stith to Skip Spence (in regards to both his music and his mental illness), begin and end with my fascinations into their ideas bursting from brain to record, the songs on Heavy Ghost are so complex and personal that after listening to Stith’s voice, which shines like glass and seems just as breakable, I can’t help but feel some sort of personal connection. And if the voice, which almost sounds like Jeff Buckley weeping, doesn’t get you, the nudity of his lyrics might. They seem to come from a spot inside his brain begging to be worked out.
As he sings “Oh, I’m restless as a Geyser, like a blind animal in water” on the song “Pigs”, the validity of his words are more than just clever wordplay. This is exactly the feeling that the songwriter wanted to convey, and these are the words in which he chooses to express it. Stith does this throughout his record, on each and every song.
While his voice and the words it produces are unique tools of Stith’s trade, it’s the composition of the music that plays behind the man that sets him apart from just about any other composer in the underground today. What plays behind Stith sounds like a series of volatile up’s and downs — with mellow moments that are hypnotizing, elegant, and at some points almost crack jovial. Take note of the backward masking experiment of track “Spirit Parade”, which comes off as sounding like some sort of gypsy ode to the afterlife, or the sparse looping next to the gently strumming guitar on “Thanksgiving Moon”, a ballad welcoming the coming of a new season.
Then there are the bits of chaos, totally under the control of Stith but somewhat disturbing nonetheless. The opening track, “Isaac’s Song”, with it’s crashing piano and ghostly wails, or the song “Creekmouth”, which sounds like the opening to a pagan ritual, are examples of the soft touch Stith employs to make these bombastic moments resonate inside the eardrums of the listeners. At times, these moments provide notable detraction from the beauty of Stith’s skill — too many highs and lows might cause people to miss out on the true beauty of this newcomers craft. Some points can be likened to a car driving perfectly straight on a road, only for the driver to momentarily lose control and swerve violently, and then gain control again. Luckily, these moments are few and far between, and have very little impact on the debut by this young pop-savant.
D.M. Stith’s Heavy Ghost is streaming at his website.