The 1980s was not exactly my favourite decade, musically speaking. The disturbed geniuses who brought us the spartan soundscapes of post-punk had discovered island rhythms and African beats. Those influences softened their edges, muted their anger at the largely urban disenfranchisement that originally fueled the punk movement. The resulting mess of genres, usually lumped together as New Wave, became little more than a massive John Hughes soundtrack, eventually devolving into cheesy synth-pop before finally dying of auto-erotic asphyxiation, here in Canada at least, with World On Edge’s 1991 self-titled debut.
And yet there was a Moment, ever so brief, just as New Wave was about to topple into the realm of AM radio self-parody, when bands like Talking Heads, the darker Depeche Mode, and a handful of others made some really great records. To me those albums seem to have a shorter half-life than those produced at other high points in 20th Century popular music, in no small part because of the deluge of sound-alike crap that would follow them almost immediately. There’s been a huge ’80s revival in the last few years, and while groups like Chromeo, !!! and others have made careers out of an ironic homage to the flashy surfaces of New Wave, Red State Soundsystem reaches back to that one moment of strength and lets us see it now, right at the point of its decay.
I don’t mean to say that Ghosts in a Burning City is a retro album; it’s very clearly not. But Red State Soundsystem’s heavily textured album is so clearly, so directly a reaction to that moment that it makes much more sense to talk about it in those terms than it would to compare it to other modern New Wave inspired acts, like The Strokes or The Killers. For one thing, Joshua Ellis (the man behind RSS) incorporates synthesizers in a way that references Zero 7 as much as Devo. In fact, I had a “eureka” moment when listening to “Scarecrow” and “Secret King of Africa” when I finally saw how much of the “chill-out” downtempo sound I love can be traced just as easily back through the Manchester club scene to Factory Records (and ultimately, New Order/Joy Division) as it can through trip-hop and dancehall.
What stands out most about Ghosts in a Burning City is Ellis’ skill as a songwriter and producer. His guitar work is good, though not exceptional, but tracks like “Divine Intervention”, “Redwood City Station”, and the wonderfully low-key “Not In This World (Or The Next One)” are so tightly structured, so solidly put together, that’s it’s hard to believe this is his first album. To be fair, he’s been making music for quite a while; I have a stripped-down copy of “Berlin Floor Show” that dates back to at least 2002. It’s one of the few tracks that I don’t think benefits from Ellis’ rusty, atmospheric production technique, actually, and I think he would have been better off releasing that older recording, even though it wouldn’t have fit as well into the overall dusty-laptops-in-the-desert feel of the album. Maybe it would make a good B-side.
Ghosts in a Burning City sometimes falls down from Ellis’ vocals. He’s not a bad singer, but he’s also not a great one, and while his scratchy baritone works beautifully on “Not In This World” (probably the best song on the album) and “Coda: Requiem For A Diplomat” (a fun little punk-cabaret number that manages to avoid both Amanda Palmer’s over the top theatrics and Andrew Bird’s tongue in cheek delivery), he seems to stumble at times, particularly on “Scatterlings + Refugees” and “Every Hour Wounds (The Last One Kills)”. Those last two songs in particular seem like “Bob Dylan tracks” to me, by which I mean tracks in which the quality of the songwriting outstrips his abilities as a performer.
Ghosts in a Burning City is a strong, if slightly flawed, debut that manages to incorporate a great many powerful influences without ever being overwhelmed by them. There’s enough variety here to see that Red State Soundsystem has room to grow as a project, and it will be interesting to see how (or if) Ellis can push past his New Wave-inspired textures into his own Moment.