Pet Ghost Project started off as a one man band, the moniker of Seattle based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Justin Stivers. A few years ago, Stivers moved to the Big Apple where he has immersed himself in Brooklyn’s bustling indie scene. In the studio, Stivers is a “one man wrecking crew” who stacks layers upon layer of himself to build a huge sound. On stage and increasingly in the studio, Justin Gonzalez and Jake More lend their skills to the mix. All multi-instrumentalists, the three members of Pet Ghost Project switch off on guitar, percussion, bass, and keyboards. The result is a fun and slightly chaotic live show, which is definitely worth checking out if you have the chance.
But enough biographical information—have those MP3s finishedz downloading yet? If you have a slow connection it may take a few minutes. And I’ll give you another minute to drag them onto your 160 GB iPod Touch and wait it to synch. When you’re plugged in and ready to go, read on.
In the words of Joni Mitchell, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Ever since the dawn of civilization there have been those who’ve longed for a simple time. Mitchell felt this urge, so did Thoreau, Rousseau, Proust, Orwell… When bluegrass musicians in Appalachia first saw tape recorders they called them song-suckers and the popularity of films such as The Terminator and The Matrix demonstrate that our fear of technology has not disappeared in recent years. So yes, the clash between technology and nature isn’t exactly a new theme, but Pet Ghost Project addresses it in a nuanced and refreshingly entertaining way. Which brings us to the A-side “Age of Automatics,” so plug in those Bose noise-canceling headphones and press play.
Let’s begin by stating the obvious; the song is catchy as hell. A few listens and the melodic hook will be permanently lodged in the darkest reaches of your mind. And the persistent bell in the background, counterpoint to a softly clanking guitar, twinkles playfully like Christmas in July. Stivers originally envisioned the song as a simple acoustic ditty, but it took on a new life in production. The final mix is orchestrated in a way that brings to mind Andrew Bird. Bursts of emotional rawness shine through a rich and glossy indie aesthetic. Perhaps such departure from its simple roots was the only logical progression for a song addressing the gray area between nature and technology. The music is a battleground on which this conflict is resolved… or not resolved despite mutual destruction?
One moment Stivers is singing in a breathy telephone-box voice and the next moment he’s shouting spastically through a tank of reverb. Or rather, through a large and reverberant bathroom—no synthetics involved, the only ingredients passion and perhaps a little alcohol.
Sung: We’re not afraid, we’re not afraid of danger. We keep it close, we welcome in a stranger.
Shouted: I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t force myself to think about it. I wouldn’t try, I wouldn’t try my luck to state the truth yeah.
After a lengthy bridge the main theme returns but absent are the raw reverb drenched shouts. Only one breathy voice remains, the city has devoured the country…
Which brings us to the B-side “They Built a City in my Country Mind.” Stivers calls it a vocal feature but the human voice is used primarily for its tone and timbre, as another instrument. He recorded the song solo, stacking one layer at a time, and the process isn’t obscured by the final result. The recording begins with a descending falsetto pattern. As this pattern continues, instruments and sound effects (amongst which chirping birds stand out particularly) enter gradually, building around it. And about 1:30 into the song the build finally breaks, unleashing a blast of chaos. Enter distorted electric guitars. Enter heavy drum beat. Exit (or simply drowned out?) acoustic strumming, birds singing. The city has arrived. Continue the soft falsettos, but re-contextualized, against the backdrop of rock. Suddenly in a brief calm, the soft harmonics of guitar and the sound of pick against string ring out. Calm again, but the build continues… It’s over 3 minutes before lyrics come in, “they built a city in my country mind.” The vocal melody is mirrored on distorted guitar, and the two melt together to create one unique voice, neither guitar nor human. And maybe that’s the perfect compromise. In other words, you don’t have to take off those headphones, but maybe next time you’ll take your iPod Touch on a walk down some peaceful country road.