There’s a pub near my hometown which was purportedly built in the 15th century, a building which unsurprisingly has its fair share of ghost stories and hauntings – disembodied voices, phantom pianos, that sort of thing. A few decades back the landlord wanted to get to the bottom of it and hired a team of investigators. What they found was almost more amazing than the spirits of long-dead patrons. The walls of the building were found to contain silica and iron oxide, chemicals used in audio recording devices, leading to the theory that the sounds were not ghosts in the conventional sense but actual physical traces of precious visitors.
The story came to mind when listening to Shadow Songs, the latest album from Britanny Brooks’s Creature Speak. The record is the first full-length from the Ontario artist under the Creature Speak moniker (she formerly used Howler), and somehow slipped past our radar upon its release last year. Luckily, the break over the Christmas period gave us a chance to put that right, and we were so impressed by this collection of detailed and atmospheric songs, we had to write about it, regardless of our tardiness. Brooks crafts arrangements of guitar, banjo, accordion, bass, pedal steel and percussion, which along with her distinctive vocals sound at once singular and timeless.
Lots of music is described as “haunting”, but a more accurate term for this album would be “haunted”, the songs representing not the spirits themselves but the environments they permeate. The ghosts on Shadow Songs have good intentions, not the malevolent manifestations of tormented souls but the lingering of loved ones in familiar places. Brooks dedicates the album to her late father who died in 2013 and much of the lyrical content deals with supernatural occurrences either real or imagined. ‘Intro (Hospital)’ begins with strummed guitar and atmospheric instrumentation, its vague lyrics somehow offering an introduction for what’s to come. “Over your bones I see a ghost,” she sings, “exiting the northern ceiling I blow kisses through”, as if beginning at the end – a door which could open inward or outwards. ‘My Wolf / My Ghost’ invites you through, with its acoustic guitar and gentle rat-tat percussion and brilliantly dark and lyrical writing. It has the air of a surprisingly macabre fairy tale, with stories of predators both real and imagined, boys and girls stalked by horrors more real and terrible than the referenced lupine threats, persistent spectres born of fear and disbelief.
“Little girl who shouted hell
much faster than I could move the hand
off of my cheek bone out of my pants
where he told me, that my body
speckled in those purple clouds
was not pretty and it was my fault
for filling my blood with alcohol
anybody could have called the police stations or city halls
yelling “The little girl sees a wolf”
How do the neighbours not see
the paw prints of a wolf following me?”
The rustic banjo on ‘Olly Oxen Free’ sounds like a crisp and frosty winter dawn, though lyrically the song is more sunset than sunrise, a wistful tale of confused and desperate vigils. “Sitting in the spare room,” Brooks sings. “We hold our hands in a circle around you. Sing songs but don’t make plans”. This is followed by ‘Phantom Apartments’, the shadowy, sidling vibe (reminiscent of the Yowler album we loved last year) embodying the atmosphere of the album as a whole. The track feels like a time-lapse view following on from the previous track, the observance ended but plans still not made, the room holding a lingering energy which the narrator both needs and fears, polar urges to let go and hold on struggling for dominance but negating one another, leaving a strange, crepuscular stasis.
“There are ghosts
there are ghosts
there are ghosts
sleeping in the ceiling of my room
and I know it’s you
I know it’s you
I know it’s you
simply wearing a new costume
covered in white sheets
flying through my window screen
There are visitors
there are monsters
there are unwanted guests
meeting under my mattress”
‘Black Out’ is a song about respite in any form, about passing out as escape, about tiredness and confusion and shock. The struggle to communicate seems important here, mouths hanging open as if lost to narcotic stupor. This opens into ‘Shadow Song’, the closest thing the album has to a traditional love song, as if only in sleep does the narrator want or dare let her true feelings free. A fever dream stitched from longing, the track spirals around familiar shapes and places with a yearning too keen to admit. “Oh if I could swim in the shadow / pool of darkness in the hollow / space below your cheek bones”.
‘Kerosene Dream’ has banjo up front and electric guitar in the background, flaring like pin-prick fireflies in the quiet, struck and discarded matches in an intimate black. Like much of the album, spirits pass through the song in staccato bursts, twitching behind the notes like the products of some crude seance, although the visitations are in no way hostile. ‘Oh Susana’ is full of lovely turns of phrase and swelling instrumentation, the ghosts here warm and light and composed of nostalgic fondness, not slippery silvery cold but bright and golden, as if existing somewhere beyond the immediacy of pain. The track closes with a recording of ‘Au clair de la lune’ by Betholet Charron, sounding as wispy and fragile and distant as something passing through from some other dimension, with ‘Miss Behaviour’ on the other side, fresh with life. Sounding like a cross between the rustic banjo-led folk of Ben Weaver and the naturalistic simplicity of Small Sur, the song has surreal, dream-like imagery which speaks of metamorphosis directly. “Luminous wings / sprout out from your shoulder blades / when you start spinning / in a circle around the same space”. ‘Outro (Home)’ is a companion to the opening track, bringing us full circle back to the hospital room, a space full of pleas for reassurance and desperate unvoiced questions and small hopes, futile and fading.
“Wooden boards with letters, coloured cards with pictures
say that I will see you soon, say that I will see you soon
but when will you go
when will you go
when will you go home?”
The idea of audio recording pub walls was met with varying degrees of acceptance. Several other studies were unable to reproduce the same effects and others found phenomena which defied even the most far-fetched of science’s guesses. As far as I know, it’s no longer a big deal. One way or another the building houses history, an accumulation of time which might be stored in the walls or the floors or the minds of present generations, the sounds and energy of people we once knew. Shadow Songs works a similar trick, telescoping time forwards and back so that past and present exist within the same walls, so that those who have left us never quite go on.
You can get Shadow Songs now, on CD or digitally, via the Creature Speak Bandcamp page.