The Midnight Ghost Train – Cypress Ave.
Label: Napalm Records
Release Date: July 28, 2017
For better or worse, one of the ways I tend to cull the vast and plentiful musical offerings that endlessly stream forth from the various sources I’ve tapped is by taking a quick listen to the vocals. With good-to-great instrumentation generally being the norm within the realms where I tend to lurk, I find that an album’s vocals (and—to a somewhat lesser degree—lyrical content) often becomes a huge differentiator for me. This is by no means a perfect formula, but it has suited me well over the years with one stark example being The Midnight Ghost Train.
Originally formed in Buffalo, NY, The Midnight Ghost Train released Johnny Boy EP in 2008 before relocating to Kansas—the home state of drummer Brandon Burghart—which is pertinent for two reasons: First, because most bands tend to make that sort of move in reverse and, second, because I can’t really think of another band who claim Kansas as home besides, you know, Kansas. At any rate, the band followed that initial release with their self-titled LP in 2009 and shortly thereafter began a relentless and seemingly eternal touring schedule that has them constantly careening back and forth across the US, hitting an impressive number of oft-skipped locales along the way (they’ve played in Montana twelve times–who does that?) not to mention several trips across the far reaches of Europe.
The dual benefit of a burgeoning fan following in the heavy underground and the sort of sonic cohesion that can only come from years spent on the road were perhaps the most obvious benefits of such a schedule, with the latter of those two attributes coming into sharper focus on the TMGT’s fantastic 3rd album, Buffalo, released in 2013. Shortly thereafter, and following the release of a live album recorded at Roadburn that same year, the band signed to Napalm Records and hunkered down to record their 4th studio offering—Cold Was The Ground—which saw release late in the winter of 2015.
By this point in their career, there was little doubt as to what comprised TMGT’s signature sound: pummeling stoner rock with a bit of blues thrown in for good measure. I’m purposely selling them short with that description so that I can focus on the one element that is most central to their sound, however, which is the earth-shaking bellow of vocalist/bassist Steve Moss. Think late period Tom Waits doing his best impression of Louis Armstrong covering Queens of the Stone Age and that’ll give you a decent frame of reference without actually forcing you to listen to their older material—which is absolutely something you should do. The potential downside to a delivery as distinct and dominant as Moss’, though, is that it can easily overshadow the music to the point where subtlety and nuance are unwittingly sacrificed at the altar of repetition (which is sometimes the point with stoner rock, but I digress…) if not properly modulated. Intentionally or otherwise, TMGT seem to have arrived at a similar conclusion prior to recording their latest record, Cypress Ave., and the results are stunning.
The cover art for Cypress Ave. is a drab and nearly colorless cityscape which provides subtle foreshadowing for the musical twists and turns that lie within, but only when you consider that past album covers have generally kept with a “we’re from the Midwest” theme. The album’s opening track, “Tonight”, is somewhat nondescript in the grand scheme of things, but the three tracks which immediately follow ratchet things up considerably, even if they still mask the surprises that await on the album’s back half behind the sort of relentless boot-scoots that colored past efforts. “Red Eyed Junky Queen” wraps quintessential stoner grooves around the sort of lyrical content you’d expect given its title as it paints a desperate narrative you can envision going down in any number of inner-city back alley-ways while “Glenn’s Promise” evokes visions of a street preacher whose maniacal ramblings fall short of sealing redemption for our wayward subject as he declares “I fell on my knees once, it hurt, so I rose”.
The last of this trio, “Bury Me Deep”, is perhaps the true gem of the lot due to the downright delicious thump-groove provided by Moss and bassist Mike Boyne (who drops exceptional bass lines all over the album) and serves as the bedrock upon which Moss snarls some of the album’s most angst-filled lines—but even when he sings “I admit I’m cooking a meal so that you can choke”, it’s somehow much less unsettling than it should be on account of the desperation & vulnerability that colors his otherwise gravely delivery on Cypress Ave., even on these more aggressive tracks. It’s a subtle shift, but an obvious one none-the-less particularly due to a slight lisp in Moss’ voice—something I don’t recall hearing on previous albums. Rather than letting this vocal quirk be a weakness, or hiding it behind his monstrous growl, Moss plays it as a strength—much in the same way that TMGT confidently deliver Cypress Ave.’s more contemplative and restrained back half, starting with “The Watcher’s Nest” and leading into “Break My Love” where Moss gently croons (relatively speaking) “hair that blossoms and eyes that shine, your body’s sweet and well-defined, but I can never last to see it through” amidst a naked 2-chord shuffle, which also serves as the perfect showcase for the album’s basement-glow production aesthetics.
“Lemon Trees” takes the album damn close to Ben Harper territory with a gut-wrenching tale of a loved one’s slow death, but just before the album drowns itself in overweight melancholy, “The Boogie Down” swoops in and pulls everything skyward with a funk-infused jam featuring guest vocals from rapper Sonny Cheeba (one half of Bronx hip-hop duo Camp Lo). Of all the dips and dives the album makes, this is by far the most jarring but it’s a testament to the versatility displayed on Cypress Ave. that it doesn’t feel shoehorned but, instead, serves as one of the album’s most triumphant moments.
The album’s 2-song closing cycle begins with “Black Wave”, which gently reigns the album back in with a ballad that features subdued bass and drums atop gentle washes of Mellotron before segueing into “The Echo” which feels like it’s going to wrap up the album on a down tempo note before quickly building into a song that sounds like something Kyuss would have written for the soundtrack of a Tarantino-directed Western.
When it comes time to put a bow on 2017, I have no doubt this album will sit amongst my favorites. In terms of diversity, I’m not sure this album has a peer at the moment—it provides a listening experience that caters as much to enjoying a hot cup of coffee all alone on a rainy morning as it does to drinking beer with friends late at night. And if the measure of a band at any point in their career is the growth displayed between albums, then Cypress Ave. is undoubtedly a success for The Midnight Ghost Train and a great example of what is possible when a band is determined to loosen the dirt around the roots of their sound.
You can catch The Midnight Ghost Train on tour this fall:
8/24: Ft. Worth, TX @ The Grotto
8/25: Austin, TX @ Limelight
8/26: Lafayette, LA @ Boom Boom Boom
8/27: New Orleans, LA @ Siberia
8/31: Pensacola, FL @ Handlebar
9/1: Charlotte, NC @ Snug Harbor
9/2: Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
9/3: Richmond, VA @ Banditos
9/6: Baltimore, MD @ The Depot
9/7: Washington, DC @ Atlas Brew Works
9/8: Philadelphia, PA @ Kung Fu Neck Tie
9/9: Brooklyn, NY @ Gold Sounds
9/10: Connecticut @ Cherry Street Station
9/11: Providence, RI @ Alchemy
9/12: Boston, MA @ O’Brien’s Pub
9/13: Rochester, NY @ Bug Jar
9/14: Cleveland, OH @ Now That’s Class
9/15: Indianapolis, IN @ Radio Radio
9/16: Detroit, MI @ The Rockery
9/17: Milwaukee, WI @ Cactus Club
9/18: Madison, WI @ Frequency
9/19: Green Bay, WI @ Gasoline
9/20: Dubuque, IA @ The Lift
9/21: Chicago, IL @ Reggie’s Music Joint
9/22: Lexington, KY @ Green Lantern
9/23: Newport, KY @ Southgate House Revival
9/24: Knoxville, TN @ Preservation Pub
9/25: Nashville, TN @ Springwater Supper Club
9/26: Chapel Hill, NC @ The Cave
9/27: Charleston, WV @ The Empty Bottle
9/28: Canton, OH @ The Buzzbin Shop
9/29: Dayton, OH @ Blind Bob’s
9/30: Pittsburgh, PA @ Descendants of Crom Fest*
10/5: Kalispell, MT @ Old School Records
10/6: Spokane, WA @ The Pin
10/7: Seattle, WA @ Funhouse
10/8: Eugene, OR @ Old Nick’s
10/9: San Francisco, CA @ Elbo Room
10/11: Sacramento, CA @ Blue Lamp
10/12: Los Angeles, CA @ Silverlake Lounge
10/13: San Diego, CA @ Tower Bar
10/18: Amarillo, TX @ Leftwoods
10/19: Oklahoma City, OK @ 89th Street Collective
10/20: Wichita, KS @ Elbow Room
10/21: Topeka, KS @ J&J’s Gallery