Over the past year or so there have been rumblings from the east coast about an album set to change the world. The release date was tentative, and changed more times than I can remember, but it always remained at the forefront of any discussion about the crew at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen. We were given snippets via teaser videos. An EP was released featuring songs recorded for the album but ultimately not fitting with the rest. In between these bursts Oliver Ignatius continued to produce other artists, putting out a killer’s row of records in the first half of 2012 and continuing at a staggering rate. How he found time to write and record his own masterpiece is baffling.
It should come as no surprise that despite how good the albums Ignatius has produced are, he was saving the best for his own project. We’ve become used to his pastiche of Beatles and Beach Boys-referencing harmonies and technical wizardry, but never have we heard him go this big. On Nathan Jones Is Dead, Ignatius breaks free from the shackles of Wilson and Lennon and shows us the musician he really is. Free from the constraints, I believe he is capable of almost anything.
The album starts off with a little of what I feared most-a heavy reliance on those artists I mentioned before. The songs sound good, but they fit too snugly inside the wheelhouse of previous Ghost Pal songs. It isn’t until the fourth track, “Too Much pt. 2” that I really felt like I was hearing a great leap forward. The album follows a narrative story, so the songs being built around that probably made it difficult to change it up too much until the story goes in a different gear.
By the time we reach that fourth track, we’ve been introduced to our protagonist and he’s told us that he’s had his vote and chosen to die. Over the course of three songs we get to know him a little bit and understand his life. This isn’t a choice made by flipping a coin, it’s been thought over. Everything comes to a head halfway through the song I think propels Nathan Jones Is Dead into orbit.
It starts off slow, but builds into one of the rocknrolliest songs of the year. The shift, coming from a single note being repeatedly banged out on the piano, shatters everything that has come before. This breaking point marks a difference in the record-there’s more passion, more anger. Ignatius’ vocals go from soft and indifferent to a scream in the blink of an eye. After the chorus we’re treated to a funky breakdown filled with the monster bass of Josh Barocas, the gallop of Carson Moody’s drums, and of course the horn work of Heny Kandel.
From the beginning of this song through the end, Nathan Jones Is Dead does everything right. It’s darkly funny when it needs to be, but also sad and heartbreaking. The song “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” is probably the saddest of the songs, written from the perspective of Nathan Jones’ father. The lead is sung by Barocas, and he reminds me a lot of Rick Danko’s singing on “Long Black Veil.” The material is given more of an upbeat dynamic here, with a lot of textures. The strings, lingering in the background, really add a dimension that you hardly notice on the first listen but becomes more apparent with each subsequent spin.
I’ve discovered something new with each listen so far (I got it yesterday and have listened to it about a dozen times). One of Ghost Pal’s greatest assets is that they believe there can always be more. Keeping with the collaborative spirit of Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen, I feel like if someone showed up one day and said “I can play xylophone,” Oliver would have found a use for them. After years of avoiding the “too many chefs in the kitchen” problem, I would think it could do nothing but hinder a project. Ignatius and the rest of Ghost Pal seem to think the opposite, and on Nathan Jones Is Dead they seem to have proved me wrong.
You can download the album on Bandcamp here for $3. You can also check out some of Ghost Pal’s other material, including their Extended Family EP, which features a bit of a preview to Nathan Jones on the final track. And for a sampling of the production work coming out of Mama Coco’s, check out the samplers containing some of the best songs recorded over the last two years.