A Whole New Country
Marley’s Ghost puts novel spin on its traditionalist innovations.
Thursday, March 2, 2006
Since the mid ‘80s, the roots music revival band Marley’s Ghost has been primarily known for its live shows rather than its recored endeavors. For their eighth album, Spooked, Marley’s Ghost is attempting to change all of that with some help from some high-profile friends.
First, they enlisted famed comic-book artist Robert Crumb to design the album’s wonderfully offbeat cover art. (Crumb’s 1970s string band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, featured Marley’s Ghost’s Dan Wheetman. According to bandmember Mike Phelan, the artist had his record collection confiscated by the IRS, and was paid a hundred pounds of 78s for his services.)
Next, the band invited a trio of seasoned music vets to play on the release, including famed jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer/percussionist Don Heffington.
Third—and most importantly—the group hooked up with legendary composer/arranger/producer Van Dyke Parks for the record.
Parks, widely considered a musical genius, is famed for his work with the Beach Boys, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder, as well as dozens of other popular artists. Parks has also reached an almost mythic status by working with Brian Wilson on the most famous lost pop album of all time, The Beach Boys’ Smile.
Phelan, the band’s multi-instrumentalist and singer, says he met the famed producer when a mutual friend brought Parks to one of Marley’s Ghost’s gigs. After meeting Parks, the two parties talked about working together. Eventually, a partnership between the band and producer materialized.
Phelan says that while recording the album Parks kept instructing the band to do strange things in the studio. At certain times, Parks ordered baritone Dan Wheetman to sing in falsetto. He directed drummer Don Heffington to play a cumbia beat along to a country rock song. “He would just ask you to play in funny time signatures,” Phelan says. “He moved all the singing parts around. It was hard to understand what he wanted.”
As the recording process continued and the album began to take shape, the members of Marley’s Ghost started to see the genius of what Parks was doing. “I think the main thing is that he stretched us in every way,” Phelan says.
When the band wrapped up Spooked after a three-week recording session, Phelan says, he and his bandmates came to understand how Parks came to his reputation in the music industry. “People call people geniuses all the time, but I think this guy Parks honestly deserves it,” Phelan says.
Released last month, Spooked, which is the band’s first album with national distribution, finds Marley’s Ghost playing traditional songs, covers and originals with an airy otherworldliness. The album’s opener, “Sail Away, Ladies” is a traditional number that the band remakes with an inspired amalgamation of Celtic, gospel and bluegrass elements, while the band’s version of Bob Dylan’s “The Wicked Messenger” features old timey harmony vocals along with banjo, saxophone and flashes of percussion. Other tunes, like the straight-ahead “High Walls,” sound like classic outlaw country with lyrics about morphine and chain gangs.
Spooked includes several tunes that reveal the band’s twisted sense of humor. On “Last Words,” a man asks his dying brother for his Grateful Dead records, among other things, while “Old Time Religion” is a gospel-type song with sly lyrics like: “Let us worship Aphrodite/ She’s naughty and she’s flighty/And she doesn’t wear a nightie.”
Though the band has probably reached its recording apex thus far with Spooked, Marley’s Ghost has been winning over fans for 20 years now. The band got together a few weeks before playing its first gig at the 1986 Spring Strawberry Music Festival. There, Phelan says, his new group surprised concertgoers with an a Capella version of Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.”
Following their successful first outing, the band reconvened in Washington state to play on bandmember Dan Wheetman’s solo album. But, before Wheetman’s work was ever finished, the guys had three Marley’s Ghost albums in the can, starting with their debut, Haunting Melodies.
Phelan says the band has put out some good releases since
then—especially the 2001 concert album Live at the Freight—but
now the group hopes to continue in the same direction as
Spooked. Phelan says the band even hopes to work with Parks
again on their next release. “The next record has the job of
taking off where this record left off,” he says.
MARLEY’S GHOST play Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St. in Monterey, Thursday, March 2, at 7:30pm. $12/advance; $14/at the door. 375-5483.