Ramblin' Recs


Joshua McCormack

The Phantom King

August 2011

If you don't like Joshua McCormack's new album "The Phantom King," you are truly stupid.

How's that for a record review?

It's not too far from how I felt after I listened the first few times to Mr. McCormack’s ambitious third offering after it arrived in August. I decided that maybe it would be best to gain some perspective before I confront our already too small readership with any further hostilities.

A few months later, I'm happy to report "The Phantom King" is every bit the album I thought it was. A complex, engaging romp through a world of musical styles, "The Phantom King" provides a technicolor complement to McCormack’s 2008 album, "Funeral of the Siren," the musical equivalent to a classic black and white film.

While "Funeral" is filled with gorgeous, mostly acoustic instrumentation, the focus is almost always squarely on the vocals—a formula generally associated, for better or for worse, with the tradition of the singer-songwriter.

McCormack makes it clear right from the start that his latest album is going to be an entirely different experience.

Ghostly synth strings are immediately trampled under foot by Edd Merkel’s powerful drumming, as the title track sets the tone for things to come. The songwriter still controls the show, but here the songs are amped up with a barrage of electronics and the head-on thrust of a band. McCormack has put together a ferocious band, and the relentless pace of this album gives them a full workout. Before they can catch their breath, a snaking synth winds its way out of the opener and into the paranoid marching breakbeat of "Modern Murder Line." It's a technique that makes the interplay on "The Phantom King" feel live and urgent, even if the members of the band were rarely ever in the same room at the same time.

The album is a strict DIY home recording, but this is not the low-fi sound of Lou Barlow’s bedroom. McCormack seems hellbent on making the anti-home-recording. More is more. Layer upon layer of high- and low-end sounds compete for supremacy in the mix, but somehow it all seems to work. There is no doubt that his intention is to make a dirty—at times damaged—sounding record. It’s a plan that threatens to undo things at times. The digital distortion on "Devil Killin’ Blues" is almost more than can be tolerated—until you find yourself delivered from evil by the next soaring guitar hook or angelic vocal.

And one cannot really discuss Joshua McCormack's music without bringing up his voice. McCormack possesses the rarest of gifts, a truly beautiful voice. Its hard not to make the comparison to the late Jeff Buckley. They share an incredibly similar tonality. It’s almost too beautiful for rock ’n’ roll music, but on "The Phantom King," McCormack is determined to deliver a wider range of emotions than beauty alone can provide, and this is where he really finds his own voice.

One of the best examples of this is the sonic blast of punk fury-turned-space-aged disco ballad called "Galaxy of Doom." Following a bombastic, distorted call-and-response shouting match with his band, in which McCormack attempts to shred his vocal chords, he provides a brief comedown for the listener, singing calmly over a fuzzed-out bridge before taking off for another planet with an ethereal falsetto soaring high above Paul Cullen’s dirty funk/soul bass groove. Then, as if to prove he’s more than just a pretty voice, McCormack takes us out with a guitar riff that would sound at home on Brian Eno’s "Here Come the Warm Jets." It's a wild, rewarding ride.

When the dust settles after the dizzying, frantic pace of the opening quartet of nonstop rockers, McCormack finally gives in to his sentimental side. The storytelling takes on a more personal tone with "The Birth of a Star," a joyful vocal suspended over a minimal soundscape, giving way only in its final moments to giggles and burps from a synthesizer no longer able to contain itself.

There’s a feeling of joy that permeates the entire album—perhaps best exemplified by the exuberant "Terminal Velocity." One of the most straightforward songs on the record, there is an almost cheesy quality to the sparkly synth sounds of the verse before the chorus propels it forward with a power reminiscent of Queen's finest pop moments, as McCormack happily expresses, "My love … victim of your gravity."

This album is an absolute explosion of musical styles. "Devil Killin' Blues" manages to ride a classic Memphis slide guitar straight through the crossroads into a head-on collision with London's '90s Drum and Bass underground. "Man from the Future" replaces a magical techno soundscape with a majestic solo from guitar whiz John Prestipino that wouldn't sound out of place on Led Zeppelin IV. "The Fog of War" surrounds a more traditional ballad with lush strings while a keyboard conjures memories of the world of the film "Midnight Cowboy," but these memories are quickly replaced by the same keyboard bringing us to the world of Queen's "Flash Gordon" via "Border Jumpers." Finally, the moving closing statement "Wolves" revels in nostalgia as an accordion waltzes through a hazy black and white Paris of the mind.

McCormack has the rare ability to see beauty and romance in everyday life that leaves most longing for worlds of fantasy—turning moments easily taken for granted into moments of wonder. Regardless of all the madness the world has to offer, he knows that "the girl of my dreams has a place in my bed watching my breath" in "Wolves." In "Stranger in the Springtime," McCormack experiences the innocence of his young son, as he takes in the excitement of the new world around him, asking "stranger of the springtime, be my only mirror."

Ultimately "The Phantom King" is a joyful celebration of life, love and family.

As highly as I thought of "Funeral of the Siren," I wasn’t sure I wanted a different album from Joshua McCormack. "The Phantom King" is not only different, but it’s also a powerful reminder that great artists don’t stand still—they keep moving forward.