A three-piece from Portland, Oregon, Hungry Ghost have been described somewhat grandiloquently as a ‘supergroup’. Whether or not you feel that’s a justifiable label for a band whose best known member was the drummer in Unwound I’ll leave up to you… However there’s no denying that they’ve earned their stripes: all three members have been active to some acclaim in the Pacific Northwest scene since the early 90s (Irving Klaw Trio and The Drags also feature on their resume). And, boy, does it show. The overall aesthetic of this self-titled album is about as 90s Americana as a teenager in a plaid shirt and round sunglasses being bored in a mall.
Accordingly it’s all a bit cartoonish and fuzzy around the edges. Initially that comes as a disappointment, as on first listen you feel like the kind of blues-tinged stoner adjacent rock could do with a harder edge to give it more punch. It’s not technical proficient or stylish enough to cruise along on its own merits. This disappointment is compounded by the more interesting dance-y guitar patterns on songs like “Get Up” and “High” lacking the sharpness you really feel they should have. You’re left trapped in between feeling it should be more distorted, and feeling it should be cleaner – like watching a caveman fight a robot. As it is, it lacks some of the cathartic satisfaction that you suspect is in there somewhere in, wrapped in an electric blanket of fuzz.
This is around the standard of a charismatically laidback albeit plodding and slightly unoriginal pub band, who in fairness would probably be a lot more fun live. They do an alright line in mid-song desert blues breakdown, all engine room bass and twiddling guitar (though not of the face-melting variety). Sara Lund’s drums are fun too, always with a suggestion that she might go off-piste at any moment.
Unfortunately mostly the songs in which these are swaddled are repetitive and uninspiring. On penultimate track “Wicked Betsy” they go American Gothic, which actually works quite well for them, but there’s no trace of the sinister edge of this song elsewhere which is a shame. It could always be, though, that the sharp relief this song is thrown into due to homogeneity of the rest makes it seem better than it is.
We’re going to have to talk about lyrics too. Really, they don’t matter in this sort of music, but when you hear things like, “Everybody gets themselves high on something,” or, “Our epic sadness broke our fucking hearts,” it feels a bit awkward.
There are ways to do this kind of thing better. Black Mountain stands out as the perfect example: a sweeter, edgier band who – very importantly – are ostensibly concerned with melody as well as rhythm and their Pacific coast je ne sais quoi. Result, you can tell Black Mountain’s songs apart from each other – sadly, not something one could necessarily say of Hungry Ghost.
There’s probably a good band trapped inside this half-arsed record somewhere – they could just use a bit more, well, hunger...
Release: 31st July 2012, HG Records