The development of Erik Neilson’s Rural Ghosts project over the course of just over a year has been nothing short of remarkable. What started off as just a one-man singer-songwriter project in the vein of Iron and Wine has blossomed into a full-on band, and it’s a band with a pretty unique sound too.
Most of the elements that made 2012’s self-titled debut such a standout are still here: Neilson’s unique but haunting reverb-soaked vocals, lyrical themes of regret and loss, and an overall mood of lonely reflection. But on the forthcoming “City of Elms,” the first full-length Rural Ghosts album, Neilson spends just as much time banging out crunchy chords on his Les Paul as he did strumming his acoustic on that first folky EP.
Also, the drums of Rob Mitchell bring a new sense of urgency to the music, making this new album a more dynamic listening experience than the earlier work. Finally, Neilson has added a new secret weapon to the Rural Ghosts arsenal: The cello of Devon Colella. This is a band transformed.
When one hears about a cello being used in a rock band (even an indie rock band), it’s tempting to write off said band as some sort of bloated art-rock ELO clone. But on “City of Elms,” Colella’s cello functions in much the same manner as Ray Manzarek’s Vox organ and Fender Rhodes piano did in The Doors, breathing new life into the standard guitar/drums/vocal rock format.
That bass-y, mournful sound that only a cello can create is a unique yet perfect counterpoint to Neilson’s fuzzed-out guitar, especially on faster numbers such as “Tenant,” “Eyes” and “Astronaut’s Lament.”
This may be the new trademark Rural Ghosts sound. And through it all, Mitchell’s insistent drumming propels these tracks and infuses them with an intensity that was a little lacking in Rural Ghosts’ earlier, more contemplative work. There is weight and heft to these songs, and it’s refreshing.
One of the more intriguing tracks on the album is an instrumental, “Vesuvius.” The song is aptly named, as the roiling layers of cello and guitar combine with funereal drumming to slowly build in intensity until finally spilling out in a volcanic crescendo.
All the while, new melodies and musical ideas bob to the surface, only to be carried away as another musical wave washes over the whole arrangement. “Vesuvius” works in much the same way as mid-period Pink Floyd tracks such as “Echoes,” and it’s another fascinating direction that we’ve not heard from Rural Ghosts on previous releases.
The jaunty “Worried Man” is downright danceable, but still maintains that quintessential haunting vibe that we’ve come to know and expect from Rural Ghosts, no matter what style they’re experimenting with. Finally, the album climaxes with a new version of the very first track from the very first EP, “Rural Ghosts.”
It’s a fitting choice, bringing us back full circle to where we started with this band, and it’s a terrific way to illustrate just how far this project has come.
The arrangement is still sparse on this new version of “Rural Ghosts,” but the addition of drums and cello, not to mention Neilson’s distorted electric rather than acoustic guitars, drive this track into new and uncharted emotional territory that the original version never even hinted at. It’s a compelling listen, and perhaps the best track on the album.
Fans of Rural Ghosts will have a lot to digest on “City of Elms.” The new directions may take some getting used to for those who loved the original indie-folk vibe. But rest assured, the change in sound is a welcome one. And though listeners may not have realized it a year ago, this is the Rural Ghosts album they’ve been waiting for.
Download the single “Tenant” at loremipsumrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/city-of-elms, and be sure to catch Rural Ghosts live at the Big Easy in Portland for the “City of Elms” CD-release party on Oct. 4.
Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host from Westbrook. He can be reached at: