The village of Pocahontas, Illinois (population 770) is little more than a speed bump on the Interstate at the eastern rim of the St. Louis metro area, a spot where the weaker big city radio signals begin fading to static on the car radio, replaced by sporadic country stations, farm and funeral reports and ranting evangelists. With St. Louis’ urban sprawl inexorably creeping toward it from one side and the endless, featureless Illinois prairie stretching out on the other, Pocahontas is an isolated rural hamlet of taverns and trailer parks. Pocahontas got on the musical map in 2004 as the hometown of country singer Gretchen Wilson, but it was already known in some circles as home to the deeply bent, cosmic/rural space-country combo Grandpa’s Ghost. Where Wilson’s music draws on the communal aspects of small town country life (drinking, partying, country music and sleeping around), Grandpa’s Ghost dwell in its surreal fringes — the isolation and distance, the anxiety of living in a rural community with a dying way of life and the exposed feeling of being a speck on a vast prairie under an enormous sky.
Guitarist/vocalist Ben Hanna and multi-instrumentalist Bill Emerson, with the help of numerous hired hands along the way, launched Grandpa’s Ghost on the edge of the Missouri alt-country scene that sprang up around the Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo. They soon progressed into a deeply fried rural psychedelia, alternating delicately pretty acoustic tunes with epic electric space-rock freakouts, a marriage of No Depression and krautrock, Pink Floyd and Sonic Youth. If Faust or Ash Ra Temple had been Illinois farmboys not German hippies, they would have made music like Grandpa’s Ghost.
The first three releases are mostly traditional country-rock, but the row they hoe is still noticeably off the beaten path. An extended feedback wail precedes Machine‘s opening track, “Angel in Disguise,” before the song settles into a staggering country groove which sounds like Uncle Tupelo after an especially tumultuous spin on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Neil Young casts a long shadow over Machine (as he does over the group’s entire output), as the band veers back and forth between roots rock and feedback-laced drones, often in the same song. “Same As You” is the first of Grandpa’s Ghost’s genetic splicings of Americana with psychedelia.
Recorded in 1996, Click and Drag is not that different from the alt-country discs that poured out of the Midwest that year. Until the closing “Flat/Empty” collapses into a discordant wreck of squealing feedback, fans of Tupelo/Bottle Rockets/Jason and the Scorchers won’t be surprised by any of it. Grandpa’s Ghost’s most normal and accessible disc is uniformly excellent, especially the almost pop “Sink or Swim” and the steel-guitar-driven hoedown “Song for One.” Released later the same year, the Gun Shy & Trigger Happy mini-album stays the course, except for “Ghost of a Grain Belt Rocker” and “Sandbox,” two ghostly, echoing space rock drones.
After this initial burst of activity, Grandpa’s Ghost dropped out of sight for a few years. When they re-emerged, the bonds of gravity would have no effect on them whatsoever. Nothing resembling country or rock emerges during the first three tracks of Il Baccio (“The Kiss”), just washes of feedback and found sound, sometimes supporting a vocal (“Long Hair”), sometimes not (“Machine Gun Smile”). When the rock returns on “Skin” it’s well worth the wait — 11 minutes of glorious, echoing reverb-heavy guitar rock. The rest of the album alternates between loud rockers (“Fuzz Ballad,” “Fourteen Minutes of Slow-Core Hiss”) and quiet, spooky tracks (the mesmerizing “A Kiss Is Not a Kiss When You Don’t See It Coming”).
Stardust and Smog / Early Autumn Waltz at the Two/Fourteen is a two-disc set of distinct personalities. Stardust and Smog is a largely acoustic acid-folk disc occupying the middle ground between the Palace Brothers and the quieter moments of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers. The stripped-down, low-key music often consists of only Hanna’s fragile vocals with acoustic guitar or piano and an occasional cello. They plug in for the raucous “Owen’s Backhoe (Part Two),” but otherwise it’s stark, unadorned minimalism. Truly lovely stuff, but even in quiet mode there’s something profoundly disquieting about Grandpa’s Ghost — Stardust and Smog summons up the sensation of sitting on your porch on a warm night and knowing there’s something watching you from just beyond the reach of the lights.
After some introductory drum noodling (billed as a cover of an old folk song, “Evil Spirits and Ardent Humour”), Early Autumn Waltz at the Two/Fourteen takes off with the straight-up rocker “Sweet After Here.” But halfway through the song the band takes a sharp turn toward the deep cosmos and never looks back. Long, pulsating sheets of feedback take over, sometimes resolving themselves into recognizable songs (including a reprise of Il Baccio‘s “Long Hair”), the rest of the time residing firmly in the territory regularly explored on the syndicated radio show Music From the Hearts of Space. No one outside of Grandpa’s Ghost probably ever wondered what it might be like for Jay Farrar to collaborate with Ryuichi Sakamoto, but that’s exactly what “Acid Cowboy Country Queen Fuzz/Blend Blues (Again)” sounds like — a long, slow country lament mixed with spectral keyboards and wailing feedback drones. It’s a gorgeous piece of music, followed by “Let It Hang,” which somehow manages to mix Skynyrd with My Bloody Valentine. Early Autumn Waltz is what’s playing on the sound systems of UFOs when they’re out carving crop circles into cornfields.
(The Tumble/Love Version) is another double disc divided into two separate entities, Tumble and Love. Tumble is the more immediately accessible of the two, but that’s a strictly relative notion. Mixing woozy, damaged country tunes like “Concrete Eyes” with amped-up bruisers like “The Queen of Crumpled Steel,” Tumble is a wild ride by most standards, but Top 40-ready compared to its companion disc. Tumble‘s centerpiece is the remarkable Crazy Horse-meets-Flying Saucer Attack rave-up “Blackie,” which rages and swirls on the edge of insanity for most of its ten minutes, only barely avoiding complete madness. It’s a maelstrom of truly magnificent proportions, but it’s only a warm-up for the fierce son of a bitch that shares Tumble‘s CD case.
Love, which is obsessed with aviation disasters, begins with a ferociously demented version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (written by John Denver, who died piloting a private aircraft), transforming the easy listening chestnut into a furious, churning squall of barely controlled chaos that lays waste to everything in its path. Grandpa’s Ghost proceed to crank up the intensity from there, making Love a cacophonous mash-up of the Meat Puppets, Vanilla Fudge and White Light/White Heat. The rational listener’s only response is to cower in fear and wonderment. It’s hard to make out exactly what Hanna is howling about through most of the album, but it hardly matters — it’s obvious that if he could, he would emerge physically from the speakers and deliver a personal ass-whupping to each and every listener. “War” reprises “Blackie”‘s roaring anarchy before segueing into Love‘s musical and thematic crescendo: a massive, atonal instrumental deconstruction of Bloodrock’s “D.O.A.” Minus the lyrics and bearing only a minimal resemblance to original, it’s more a cover of an idea than an actual interpretation of a song about an ill-fated flight, and — at more than 20 minutes here — one has to wonder just how much less intense and horrifying “D.O.A.” is than an actual air disaster. A spoken word Allen Ginsberg piece and a quiet Neil Young cover (“Love in Mind”) conclude Love with a calming quiet after the storm. Phew.
Following Tumble/Love, Grandpa’s Ghost became something of a fixture on the avant-garde film circuit, often playing live accompaniment for experimental films. In 2005, the group embarked on a series of collaborative DVDs with Chicago filmmaker and artist James Fotopoulos. Music From the Fotopoulos Projects contains some of Grandpa’s Ghost’s most spectral, otherworldly music. As on Stardust and Smog, the feeling is often one of acute unease, as if the listener is eavesdropping on something he’d be better off not hearing, be it Hanna’s truly creepy reading of the old hymn “Once in Royal David’s City” (which sounds like a Christmas carol sung to Eraserhead) or Emerson’s “Red Monroe (excerpt),” a stark, repetitive synth pulse that could serve as the martial music for an army of inter-dimensional invaders. Impressively, Hanna and Emerson nearly always avoid the common trap for experimental musicians — no matter how esoteric Grandpa’s Ghost’s music becomes, they never lose sight of the fact that it needs to engage the listener. So while Music From the Fotopoulos Projects travels a truly unsettling path, it never bores. Highly recommended, but don’t listen to it in the dark.
A change in employment caused Hanna to relocate to New York City, while Emerson remained behind in Pocahontas. Any concerns that this might be the end of Grandpa’s Ghost were stilled by the deluge of material the band released in 2007 — from spooky freak-folk to monumental krautrock drones. First up, the Fotopoulos soundtracks were released in their entirety on the four-disc Anesthetize the Dissonance of Your Cranium. The set supersedes Music From the Fotopoulos Projects, which contained abridged versions of some of the material here, but doesn’t render it obsolete. For instance, while the full-length version of the throbbing “Red Monroe” on Disc One (Monroe Blues) remains hypnotic for its entire running time, the shortened version on the single disc collection can be a more manageable dose. The second disc is occupied in its entirety by Mary, Mary, which drifts along as a placid drone before erupting in a maelstrom of sci-fi synths, then retreats back into a drone. Disc Three, The Scene of the Crime, is another hour-long suite of space music, while Disc Four, Hush! I Am Trying to Think!, veers between rock songs which are too corrosive to be considered conventional (including a nightmarishly crazed version of “Holly Jolly Christmas” from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and trippier, spacier fare. Exemplary head music.
Bardot/The Void is a two-disc set of distinct personalities in the established Grandpa’s Ghost tradition. Bardot is essentially an Emerson solo disc — a four-part krautrock/shoegaze-inspired instrumental suite meant to conjure up the feeling of driving on empty country highways. As such, it’s something of a corn-belt answer to Neu! and Kraftwerk and absolutely great. The Void is Hanna’s show, a collection of his often disturbing, almost always entrancing songcraft, covering Hearts of Space-style drones, haunted folk music (the gorgeous “The Sky in Reverse”) and, on one track, screaming and hollerin’.
Harry’s Passion/Painted Skull and Other Fun Songs is another double-disc split evenly between Hanna and Emerson. Harry’s Passion is a Hanna collection of bare-bones acid folk similar to Stardust and Smog, including a creepy cover of George Harrison’s “Give Me Love/Give Me Peace.” As usual when Hanna is in this mode, Harry’s Passion creates the feeling of a sleepless night worrying that the dark closet door in the corner is about to open. Enthralling and disturbing. On Painted Skull, Emerson performs what passes for normal country-rock in the Grandpa’s Ghost world. Moving, hilarious or downright puzzling, it’s wonderful stuff and the most accessible of the eight 2007 discs.
But Grandpa’s Ghost wasn’t quite finished for the year, and managed to improvise The Prairie Drone Refraction, another Fotopoulos soundtrack. With Emerson, longtime Ghost drummer Jack Petracek and multi-instrumentalist Eric Hall performing in St. Louis and Hanna literally phoning in his contribution from NYC, Grandpa’s Ghost created and recorded four consecutive 15-minute pieces for each of four films, adding each musical movement on top of the previous one until all four played simultaneously and were collected on the EP. Even with four separate pieces playing at once, it’s a relatively sedate stew of found sound and subdued instrumental noodling. It’s not the most engaging thing the band has ever created, but like everything else in the catalogue, worth hearing.
Outside the Grandpa’s Ghost umbrella, Hanna recorded an album with sometime Ghost bassist Tobi Parks and Tim Garrigan of the equally legendary St. Louis beserkers Dazzling Killmen. Considering the pedigrees of its creators, Improvisations of the Subterranean Sunset Blues is a surprisingly mellow affair. The trio improvises quietly for the bulk of the disc, creating some engaging sounds, but never really provides enough structure. Things pick up on the final three tracks where the ideas do begin to cohere and provide some forward momentum. By and large, a minor piece of their impressive bodies of work.