So Pale – the latest album from Gettysburg’s Pale Barn Ghosts – is so well produced, it sounds beautiful even through the blown out speakers of a 2001 Nissan Altima.
Still, to hear all the intricate nuances on this record, you’ll want some headphones or at least speakers that aren’t attached to an old car. The crisp, clear instrumentation and the lyrical twists of singer/songwriter Thomas Roue come through as individually unencumbered tracks on the nine-song set.
There are well-placed, compelling drum fills on tracks like “Dog Named Oblivious” and precision guitar and bass work providing a foundation for Roue’s narratives on tracks like “Heartache” and “Morning Coffee.” On other gems, like “One More Drink” and “3×8,” the band’s sound is transformed into something different – in walking arpeggios that almost have a diminished sound; the music twists and turns to accommodate lyrics that address something darker, building underneath the sanguine major-scale melodies.
I recently sat down with Roue and drummer John Dolly at the Lancaster Dispensing Co. – where the band performs Friday night with an opening set from Mercersburg’s Wings that Buzz – to talk about what’s behind the new album, which was released in April. Missing from our meeting were Pale Barn Ghosts’ guitarist Klaus Funk and bassist Dave Holzwarth.
Roue says the band started out as a solo project about eight years ago. He started collaborating with Funk in 2006, but the band really formed a year later.
Some of the band members grew up traveling around, but they currently live around the Gettysburg and Hagerstown, MD. After playing at Gettysburg venues, Roue and Dolly found themselves booking more events around Lancaster – partially because of a network of musicians and friends in the area. Also, the band was looking for venues that would encourage them to perform original songs rather than covers.
Roue characterizes the band’s sound as dusting the edges of alt-folk or Americana – some of it has a rockabilly sound, and some of it defies categorization.
“It’s familiar,” says Dolly, “but you’ve never heard it before.”
Roue’s lyrics, Dolly says, are haunting in their own way, often introducing a “note of sadness or regret” that mixes with the dark lounge-style of certain tracks to produce a spooky kind of music they have branded “cemetery folk.” “3×8” is a prime example. The almost mechanically-driven pace of the song is met by the lines of overworked gravediggers, directly addressing matters of mortality: “Get no rest because death don’t sleep…let’s get ’em in the ground.”
Roue – a paramedic by vocation – says he brings some of his work life to the lyrics, as well as the assertion often applied to the humanities: that life, death and love are the only themes that really count.
But, Roue says, there’s more than just gothic morbidity. There are also other kinds of aspects to the songs, addressing things like rites of passage and the search for meaning in personal life.
“I try to make it motivation for living in the present,” Roue says.
As for the elaborate darkness in the track’s instrumentation, Roue adds his own bigger sound, which is part of how the solo work has evolved to become a full band presentation.
“It’s never the exact melody that I’m playing,” Roue says of the guitar work, which he calls “one-half” of the complexity that defines the band’s sound.
For his part, Dolly says, the band’s evolution was in response to the acoustics of a live show and keeping the drums from becoming too overpowering. He says re-sizing a sound to fit different environments can be tough – either in the studio or on the stage.
“It’s like trying to tuck an elephant under a table,” Dolly says.
Raised on bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush, Dolly says he worked to move toward the finesse that allows his percussion to complement the music while remaining unobtrusive.
“We’re not playing at them,” Dolly says. “We’re playing for them.”
The process of recording So Pale started in 2012, but it took a couple of years to finish. The band mostly recorded at the After 7 music studio in Mechanicsburg, with Robert Richardson producing.
Roue says the rhythm tracks were completed in two days, but the vocals took longer.
“You have to sing differently with a band,” Roue says, adding that he had to build his confidence and think about how to approach the vocals in the studio. When he was finally able to get to that level, Roue says, he put down the vocal tracks quickly.
So Pale is available at the band’s shows. Also, fans can access their prior album, Be Like the Train, and Not the Smoke, for free on Bandcamp.com.
Pale Barn Ghosts perform at Lancaster Dispensing Co. on Friday, July 18 – with an opening set by Mercersburg-based folk/rock band Wings That Buzz – and at the Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Co. on Saturday, July 26, with Jake Lewis & The Clergy and Vinegar Creek Constituency.