You can’t keep talent a secret for long. David Stith may not have been as unknown as Susan Boyle, but he was pretty close. Stith has worked creatively for years, but as a graphic designer. He grew up with music, but never made any of his own, until now. And, like the aforementioned Boyle, only in indie circles, DM Stith is being widely praised as an unheralded talent. I understand the irony in that sentence. If he is widely praised, how is he unheralded? Well, unlike Boyle, Stith isn’t likely to get millions of hits on YouTube, or sign a lucrative deal with Sony. What he is likely to do is astound discerning listeners with his unique musical expression thanks to his astounding debut, Heavy Ghost.
Just listen to the opening track, “Isaac’s Song,” and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. The song starts with a `sturm und drang’ piano motif like Beethoven writing a vampire opera, and then that sound is joined by ethereal moaning voices, like some kind of drunk Dionysian chorus. The voices fly about the psychedelic landscape of cacophonous noise like those released from the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders. It’s somewhat unsettling, and there’s nothing for pop aficionados or even rock fans to hold onto, but it’s absolutely captivating. “Pity Dance” actually features coherent lyrics sung in Stith’s solemn folky voice over lilting guitar strings, yet still backed by those ghostly moans. The phrase “shock and horror” is repeated, adding to the gothic feel of the track, one that builds majestically into a massive theatrical display with handclaps, guitars sounding like harps and tinkling piano glissandos all layered into a fantastic mélange of bacchanalian abandon. Plus, you’ve got to like a lyricist who used words like `ablation.’ Only Andrew Bird does stuff like that.
“Creekmouth” is one of the more immediately arresting songs, starting like a tribal Tom Waits cover, and then escalating into an Animal Collective themed campfire freakout. Stith’s voice takes center stage on “Pigs,” a delicate falsetto that is part Sufjan Stevens, part Art Garfunkel and all arresting. “Spirit Parade” is one the more appropriate song titles, and considering the ever-present apparitional chorus, could have been the title of the album. The spirits are more than restless in this parade; they’re disturbed. They chirp, squeak and caterwaul while frantic drums click in the periphery.
The songs continue in this manner, trading back and forth between brinks of insanity (“BMB”) and delicate pastoral loveliness (“Thanksgiving Moon,” “Fire of Birds”). Guitars seem to be played with feather touches, as if they were the harps of angels, while pianos are generally played like omens of impending doom. It is this dichotomy that ultimately makes Heavy Ghost so wondrous. Stith has the ability to make one feel woozy with the spirit or incredibly terrified within a matter of mere seconds. These are challenging songs, to be sure. The only tracks that come close to any kind of traditional sensibility of form are “Morning Glory Cloud” and “Braid of Voices,” the first of which will certainly appeal to fans of Sufjan Stevens or Iron & Wine, but that uneasy otherworldly choir backs even that song at times. And the end of it is punctuated by that doom-bringing piano. The latter will remind some of either Antony or Shara Worden, but I’ve been surprised at how much his voice sounds like Peter Gabriel on this track. “Braid of Voices” is a revelation, a song that could bring folks to their knees or to tears, either an appropriate reaction to this stunner.
On “Morning Glory Cloud,” Stith sings, “I have been hiding.” Yes, he has been hiding this insane musical talent for some time, instead funneling his creativity into graphic design. But, thanks to Shara Worden, who used his artwork on her first My Brightest Diamond album, as well as some of his piano, he’s not hiding anymore. Worden was taken with his songs, and directed him to her buddy Sufjan, who got him to record an album for Asthmatic Kitty. Heavy Ghost is not the most accessible album in the world. In fact, Sung Tongs seems like a pop record in comparison at times. But, Heavy Ghost is by far one of the most rewarding albums for those willing to give it time and attention.
Peter Gabriel- Peter Gabriel 2: aka `Scratch’
My Brightest Diamond- Tear it Down
Video: “Pity Dance”