Tolchock Trio label themselves as a “rock” band, but to say that’s oversimplifying is an understatement. Their new record, Ghosts Don’t Have Bones, is one of the most exciting albums I’ve heard since Beulah’s farewell, and from the opening pomp of “Our Lady Of Good Counsel” through to the ethereal experimentalist fugue of the title track, there’s not one moment when it’s possible to turn off your CD player without feeling slightly disrespectful towards these fine musicians.
The entire album is a wonderfully colourful pageant of diversely costumed rhythms, counterpoints and melodies, with nods to everything from Renaissance dance music to Radiohead’s Amnesiac and earlier Explosions In The Sky. Serious composers as well as songwriters, the Trio employs Sondheim-esque tactical deployment of catchy melodic percussion to subvert their own seriousness. The opening song is a gentle intro, not as energetic as much of what’s to follow, but it’s fertile ground all the same. The slinky guitar-twanging is tantalising in its fleeting nature, and the lyrics, while gloriously abstruse, are delivered with languid verve by the talented Mr. Oliver Lewis. It’s mood music at its best, and the mood in question is introspective and a little claustrophobic at this stage, with full-blown euphoria yet to descend upon us.
“Black Bats” begins like a slightly tighter Modest Mouse opening, but finds its own way from there. The song beguiles with a straightforward verse before launching into its killer chorus of “I wrote you ’cause I needed to.” “Reflux Bollox” is similarly joyous, containing a rapturous guitar-drum instrumental that would feel overblown by most standards, but here is carried off with skill and sensitivity. Also deserving lavish praise is “Meteor,” which features some playfully simplistic yet loveable vibraphone, contrasting the stately and perfectly-timed guitars and drums beautifully. And just when you think the song’s over, there’s a reprise! It’s amazing how pathetically grateful one is for the opportunity to have it all over again without needing to reach for a button, almost as though the band are aware of the intoxicating power of their sweeping, ambitious music. They’re one of the rare groups whose instrumental skills are so strong that it takes until the third play of the album to even contemplate paying proper attention to the lyrics (which are by no means poor).
That’s not to say the Trio is too esoteric to appeal to wider tastes, however. “Hornets” is rocking in a more mainstream, Radio 4-style way, with an excellent series of question-and-answer vocals and perfectly straight drumming, lifted above the average by the imaginatively chaotic dissonance of the guitars and vocals. Surely a hit in the making is “Wolf Eyes” (that’s the first “Wolf Eyes,” because there’s a brief instrumental reprise of this song much later on the album). The riff, cleverly syncopated against the drum beat to give the impression of messy fragmentation when it’s actually a very precise orchestration, is one that promises to stay in your head all day, and the lyrics – “I get scared!” – are suggestive of the tightrope walk that is everyday life for those of a nervous disposition. The closure of the song is punkish yet amiable: they’re nothing if not a band of reconciled contradictions. “Goose” starts out mildly threateningly – “if you don’t like it, get out” – but soon segues into a devil-may-care funk of descending riffs and organ that echoes the leading rhythms of courtly dance, and you’d be hard-pressed not to tap your feet to it.
By the time the eponymous closer emerges, you can’t believe it’s going to get any better, and yet it does. There’s some ambient fretwork to open with, along with a distant rumble of snare, and this lasts just long enough to create anticipation without grating, as it develops into a very zen soundscape of vibraphone and twinkling guitar, which turns out to be the eye of the storm before the booming drums return. From this point you’re not just listening to an excellent album, you’re also receiving a master class in form and phrasing, with the repeated lyric “ghosts don’t have bones,” beguilingly cryptic before it’s replaced by stream-of-consciousness poetry set against swirling, psychedelic guitar. The denouement, after twelve minutes, is fortunately not self-defeating mindless thrash but a well-thought-out disassembly, via repetition of the song’s central riff, eerily fading and leaving only a tiny shiver on your spine as you’re left in silence.
Tolchock Trio demonstrate the virtue of music for music’s sake time and again on this record, rather than merely providing an accompaniment for the vocalist, and allow themselves the space to explore particular melodic paths, without worrying about returning to base for the next pop single. There’s something very new and refreshing about this band, and yet their music has a very familiar feel. That’s because listening to Ghosts Don’t Have Bones may well prove as much of a revelation as the first time you heard any of the greats that now take pride of place in your collection and in your heart.
Modest Mouse – The Moon and Antarctica
Explosions in the Sky – The Earth is Not a Dead, Cold Place
Radiohead – Amnesiac