Am I Born to Die?, the debut of Portland, ME based four-piece The Ghosts of Johnson City, is a 15-song album full of maudlin, fascinating story songs.
Beautifully mixed and skillfully performed, the album’s quality is undeniable. The recording process must have been meticulous; every instrument stands out clearly, the vocal harmonies are perfectly in tune, and the lyric-centric vocals are prominent in the mix. Speaking of which, I was highly impressed with the lyrical adventurousness present in this album. Every song progresses well from beginning to end, depicting old wartime heroes, funeral dirges, and other various charmingly antiquated topics. Reminiscent of The Decemberists (see “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”), The Ghosts of Johnson City have clearly mastered the story song, which is becoming less and less prevalent in modern music but never fails to captivate its listeners.
That leads me to the primary problem in the album: the harmonium. That’s not to say that the harmonium isn’t a wonderful instrument; the opening of the title track is fucking rad. The low drone of the harmonium lends many of these songs an ominous dissonance, which serves the vintage song forms and lyrics very well. It’s just that there’s a lot of it. Like, in every song. I almost feel guilty bringing it up, because the album is seriously well made. I was really impressed with the guitarist and banjoist especially, and the slide guitar in “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is gorgeously played, every note perfectly placed, and is a captivating change in instrumentation.
To reiterate my earlier point, these guys can play. The band consists of banjoist and lead vocalist Amos Libby, guitarist/vocalist Douglas Porter, baritone uke player Erik Neilson, and harmonium player Erik Winter, and all four players are extremely proficient. Winter’s playing fits the mood of the album well, and the harmonium is in general a pretty cool instrument.
It’s just that the songs are very similar. Taken individually, they’re fantastic modern representations of an old-fashioned genre, but they lack dynamic contrast and formic diversity, which in turn diminishes the emotional peaks from the lyrics and flattens the album’s musical landscape. The sombre ominous ambience from the harmonium would make tracks #1, 5, 6, 10, and 14 stand out especially, but it pops up in all the other songs as well, which sort of ruins the effect.
The album takes nearly an hour and a half to listen to; fifteen songs is not a small number, and as several of the songs veer on 7 minutes long, it’s difficult to listen to the whole thing in one go. The overbearing harmonium and similar song beginnings made it difficult for me to maintain my attention span, which is shitty, because the lyrics are fascinating and fun to listen to. I found myself mentally comparing the harmonium to truffle oil: in small doses, it’s fantastic. In every dish on the menu, one might start to tire of it.
That being said, there are standout tracks. As an album, Am I Born to Die? is a touch overlong and monochromatic. The presence of good songs doesn’t quite make up for their similarities to each other and the overall length of the album. But track #12, “Rye Whiskey” is great – compelling, riotous, teeming with energy, and instantly catchy. Track #4 “Darling Corey” is the first upbeat song on the album, and was a welcome break from the minor-key solemnity of the album’s beginning.
Taken individually, these songs are wonderful. Many of them have an attractive vintage feel with interesting lyrics, and are played, sung, and recorded by people who really know their shit. But as I’m judging the album as a single entity, I would enjoy some dynamic changes, different time signatures (a few compound meter songs would really do the album a lot of good), and a wider spectrum of Winter’s harmonium abilities.
In track #10, “Faded Coat of Blue,” there’s a fantastic acoustic guitar solo followed by a break in which most of the instruments cut out, highlighting Libby’s vocals. It works really well, except one instrument doesn’t cut out with the rest. Guess which one?
Stream the album on Soundcloud right here.
1. Am I Born To Die?
2 .Down In The Willow Garden
3. The Murdered Brother
4. Darling Corey
5. Jack Monroe
6. The Dying Californian
7. Poor Wayfaring Stranger
8. Unquiet Grave
9. The Southern Girl's Reply
10. Faded Coat Of Blue
11. Rebel Soldier
12. Rye Whiskey
13. Knoxville Girl
14. The Triplett Tragedy
15. Last Old Shovel