Since forming in the mid-’80s, Marley’s Ghost has built a singular reputation among discerning roots-music lovers for its instrumental virtuosity, ultra-tight four-part harmonies and animated live performances. Up to now, however, the band’s cachet has been limited to the rabid following they’ve engendered through countless shows at festivals, clubs and colleges, to the degree that the words Marley’s Ghost have come to speak volumes to the initiated while continuing to draw blank stares from the rest of the populace.
But chances are the visibility of this musically and thematically rarefied group, whose four members this year celebrate their twentieth year as a unit, will increase exponentially with the appearance of Spooked (on the Sage Arts label), the group’s eighth album but the first to get a full-fledged national release. It’s a musically sophisticated, thematically rich, frequently hilarious piece of work that serves as belated coming-out party for a group that richly deserves to be much more widely heard.
For this project, obviously the most ambitious they’ve yet undertaken, the quartet – singer/multi-instrumentalists Dan Wheetman, Jon Wilcox, Mike Phelan and Ed Littlefield, Jr.—enlisted a pair of legendary figures, both with connections to the band, whose idiosyncratic skills beautifully match up with their own.
One is the envelope-pushing cartoonist R. Crumb, who illustrated the entire package. Crumb and Wheetman have known each other since the latter played in Crumb’s string band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and the pop con has been a Marley’s Ghost fan from the start. After being reconnected by a mutual friend, the band simply gave Crumb the title and let him rip. The result is a series of wittily evocative drawings that are quintessentially Crumb while hitting the collective personality of Marley’s Ghost on the nose.
The other is composer/arranger/player Van Dyke Parks, who jumped at the chance to produce these fellow aficionados of antique American music and oblong whimsy. “My son Richard recently asked me what a producer does,” Parks recalls. “I told him, ‘You learn the same lines that you learned at Hardee’s in North Carolina when you were waiting tables. You say, “Do you want fries with that?”’ I did things like that, and I tried to strengthen the group’s conviction. For example, I insisted that they do things to bring enunciation to the parts that they played. We’d double guitar parts with an attack on another instrument using techniques that I’d learned from people like Brian Wilson. I mean, I dragged these guys through the production mud. I’ve never worked harder or had more fun on a record. I never have.”
Van Dyke describes the setting for the sessions: “Sage Arts Studio is at the Littlefield farm, on the banks of an unpronounceable river in the state of Washington. We could see eagles with salmon in their talons, flying over the riverbanks. It’s a rustic setting for a studio that is a combination of thoroughly modern stuff and everything of value from the golden age of analog recording. We worked hard on the record to make it entertaining to the ear and bring it into the present tense, and from a technical standpoint, that studio is ideal. We brought in [renowned guitarist] Bill Frisell, Buell Neidlinger, my favorite bassist, and Don Heffington, a percussionist who just happens to have a Jew’s harp on every possible fundamental pitch. So the whole thing was totally companionable, and they played as if no one was listening. It was a real notch in the belt to be part of it.”
Parks’ motive in working with Marley’s Ghost “was to do something that will have some degree of permanence. They’re really a fabulous group, and they have great individual merit, so the priority on the record was to show everyone’s strengths the best I could.” To accomplish this goal, Van Dyke became another bandmember during the project, playing piano, Hammond B-3, marimba and chimes; “gussying up” the material with his arrangement expertise; adding his own vast scholarship to that of the group; and generally animating the environment with his presence. “I was impressed with this group and wanted to be part of their continuum,” he says. “I got to be a fifth wheel, and I enjoyed it immensely.”
The driving principle of Spooked, Parks explains, “was to reverence the form in this music, and find its strength, and at the same time kind of skewer it.” That they do in such deft and witty satirical pieces as “Get Off the Track,” “Last Words,” “There’s Religion in Rhythm” and “The Ballad of Johnny Hallyday.” Throughout the 13 songs of Spooked, in other words, the various American and British traditional forms tackled by the group—including a number of newly written originals and a cover of Dylan’s “The Wicked Messenger”—sound as authentic as vintage field recordings (or hi-fi versions thereof), but there’s always some unexpected ingredient—something tangy, piquant or chewy — being stirred into the stew.
One of the reference points for Spooked was Ry Cooder’s self-titled 1970 debut, which Parks arranged and co-produced. Another was the Band’s 1968 landmark, Music From Big Pink, which Parks says is his all-time favorite rock record because of the captivating way wildly disparate individuals came together into a rough-hewn whole, especially in their richly textured vocal blends. “With this group,” says Van Dyke, “the challenge was to try to remind these guys that what they do easily is probably their greatest asset. And we started to get into vocals for that reason, because they sing beautifully together.”
The Marley’s Ghost vocal character is on full-bodied display throughout Spooked, from the Civil War-era tune “Sail Away, Ladies,” which opens the album, to the a cappella “Seaman’s Hymn,” which closes it. Along the way, Wheetman, Wilcox, Phelan and Littlefield evidence an uncanny feel for stone country (the flat-out gorgeous “High Walls”), white gospel (“Last Words,” “Old Time Religion”) and the sublime ballad “Love, Not Reason,” which could have passed for a pop song at any point since the time of Stephen Foster.
Parks offers another high point. “I think it was appropriate for Bob Dylan to be in there,” he says, “and the job they did on ‘Wicked Messenger’ was brilliant. Dan Wheetman is an incredible singer in my book — I’ve looked at his voice very carefully on a computer screen, and I’ve seen what happens in his singing; it’s quite beautiful — and creating a persona in that piece was a dramatic thing indeed.”
From a practical standpoint, Spooked is making its appearance at an especially fortuitous historical moment. “This is folk music attempting to be part of a broad American musical populism,” Van Dyke explains, “and that’s happened, in a large way, through the anomalies of movie scores of late, especially the one I call O Bother. So it turns out that old-timey music has legs, and these four people, by the nature of what they know, have something to offer there.
“I don’t know whether we’re going to show the heathens the light with this record,” Parks admits, “but I do think that it stands close inspection, and you never know when something like this might be really useful. I’m hoping this production brings support for them and what they do. Hopefully, we’ll see them in the next reel.”