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When Pat Benatar burst on the scene in the early ’80s with her mix of dark, heavy pop-rock and infectious pop songs on Crimes of Passion, she was met with wild enthusiasm. Her album was celebrated for its edginess and a young songwriter who wasn’t afraid to ruffle any feathers. Benatar was willing to speak her mind yet communicate it through a medium that appealed to many. In listening to Let It Pretend, the sophomore album by Dirty Ghosts, I found myself uttering Pat Benatar’s name constantly.
Part of the comparison lies in frontwoman’s Allyson Baker’s vocals – a deep but smooth voice that unexpectedly draws you in. Second, Let It Pretend is clearly entrenched in the mystique of 80s’ pop-rock like what Benatar created. And finally, like the iconic ’80s artist, the San Francisco-based band aren’t afraid to tackle a number of subjects, whether that’s looking introspectively, pointing the finger at someone who has done them wrong, or sharing their observations about life around them.
It would be unfair to suggest that this album is solely Pat Benatar-influenced. As Baker describes in an exclusive track-by-track commentary below, the band drew on a number of ’80s bands such as Ministry to Devo as well as ’80s Brit-pop. This can be heard throughout the album as the different tracks are highlighted by deep basslines, fluid melodies, the sprinkling of keys and synths, and an edginess in the band’s lyrics. This combination results in a sound that can be nearly anthemic in nature, such as the awesome opener “Some Kids”; be vibrant and inspire a darkwave mood like the hypnotic “Battery” and the delirious “Light Like Speed”; or just blast away with goth-rock or post-punk vibe, such as on “Quicksand Castle” or “Cataract”.
The one song that personifies the band’s approach is “Hologram”. Buzzing with a cool guitar riff and a great bassline, Baker addresses how so many women, including herself, have been affected by the images of the “perfect” woman as found in magazines, shown on television and movies, and those strutting runways in Milan and New York City. It is, as she proclaims, just trying to be a hologram of oneself. It is a call for self-awareness, self-confidence, and individuality, which could be said about what Dirty Ghosts are attempting to achieve with Let It Pretend. Sure, it’s an album that buzzes with some of the more well-known and even underground sounds of ’80s music, yet it’s an album that is all Dirty Ghost in its approach and message. This is a band on the verge of something truly special, and Let It Pretend is just another step in the growth of this band. For that matter, Let It Pretend is one cool and terrific album that ushers in an old sound for a new generation.
Dirty Ghosts are Allyson Baker and Erin McDermott, who are proud Canadians, and Tony Sevener. Let It Pretend is out tomorrow (Friday, October 2) via Last Gang Records. Pre-order it at the label’s store and Amazon.
Allyson Baker shares her commentary on each of the tracks, which you can find below. The band is heading out on tour with stops in Toronto and Ottawa. Find tour dates here.
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Track-by-Track Commentary provided by Allyson Baker of Dirty Ghost
“Some Kids” – Based on a drum beat from Sisters Of Mercy’s album Some Girls Wander By Mistake, which led to the title “Some Kids”. It’s about two people – in my mind I pictured them as a homeless, train-hopping couple with no destination and all the freedom in the world as a result. There’s an uncertainty to their existing as this team, sometimes one follows the other, they play games and the balance keeps shifting. If you ever listen to the second Slits album Return of the Giant Slits, it has this incredible use of space that feels haunting. We were going for that kind of thing. Big and dark with a lot of space.
“Battery” – This one was built on the downtempo drum beat. I just sat down and started playing that bassline. It was one of those things that just came out immediately. So when it was time for guitar, there wasn’t room for much. When we first wrote the song, the entire song was in the chorus of that downbeat, but Tony was quick to point out it left got a very unsatisfying chorus. So Tony wrote those drum phrases leading up to the big chorus. For whatever reason, I heard this harmony and these Motown bells in my head during the chorus. Not sure how that comes across to the listener, but I think that’s where we were coming from.
“Let It Pretend” – Another song that we recorded a different version of about two years ago. When we revisited it, we felt it wasn’t working, so we went back to the drawing board. This one was influenced by early 80’s British synth-pop. Tony and I were enjoying that documentary Synth Brittania at the time! Phil was the perfect person to work on this having been in Trans Am, so he dragged out his Juno and turned the song into a synth-based song with the keyboard overdubbing the bassline. Jonathan Kreinik, who is an old friend of Phil’s, was in the studio killing time before his flight out of SF the morning we came in to mix. So we pressed him for as much of his studio wizardry as we could get on this track right up until the last second, which was a big treat. That was a tough goodbye.
“Light Like Speed” – This is a weird one. We recorded a completely different version of this song early on in the recording of the album, and it wasn’t working at all. It was this uptempo song that had this fast-driving beat behind it that worked live but not recorded, which we had discovered in the studio during playback much to our chagrin. So we took a few months off and came back to it. We tried a bunch of different ways to play this song and it eventually became this version. When we recorded it with Phil (Manley), he had a Simmons drum machine that we wanted to try on the album so we decided this was the one. When we were mixing we kept telling him, “More! More!”. There’s a breakdown with an old movie sample in the middle of a patient having a depressing conversation with his doctor. I was listening to a lot of Ministry at the time so I was hellbent on bringing in a stock movie sample, Al Jourgensen style!
“Quicksand Castle” – This was our attempt to get the Led out. To make our fast Die Kruezen/Husker Du song. Writing the words to this were fun. Jamming all of these stiff syllables into this fast song and then moving into that melodic-floating chorus. It’s always fun to play live. It used to have this big solo that just went on and on but we chucked that.
“Cataract” – It would be bullshit to not mention the name Devo when talking about Cataract. A band that has had a huge influence on us as a trio and individually between Tony, Erin and me. Considering our music and lyrical topics, we’re actually bunch of happy go lucky people who are constantly goofing off and have a hard time being serious about anything, and that’s something that doesn’t come through much in our music. So we wanted to write something that wasn’t so serious or a downer. Something fun, with playful lyrics on a negative theme, which was our middle ground I suppose.
“Hologram” – I was sitting in a doctor’s office reading some magazine, like Allure or Elle, and there was some article about the people who design clothes for holograms. I grabbed my phone and took a bunch of notes about the article and started writing the lyrics about designing the perfect person as a hologram at the doctor’s and texting them to Tony on the elevator ride out. This was our third song on the album with that downtempo drum beat, which we seem to gravitate towards. It was hard not to write 12 songs to that beat. We recorded the drums to this one at Different Fur since what we had recorded before didn’t sound right to us. There was a lot of recording and re-recording with this record. Another one that has a weirdo verse with a pretty chorus with a tinge of depressing!
“So Shallow” – About Erin’s favorite topic, serial killers! This was a song that had been kicking around for a while and was fun to work on since there’s barely any guitar. Tony wrote the drum part, which I thought was really unique and interesting and I just wanted to hear that over and over with that hypnotic synth. It was our break from the pop songs to a bit more of a repetitive trance type of tune. When we first showed up to record with Phil, we quickly spotted a set of roto toms in the corner and immediately said, “We’re using those!” It felt like we were kind of joking but we knew we weren’t. So the outro of this song was the big roto tom moment. Tony just walked out there pounded those roto toms like it was old hat! I remember watching him in the studio recording those parts with an enormous smile on my face on the verge of laughter cause he played them so naturally.
“Siamese Dogs” – The only real love song on the album, I was spending a lot of time with someone and we’d stay up all night and lay in bed all day like a couple of slugs. You know those times, you stay up until 6am and then get out of bed at 6pm. They usually don’t last long; it’s a honeymoon period, but they’re really magical feeling. The lyrics for this, and all the other songs for that matter, are always written after the music is done so they’re subject to having to work their way into the rigid spaces left for them. I remember sitting in a freezing cold room in front of blowing space heaters with Tony going back and forth pulling from both our experiences to find the right way to say things to make the words fit.
“Moving Pictures” – This was the last song we wrote. Tony is a massive Rush fan, and Erin and I have great Rush appreciation being Canadian so we liked the idea of the song title being a tribute to them. We just thought it was dumb and funny. What I love most about this one is it’s totally emotionless. By the end of the album, I was so tired of the relationship songs I think it was a relief for us all to have a song like this. Tuning out, gazing into the TV and ignoring everything. A nice positive note to end the album on!
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