At this late date, I doubt that there is very much that surprises Yoko Ono. Yet there she was, on Soundcheck, expressing astonishment that Sean Lennon, music director of the reconstituted Plastic Ono Band, knew all of her and John's songs, "... all the intros and everything, note for note!" My immediate thought was: "Where have you been, lady?"
Sean has been a major part of my musical life since 1996 when Into The Sun came out. Not only did he play most of the instruments on the album, but he wrote songs alternately vulnerable and bluff - sometimes in the same song - showing an easy mastery of the loud-quiet-loud thing, and also incorporating sounds from Brazilian psych before it was fashionable. Into The Sun was a constant soundtrack that resonated emotionally with things I was experiencing at the time. I found it strange that some the critical community had a quite different reaction - that album still only has 2.5 stars on AMG.
Never mind those bollocks - I was a fan, and have remained one. In 2010, a few years after the supremely accomplished Friendly Fire (check out Headlights), he started a new project with his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl called The Ghost Of A Saber Toothed Tiger. Picking up on the softer side of French Ye Ye pop, the delicate (OK, precious) songs were a far cry from the blood-drenched songs on his earlier albums (Dead Meat, anyone?). But the two made such a charming pair that headed down to the South Street Seaport with my daughter to see them live.
Along with a loose crowd on the pier we witnessed the emergence of a duo with star power, and more importantly, musical power. They performed with a full band and if there had been a roof, they would have blown it off. The folks drinking their iced tea on the nearby terrace looked a bit startled. Thing was, the album they released consisted of acoustic demos. There was another collection that was at first only sold on tour but, while it featured the whole group, it had the distinctly tentative air of a rehearsal session.
So here I was blathering away to everyone about this vision in sound but I might as well have been trying to convince people that I actually saw a ghost. Mystical Weapons, Sean's aural action painting project with drummer Greg Saunier, which came out last year, helped my cause quite a bit. "That's Sean Lennon?" people asked when I played it. A few songs later: "Is that still Sean Lennon?"
Now we have Midnight Sun, the new album under the GHOSTT moniker and the only word that came to me seconds after clicking play on the Soundcloud stream was: Finally. Now people will believe me, here's the full package of where Lennon is now - and it is a package deal as Charlotte is a full collaborator. She's a terrific, economical bass player, has a delightful voice and a mischievous quality that leavens some of Sean's darker impulses - but not all of them. The mighty impala-slaying riff that opens the record comes from her, as Sean revealed in a recent interview.
After Too Deep, we get Xanadu, a jaunty churn drenched in Chamberlin flute, and the trippy Animals, constituting a one-two-three punch combo that both the album and listener have to recover from slightly. Not everyone will be charmed by the slightly cutesy Johannesburg, although its richly detailed outro is a delight, ending with Charlotte's laughter. The sense of play continues with the title track, with its question mark of a riff that resolves into a killer chorus: "And I'm melting into the midnight sun/And I'm just another ordinary alien."
Last Call lands us on the dark side of the moon on swoops of slide guitar, but bounces into the light when Sean and Charlotte trade gnarly lines of singsong surrealism, before blasting off again via a Wurlitzer solo and an expansive workout by Sean on guitar. They also show their range by covering the classic Golden Earrings as a lysergic waltz - works perfectly.
My pick for second single would be Great Expectations, which shades into self-reference on the ascending winner of a chorus: "Great expectations/All eyes on you." It's an instant ear-worm, but he wisely doesn't overwork it. Poor Paul Getty tells the gruesome tale of that scion's kidnapping, keeping it light in contrast with the subject matter. Like Great Expectations, however, there's that resonance with Sean's own life. Not only has he dealt with critical skepticism but he knows first-hand what it's like to grow up with a target on your back.
Don't Look Back Orpheus is a concise telling of that ancient tale on a wonderfully labyrinthine melody, with Charlotte's percussion lending an air of ritual. Moth To A Flame is the perfect closer to the album, another Floydian voyage that takes off on waves of Sean's snarling electric lap steel. Like several songs, he plays most of the instruments, circling back to his early days as a developing studio virtuoso. He has helpers, however; besides Charlotte several songs feature Jared Samuel, another multi-instrumentalist that's also part of the touring band.
The album is self-produced and, although they call on old hands Dave Fridmann (mixing) and Greg Calbi (mastering), there's a distinctly handmade feel to Midnight Sun, including the book-like packaging featuring Sean and Charlotte's artwork. It's easy to imagine boxes of CD's and vinyl in the entryway to the New York brownstone that serves as headquarters for their label, Chimera. This only adds to the appeal of the album, confirming that this is no mere product, but music made by people driven to do it. Find your passion in theirs, in the land of the Midnight Sun.
The GHOSTT is touring extensively this summer, opening for Beck as well as headlining. Expect no itinerary when they hit the stage...