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13ghosts | Cicada (Skybucket)

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The danger, of course, is that 13ghosts has structured this album not as a baker’s dozen but as a back-and-forth between two main sounds, and most listeners will likely tend to prefer one sound over the other.

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Cicada, the third full-length release from Birmingham, Ala.–based 13ghosts, sounds like two records in one and not just because it was originally released as a double album. Its binary quality comes not from the two-disc intent but from the conflicting styles of its two singer-songwriters, Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell. Each has his own distinctive approach to music, with Armstrong’s songs falling along acoustic, country-blues lines and Russell’s compositions dabbling in rock, electronica, and pop. The duo trade off tracks throughout the album, alternating one after the other in such a way that no streamlined sense of consistency ever develops save one of constant oscillation. However, since no rule decrees that albums must be uniform, and since variety is oftentimes what keeps music interesting, it remains to the listener’s discretion whether Cicada works as a whole.

The danger, of course, is that 13ghosts has structured this album not as a baker’s dozen but as a back-and-forth between two main sounds, and most listeners will likely tend to prefer one sound over the other. I found Armstrong’s hushed yet solid compositions standing out over Russell’s, simply because they seem more developed and substantial. His understated guitar work and poignant vocals evoke the country-blues minimalism of both Richard Buckner and Tom Waits, and a maturity pervades his songs that is less noticeable on the album’s other tracks. Armstrong’s songs are those that leave an impression, while it is more difficult to remember the hooks of Russell’s compositions once the stereo has been turned off. Russell’s songs seem less sure of themselves, springing all over the map in such a way that implies not a wide repertoire of influence but instead an unfocused center. Russell may not have yet found his musical niche, using Cicada as grounds for experimentation while Armstrong seems to have found his long ago and plays accordingly.

A large number of additional players contribute to this album, and while they largely remain in the background, there is one track worth mention that devotes the spotlight to one of these supporting figures. Azure Ray’s Maria Taylor sings an elegantly unhurried version of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” a rendition that is almost a cappella save for the faint strum of guitar underscoring her voice. The track is gorgeous, and falls in stride with the overall tenderness that Armstrong’s compositions infuse into the album.

Regardless of which tracks are appealing to whom, most listeners will find something on this album that draws them in. For me, it is tolerating the every-other oscillations in order to hear the dreamy, country-blues bliss that Armstrong creates.


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