DM Stith Heavy Ghost(Asthmatic Kitty Records) Buy it from Insound
It’s easy to hear what made Sufjan Stevens want to bring DM Stith to Asthmatic Kitty Records, where he currently resides as the “Minister of Aesthetics”. The fact that Stith is a kindred spirit should be obvious to anyone familiar with Stevens’ work, and his use of hauntingly repetitive piano figures to set moods. Another fellow traveler is Thom Yorke, who explores similar harmonic territory and whose ethereal vocal style is clearly an influence. In fact, portions of this record pick up where We Suck Young Blood left off. Note the menacing piano chords and drum sounds of Isaac’s Song, or the mournful falsetto and handclaps at the end of Pity Dance, and you’ll hear what I mean. But this isn’t some Stevens or Yorke ripoff at work; Stith is going further into the dark corners that those artists barely illuminated. This makes for unsettling listening, like the soundtrack to some unmade horror movie; a ghost story that plays as an allegory of a disintegrating mind. Sound like fun? I ain’t gonna lie to you, it’s not. I didn’t detect a single cadence, plagal or otherwise, in any of its twelve songs. However, it is strangely evocative, as Stith anchors his dissonances in some quite lovely chording. I haven’t sat down to analyze it but a lot of Heavy Ghost, particularly the backing vocals, plays like a Bartok quartet, with lines that flirt with the spaces between the whole tone scale. And like those quartets it will send the faint of hard rushing for the off button, in an attempt to remove the spotlight from our own sadness.
This is not radio-friendly music, and I wonder how many intrepid college radio djs will even go near this album. It’s that disturbing. So word of mouth is going to have to get it into the right hands, and still its appeal will be necessarily limited. People just don’t want to hear stuff that scares the shit out of them and who can blame them? I really like it and how often am I going to seek this out and willingly give it a spin? Not very. But there’s a place for this music, music meant to chill the blood and make you shift nervously in your seat. And there’s a place for artists willing to go this deep for the span of a whole album. It’s interesting to speculate whether Stith is a basically happy guy who has just chosen to objectively linger in the long dark night of the soul for a bit, or a tortured individual, exorcising demons that may eventually swallow him whole. This record succeeds because that question remains open to us as the music fades away.
Heavy Ghost ends, or perhaps tries to end, on a hopeful note. Braid of Voices alternates between a major and minor key, with happy and sad vying for dominance, and it’s like a Rorschach test trying to decide which side wins. The closer, Wig, only makes the choice more ambiguous – is the spirit of the artist finally at rest or is it stranded in a sea of despair? It’s hard to tell, which is just as it should be. The listener brings just as much to this music as Stith does, which is the peculiar genius of his creation.7 May, 2009 - 15:53 — Alan Shulman