Ghost: Snuffbox Immanence and Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet

Snuffbox Immanence
Drag City

Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet
Drag City

JAPAN'S GHOST HAS yet to record an album as great as their press photos. During their decade-plus career, this ingenious yet unfocused pack of guitar-wielding hippies (who always seem to wear the most far-out Eastern threads) has been snapped atop Tolkienesque mountains, banging on giant gongs, and lounging about Ghost House--an abandoned Tokyo temple the collective calls "commune." Invariably, the camera's eye focuses directly on the group's silken-haired leader, Masaki Batoh, who anchors their sound with his pithy voice and histrionic guitar work that can swerve from the folk whimsy of the Incredible String Band to prog-rock bombast. He's very photogenic and very much revered in indie-rock circles in which chic geeks value a synergy of surface and substance.

In actuality, Batoh is also quite talented, even if he doesn't always cash in on his potential. For each of his otherworldly acoustic pieces or puissant electric jams, listeners must sit through layers of wanking that can get plenty tedious, even when leavened by brief forays into Krautrock and modern classical music. The band's latest two albums (released simultaneously, à la Use Your Illusion I and II) showcase the two sides of Ghost. Snuffbox Immanence contains ten polished, dynamic songs, while Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet flakes out with underdeveloped acoustic work and a 34-minute climax that eventually atrophies into chaotic electronic squealing.

While Snuffbox opens with majestic chimes and a sliding guitar, the band begins Tune In with a Boba Fett-like spoken word harangue. And where Tune In serves up a flimsy cover of Tom Rapp's "Images of April," Snuffbox sees Ghost turn the Rolling Stones' "Live with Me" completely inside out. The unlikely cover shows the five-piece at its best--causing a schism in a classic-rock song by slicing it with the Velvet Underground's searing guitars rather than Muddy Waters's wails. It's a fascinatingly effeminized reading: Mick Jagger's raunch is replaced by Batoh's angelically spiritual, almost Nick Drake-like singing, and the original's wailing horns are replaced with rollicking glockenspiel. Mystically maneuvering its way across the global village, the song encapsulates everything you need to know about Tokyo's foremost practitioners of what has been termed "heavy chamber folk." Heck, it nearly lives up to their press photos.

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