By Phillip Morgan
A little over a year ago, Sea Ghost was just a fledgling band of high school friends making wonderfully absurd music videos in the suburbs outside Atlanta, Georgia. It wasn’t until they teamed up with Atlanta rapper ILoveMakonnen on the track “Running Away” that the Internet deemed them worthy of attention, and even then, the praise came with the tired “for a bunch of high school kids” caveat.
But that was a year ago, and an older, stronger, wiser Sea Ghost spent this past summer recording their first full-length album and playing as many local shows as possible. Released on October 23 through Atlanta’s Marching Banana Records, SG might’ve been recorded and produced in a friend’s basement, but the final product is far from immature.
Carter Sutherland (lead vocals, keyboards) has jokingly referred to Sea Ghost’s sound as “ghost punk power pop,” but that might actually be the most accurate description of the band out there. Their affection for lo-fi indie/punk and bedroom pop a la Spirit of the Beehive, LVL UP, and Nouns is apparent throughout the album, especially in regards to the guitar played by Brandon Chester. He spends the majority of SG in the background jamming on rough, twangy power chords. Even his melodic lines in songs like “Goldfish” and “BBQ” never quite let go of their punch, though they’re so lush and hypnotic they could easily get away with it. Instead, much like those of Nouns, Sutherland’s keyboards are the driving force here. Taking advantage of Chester’s chunky foundation to lay down sweet, playful melodies, he incorporates moody synths and bright xylophone chimes that elevate each song way beyond their fun garage-pop bedrock. Sure, it’s nowhere near the whimsy or utter chaos that regularly erupts from Nouns’ keyboards, but it fits Sea Ghost’s more relaxed demeanor.
Meanwhile, Sutherland’s vocals are the “ghost” in the equation, but it’s hardly a haunting presence. Where most lo-fi and post-punk singers shooting for this style give off a dark, moody vibe reminiscent of a tortured spectre, Sutherland sounds more like Casper the Friendly Ghost. The detached, wispy melancholy is certainly felt, but that’s mostly due to the subtly depressing lyrics. Opening track “Cowboy Hat” is one of the most outwardly raucous, upbeat tracks on SG, yet all the while Sutherland is so desperate to feel an emotional connection that he’ll settle for heartbreak and pain, kicking off the chorus with, “I shouldn’t care, I shouldn’t cry / Tease me to death, wait ‘til I die / To tell me you want to” before proposing, “Say that we’re sick, forget we exist / Swear that we’re dead, and never tell anyone / That we’re just hiding.” In lesser hands, such a tonal clash could break a record, but there’s lightness in Sutherland’s voice that prevents him from totally drowning in his anxieties. It doesn’t necessarily alleviate or attempt to discredit any of the emotional turmoil, but invokes the sense that despite everything, he is still striving to enjoy himself, and that’s enough for now.
However, this isn’t to say that Sutherland’s presence at the forefront overshadows the other three members. Chester probably could stand to broaden his horizons on future releases, but he’s certainly proficient in providing the punky edge to these songs. There are also plenty of hints that he’s got much more up his sleeve, based on his few more melodic lines and the subtle drops of surf rock on “Blood” and twangy indie rock on “Lalala.” Bassist Jay Harris turns in some pretty inventive counter-melodies, especially on “Spokes,” “Cave Song,” and “Lalala,” and while the lo-fi production tends to bury him, he’s clearly not content to just hang on the rhythm. If anybody falls a bit short, it’s drummer Jonathan Morningstar, though not for lack of effort. Still a relative newcomer to Sea Ghost, on SG he sounds perfectly capable and knows the songs inside and out, but he’s not quite comfortable enough within the band to try and mess with the blueprint he’s been given. He never really establishes his own presence, so they replace him with electronic drums for no apparent reason on “BBQ,” and it doesn’t sound all that different from the rest of the record.
Overall, SG is an unashamedly fun record and an excellent introduction to Sea Ghost for the world at large, though it’s not without growing pains. It’s clear Sea Ghost has an incredibly talented songwriter and creative keyboardist in Sutherland, but his tendency to dominate every song feels beaten to death by the record’s end. Hearing Chester or Harris take over the melody more often in the future would be a welcome change of pace, and hopefully by the next go-around, Morningstar will have grown into his role enough to leave a lasting impression. Still, given the sheer amount of bands polluting Bandcamp with tasteless lo-fi punk, the fact that Sea Ghost has launched itself so far ahead of the pack at such a young age is impressive in itself. Not quite a masterpiece but enjoyable in its own right, SG is Sea Ghost proving they’re more than ready to leave the Atlanta suburbs behind, provided they can stop at Waffle House first.