It’s been around a decade since we’ve heard anything out of Mark Gardener, former frontman of shoegazer luminaries Ride. Though he released Live at the Knitting Factory NYC, a live performance of solo work and Ride favorites, in 2003, it’s been much longer since he has graced us with a studio record. These Beautiful Ghosts is a departure from Ride’s layered, heavy sound, but the songs are no less powerful for it. Rather than relying on walls of noise and huge effects, this record showcases Gardener’s talent as a songwriter who can deftly draw from numerous permutations of the rock genre.
Gardener has enlisted the talents of Oxford band Goldrush, and its signature alt.country sound and the vocal harmonies add depth to the songs. The arrangements here often call to mind Crosby, Stills and Nash, Simon & Garfunkel, and similar acts from the softer end of the ’70s rock spectrum. In its funkier moments, Synchronicity-era Police bubbles up as well.
On ‘Where Are You Now?” Gardener’s melancholic vocals are underpinned by a swooning violin that underscores the wistfulness of the lyrics and vocal harmonics, and counterpoints are like beautiful memories lurking in dark hallways, whispers of past loves that tiptoe behind us. “To Get Me Through” starts off with tension created by a buzzing little drum hit that gives way to Gardener’s disembodied voice, echoing that same dark hallway. There’s a sense of searching inherent in the lyrics and the majestic drums and bass, which hold the guitars, piano and flute in check like a heavy embrace.
But it’s on “Magdalen Sky” that the sound takes hold in all its acoustic brilliance and Gardener’s voice is at its strongest. This song would sit comfortably with any of Ride’s best tracks and stand on its own as a gripping, articulate vision of a love lost. “Water and Wine” is a hymn to impermanence, likening the passage of time and moving on to new places and people to the fluidity of wine and water; the violin again gracefully reflects this notion. “These Beautiful Ghosts” showcases Gardener’s skill at combining lyrics with vocal gymnastics, the track opening on soft acoustic guitars and melancholy lyrics, with strings and effects bubbling up through the verses to finally explode at the chorus as Gardener lets his voice soar. It’s such an elegant wall of sound that shrouds you in a warm loneliness and lets you savor a bittersweet lost love.
These Beautiful Ghosts moves with a gracefulness and longing, save for “Flaws of Perception,” a foray into discordant minor keys and trip-hop stylings that interrupts the gorgeous flow of the record. The track is heavy and clumsy and, because it’s the eighth track in a twelve-track set, it ends up being the fault line in a disjointed record. But perhaps this sonic rift is to remind us that sweet sadness can also yield to the cacophony of anger and then simmer back down to pensive daydreaming and beautiful longing for what has been lost.
Prefix review: Mark Gardener [Live at the Knitting Factory, Los Angeles]