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Big Blood, "Do You Wanna Have a Skeleton Dream?"

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cover imageIf someone had told me twenty years ago that Cerberus Shoal would someday evolve into a '60s girl group-style family band, I probably would have thought that I had fallen asleep and was having an extremely weird and perplexing dream.  Nevertheless, that improbable future has now come to pass with Do You Wanna Have a Skeleton Dream?, which is Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin's first album to feature their daughter Quinnisa as a full member of the band.  As befits such an auspicious occasion, Skeleton Dream is an especially fun and ambitious anomaly within the already unpredictable Big Blood discography.  While I am hesitant to describe any release by this long-running Portland, Maine project as a "party album," such a classification would not be terribly wide of the mark here, as this release is comprised almost entirety of hooky, retro-minded pop songs.  Characteristically, however, Skeleton Dream's appeal runs quite a bit deeper than a mere collection of entertaining classic pop pastiches, occasionally catching me off-guard with some wonderfully haunting and darkly hallucinatory moments.

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One primary characteristic of the '60s "girl group" milieu has always been the conspicuous lack of men (aside from those lurking behind the scenes), so it is appropriate and fitting that Caleb Mulkerin relegates himself to more of a background role for this album.  While the songs are all strong enough to ensure that his decreased role does not feel like a liability, it is quite significant, as Mulkerin's ragged yelp has always been one of Big Blood's most endearing and distinctive features.  Consequently, the introduction of Quinnisa as a new lead vocalist makes for quite a striking shift in tone, steering the band in sweeter, more unabashedly "pop" direction on songs like the bouncy, piano-driven "Real World" and lilting, bittersweet "Insecure Kids."  On the opening, "Sweet Talker," however, Quinnisa's trebly, distorted vocals sound somewhere between those of her mother and some Motown-era soul belter.  Given that this is a Big Blood album, however, each member ultimately winds up filling a number of different roles, so Quinnisa also surfaces throughout the album as a drummer, trombonist, guitarist, and bassist.  She does appear one more time as a lead vocalist on the album's most leftfield surprise though, as Do You Wanna Have a Skeleton Dream? ends with a surprisingly reverent and straightforward duet performance of "Ave Maria."  Recording unexpected and eclectic cover songs has become something of a Big Blood tradition in recent years, but I was still a bit blindsided to see Franz Schubert joining the ranks of Silver Apples, Missy Elliot, Bob Seger, Lloyd Cheechoo, and The Cure.  

The best pieces on the album, however, tend to be those that do not stray quite so far from Big Blood's usual fried, psych-damaged twist on Americana.  My favorite is "Heaven or South Portland," which surrounds its darkly melancholy pop center with a lush, hallucinatory swirl of harmonium drones, wailing backing vocals, and woozy trombone melodies.  I am also quite fond of the album's other harmonium-driven piece ("Pox"), which inventively appropriates the "You are sleeping, you do not want to believe" sample from The Smiths' "Rubber Ring" as a chorus hook for something that resembles a hallucinatory sea-shanty sung by a Siren.  That is weirdly appropriate, given the phrase's original source: a flexi-disc that accompanied a 1971 book on ghosts and electronic voice phenomena.  While I tend to prefer the stranger fare in general, some of the album's "classic pop" concoctions are weighty enough to make an impact as well, as Colleen Kinsella is too much of a force of nature to ever fit comfortably into a hooky, straightforward pop song (no matter how melodically and structurally conventional the rest of the song might be).  For example, the otherwise bouncy and upbeat "Providence" is beautifully eclipsed and elevated by the soulful, sharp-edged intensity of the vocals.  The underlying music also features some cool twists at times, as the conventionally pretty "Sugar" is nicely enhanced by twanging, sliding guitars and killer backing vocals, resembling something that would be perfectly at home in the half-innocent/half-lurid universe of David Lynch. 

Notably, the album takes its title from a recording of Quinnisa as a small child in which she proclaims that her favorite thing to do before bed is "have a skeleton dream."  That recording fittingly opens the album and feels like a weirdly apt summation of the album's aesthetic: the whole thing feels kind of dreamlike and tinged with darkness, but it is ultimately quite a fun place to be.  And if I wanted to go one step further with a labored metaphor, I could even say that Big Blood have conjured up an alternate reality in which the corpse of pre-rock n’ roll pop music has been reanimated in delightful and non-terrifying fashion.  In any case, I certainly did not expect to like this album nearly as much as I do, as I am very much burned-out on '50s and '60s pop and generally averse to "genre tourism" indulgences, yet Big Blood have managed to strike the perfect balance between weirdness, homage, songcraft, and art.  Even if I do not love every song, Do You Wanna Have a Skeleton Dream? is a remarkably coherent, effective, and listenable departure that never errs far enough in any direction to break the perfect spell.  Moreover, Quinnisa's inclusion brings some additional light, joie de vivre, and playfulness to this project without sacrificing much in the way of gravitas.  Admittedly, Big Blood were hardly hurting in that regard before, as Kinsella and Mulkerin's passion and humor has always been evident and this project has always been an obvious labor of love for their family.  Still, heightening some of the most appealing aspects of the band can only be a good thing.  I like this album quite a lot: it may not be a particularly representative album within Big Blood's wonderful oeuvre or feature an unusually high number of instant classics, but it is nevertheless one of their strongest, tightest, and most focused statements to date.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 01 March 2020 10:27  


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