Cypress Ave. by The Midnight Ghost TrainRelease date: July 28, 2017
Label: Napalm Records
With a new line-up for their third album, but first release for Napalm Records, Cold Was The Ground’s main mission was to prove Kansas’ The Midnight Ghost Train have exceptional rocking out chops. And if you need any further evidence then check them out live as they are a seriously punchy, energetic, and incredible tightly assembled trio. But dig deeper beyond their up-tempo stoner rock thrashings and you will find at the heart of their sound a love of old American musical heritages such as blues, jazz, and most notably, especially in the vocal department, Tom Waits. Their live set already includes the said Mr Waits’ ‘Make It Rain’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that at some stage these influences will become more prominent and now for their fourth album, Cypress Ave., they do indeed reveal them rather explicitly.
But it still has taken this reviewer a few listens to adjust to the sizeable change which awaits those already familiar with The Midnight Ghost Train. This time around the band take a restraint approach to their customary full-on rock out fury as the focus is more about songs and creating moods. Though still fundamentally a hard rock band, with a faint dark Southern rock flourish, side one of the record forms this harder rock exterior, but with only glimpses of Cold Was The Ground’s aforesaid pummelling, bouncy, full-steam ahead charge, as portrayed on segments of ‘Red Eyed Junkie Queen’. While on ‘The Echo’ its bluesy rumble includes a chords structure which sounds like a slowed down off-shoot from that previous third album.
The highlights though are the hard rock/funk ‘Glenn’s Promis’, driven by Steve Moss’ infectious guitar riff and proves The Midnight Ghost Train are still at their best when they absorb themselves into a unified groove. And the moodily intriguing opening track ‘Tonight’ as it leads to a chorus of both intense outpouring and controlled emotion. It may be one of their best songs penned so far.
But as the album enters the midway section it proceeds down a different road into a minimalist, stripped back approach. ‘Black Wave’ is spearheaded by Alfred Jordan’s rolling bass line and entails softer, subtle displays by both Steve’s vocals and Brandon Burghart’s drumming. While ‘Break My Love’ is their most blatant homage to Tom Waits yet, a late night drinking den shuffle about the thoughts of playing away from home, ”I can’t resist the temptation of you”. But the most eyebrows raising addition is the horns led soulful jazz, R&B groove of ‘Boogie Down’ featuring a vocal takeover by hip hop/rapper Sonny Cheeba. It lays down the gauntlet of no boundaries exist in the The Midnight Ghost Train house.
Commendable as it is for a band to explore, challenge themselves and evolve, which they indeed do, this writer still hoped for just one rip-roaring, fast as a shark, belter. The bonus track ‘I Can’t Let You Go’ may build from a brooding bluesy repetitive riff to culminate into Steve Moss’ trademark wah wah pedal explosion, but it may not be enough for the stoner rock purists.
It most certainly would have been safer ground for The Midnight Ghost Train to write and record a Cold Was The Ground mark II, but admiration and respect abounds for taking a brave giant leap beyond their stoner/sludge rock comfort zone. Cypress Ave. may well divide opinion, but they have jumped into the pool of taking their sound into the traditional American heartlands of their heroes, even if they may now merely be labelled as Tom Waits fronting a rock band.
They have tried to reach for greatness and while they have fallen short of such lofty ambitions, and let’s face it the broad landscape of Tom Waits poetic potency of shaggy dog stories about beatniks and nighthawks, set in diners and downtown bars coinciding with his vast, diverse, in-depth boundary pushing, musical armoury, is an extremely tough act to emulate. But what Cypress Ave. has achieved for The Midnight Ghost Train is a refusal to be pigeonholed, which makes them a far more interesting proposition as starting from now, and onwards, into future endeavours.