Royal City’s second album, Alone at the Microphone, is haunted. The lyrics are crowded with devils, fiends and goats. The production on some songs sounds like it was accomplished with the aid of a pack of studio ghosts. They seem to swoop in after singer Aaron Riches with eerie harmonies on the album’s opener, “Bad Luck,” and they add to the cacophony at the close of “Rum Tobacco” — a Velvet Underground “Murder Mystery”-type wall of sound through which the otherworldly studio guests mutter warnings and threats. Even when there aren’t devils to contend with, there’s simple human ugliness: blood on the floor, dust in your throat, dogs that dine on infants.
But despite the dust, and perhaps because of the ghosts, Alone at the Microphone is a fundamentally lovely and stubbornly hopeful recording.
The songs, at base, are hillbilly music: country changes; tight, three-part harmonies; tinkling banjo; mournful harmonica; train-track rhythms. Even the lyrics sound like they were written by a backwoodsman who learned how to read from an edition of Shakespeare he found in the yard. But it’s clear that at some point he moved to the big city, where he picked up on punk rock and the avant-garde, although he still usually plays it on an acoustic guitar. The result might be classified as experimental roots music — the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a Johnny Cash-John Cale collaboration: a set of 11 beautifully crafted country-inflected songs, with blood in their eye and a penchant for noise.
The genres Royal City blends may make an unlikely marriage, but the lyrics and melodies fit perfectly together. The stories the group tells have the same immediacy and incompleteness as things glimpsed from the windows of passing trains. But the music somehow fills the gaps, so even if you can’t remember exactly how it happened, you know what it felt like. Throughout, the ghosts are unrelenting, lurking under the floorboards even in the sweetest tracks. But the secret of the album is that the opposite is also true: Even in the heart of its darkest tunes, Royal City won’t give up hope. “Dank is the Air of Death and Loathing” opens in a room with “shit on the floor” and a devil in the nearby shade, then swings into a delicate but stubborn refrain: “Ray of light/I will not go forth without you.” The evil of the world is inescapable on Alone at the Microphone, but so is the beauty — both in the words, and in the music, of each finely crafted song.
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