In troubled times, even the sky is blue.
For Tucson's gHosTcOw, it's an observation that guides an album that asks a lot of big questions, sometimes outward, sometimes inward.
"I'm not generally a dark person at all, but the last four years haven't been that good. It's a reflection of the people I hang out with and their viewpoints, malaise and struggles," says David Hall, the band's singer, songwriter and guitarist.
It's that ever-present why in the songs on Even the Sky Is Blue, gHosTcOw's second album, that gives the album such a cohesive thread.
Hall wrote the song "Danny Kaye" during 2009, the first year of the Obama administration, when the U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan spiked and the Fox News noise machine was on the rise.
"I was sick of hearing about everything," he says. "How can people buy all this crap?"
"Without a doubt there's no hope left/ All pessimist, sad and bereft/ Leadership is dead, politics are too/ All hyped-up media, nothing true," Hall sings.
The song is deeply pessimistic, but it's a pessimism that's bound up in that particular moment in time, Hall says. That's where the album title comes from, the line "Don't bother to look up baby, even the sky is blue." But the tongue-in-cheek nature of the line is also telling.
The album's theme is consistent throughout, but there's a musical playfulness that balances the Chicken Little cynicism.
"Hopefully, those times are over," says Hall, even though he finds it a bit easier to write songs when he's under emotional stress.
Typically, Hall will begin a song with a riff, playing it over and over again until something comes for the melody and lyrics. The method either works or it doesn't, and he'll set some promising riffs aside for later use if the song just isn't coming.
"For a while there, I was going to take the album to a pop place entirely," Hall says, but it was one of the ideas the band reined in.
Hall says there was a time he tried consciously making music that sounded familiar to people—rock 'n' roll from the 1960s and 1970s—but on Even the Sky Is Blue those conventions are intentionally skewed and warped, as if they followed from some alternate history of rock music.
The album is different from the first gHosTcOw recording, which had a stronger psychedelic thread throughout. But that era of the band included a second songwriter, and some of the resulting tension wore at gHosTcOw. A bit of disenchantment set in after the first album, but the lineup solidified as Hall was putting together the Even the Sky Is Blue songs.
Stylistically, Even the Sky Is Blue touches on pop, psychedelic, garage, country rock and funk.
Hall says the album opener, "Fine," is done in a "Beatles-y" pop style, telling the story of a man who chases all manner of women to fill the void when the true object of his affection leaves him longing.
"Wonder" is a Moody Blues-style romp, while "Peekaboo" takes the inspiration for its very poppy solo from George Harrison's slide-guitar style. Hall wrote "Hide and Seek" in 1984 and could never work out an arrangement that worked for Falling Bodies, his former band. "It's one I've always liked, and it seems to have a place on this album," he says.
"Danny Kaye" is loud, high-wire blues rock. Hall wrote the country rock "Can't Last Forever" after listening to Old 97's albums during a trip to the White Mountains, seeking to tie into that forlorn, love-struck muse.
Written at a time when Hall was listening to a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Swampy Like Do" pairs outer-space lyrics with a sci-fi psychedelic sound. Hall wrote "Hold Onto" after Amy Winehouse died, reflecting on the singer's internal darkness that overtook her shining talent.
"Late in Life" is a funky jam that recalls the Meters. "Erosion," the album's jammiest and longest song, was inspired by a guy entirely infatuated with a woman who couldn't care less.
Hall started playing guitar in high school in Portland, Ore., with the typically intertwined dreams of being a rock star and scoring chicks. Though he loved playing Delta blues-style guitar, his musical future hinged just as much on the first two concerts he saw, which, remarkably enough, were Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa.
He spent his 20s in cover bands, playing 1970s rock such as Heart and Doobie Brothers songs, but when he moved to Tucson in 1980 he started writing his own material.
"After playing in all those cover bands, I swore I wouldn't do that again and I started to write like crazy," he says.
From 1984 to 1990, Hall played in Falling Bodies, a Talking Heads-esque group in both name and sound. gHosTcOw drummer Blaine Rybke and percussionist Bronwen Heilman were also in Falling Bodies, and bass player Jack Fandray rounds out the current gHosTcOw lineup.
The term ghost cow came up when the band was forming. Hall was at a Denny's in Palm Springs and overheard an odd conversation.
"This woman—I swear to god Shelley Duvall—was talking and she said she'd just been to Tucson, which is what got me listening. She said it was all cowboys and ghost cows and I didn't know what the hell that meant," he says.
The name also ties into his day job as a wildlife ecologist. The desert landscape around Tucson is totally different than it was 100 years ago, influenced by a century of grazing, as if the once-full grassland is haunted by the ghosts of the cows that so altered the desert.
gHosTcOw had a much easier time recording Even the Sky Is Blue than the band's self-titled 2008 debut. They started recording in March and finished in August, booking time at Waterworks Recording Studio when busy schedules allowed. Hall says producer Jim Waters commented during recording on how cohesive the band was.
"This incarnation really gets into it and this album is special. All the members are so tight," Hall says.
gHosTcOw is a band that thrives playing live, with three full sets of original material and a tendency to improvise night by night. Still, some songs work better acoustically and the band applied to play the Tucson Folk Festival, under the name Acowstic.