Sky Chefs aren’t so much a band as a ramshackle cluster of modern-day minstrels, all locked in loose orbit around songwriter Dale Nicholls. Once the brains of indie pop act Spy Island, with Sky Chef Nicholls has gone for more of a playful, anything goes approach. ‘Ghosts & Goblins’, the project’s second outing, certainly takes that to heart. Rough round the edges and peppered with chuckles and shout-outs, it sounds halfway between a stoned-out poet’s jam night and the preamble to a high school Halloween party.
Recorded ‘live’ over two days at Big Echo Studios in California, it’s got all the spontaneity and charm you’d expect. Nicholls is the one constant; a yelp-voiced ringmaster with an acoustic for a whip. The landscape morphs round him, with a troop of saxophones, fiddles, organs and Wurlitzers tagging in and out for each track. Nicholls’ lyrics are as beautifully bizarre as ever, with such thesaurus-gargling gems as ‘I am the lamprey, you are the shark’ and ‘I lost my glasses to the airbrushed masses’ battling each other for dominance. Whether they’re cryptic poetry or lavish nonsense, they’ll snare you like fishhooks.
The album’s style (as much as you can label such an eclectic collection) draws from all manner of cobwebbed crannies, but generally toes the line of fuzz-baked lo-fi. Jangly indie-pop is common, like the Courtney Barnett-style ‘Nefarious Falls’ or the CBGB anthem ‘Hey Furies!’. The liberal use of smooching saxophones gives a fair chunk of it a 50s feel, either in the twisting jukebox glory of the title track or the shifty Stax soul of ‘Poltergeist’. Yet more of the tracks echo the offbeat fervour of The Mountain Goats, in the raw vocal energy of ‘Summer of Sam’ or the all-too-brief boy-girl duet ‘Orange Country Trucks’. For a fun-first album born of two days larking in the studio, there’s a whole lot crammed in.
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Ultimately, there’s nothing in ‘Ghosts & Goblins’ that rewrites the western canon. It’s puckish, unpolished, and perhaps even naïve. But then again, Dale Nicholls isn’t aiming for Hotel California here. He (and the throng of followers in his wake) is trying to make an album without rules. A more band-oriented step from the first Sky Chefs release, whilst still keeping the playfulness of the original alive. At that, Nicholls and his band get the gold star. ‘Ghosts & Goblins’ can boast some of the most downright original lyrics this side of Blackstar, and despite the lo-fi trappings the musicianship itself is solid, even slick. Most of all, it sounds like Sky Chefs are having a real blast playing it. ‘Ghosts & Goblins’ might not be the album to make your record of the year, but it might be the one you most wish you’d helped record.