Ghost Town, High Planes’ sophomore effort, presents a collection of rootsy Americana songs with rockabilly stylings and a pop sensibility.
Principal songwriter Christian Calderone has been playing music since high school. He started performing with first band Bellwether on eclectic bills at the Living Room along with acts like Mixylplix and Scrub Technique. After largely taking a decade off from playing to do sound, he returned with Maria Monk, featuring various members of the Brother Kite, and later started The Lincoln Tunnel.
For Calderone, these various projects are about fitting his songs into the right boxes. “Most of the time, I’m sitting around writing songs on guitar or piano – High Planes is the project more suited to acoustic songs, where Lincoln Tunnel served the more rocking material. When I eventually bought a couple synths, I started writing songs that became the music for Steady State.” [Calderone’s synth-pop act].
High Planes’s 2016 debut, mayday, was a straight-up bluegrass affair, featuring hefty portions of mandolin and banjo and no drums. Like a lot of art in the last few years, the current chapter of High Planes was born out of COVID-19. “When the pandemic hit and no one could play, it was a terrible, dry time,” said Calderone.
That summer, he set up a PA and instruments in his backyard and invited some friends over for a series of socially-distanced jam sessions. The hootenanny, drop-in atmosphere birthed the material for Ghost Town. “It was this real, organic thing driven by the isolation of COVID – just a sense of, ‘Wow, now we get to play music again.’”
As the clutches of cold weather set in, Calderone took the plunge and learned the art of digital recording, tracking most of the parts himself, with vocals and additional overdubs added later with the help of Jon Downs at The Overpass.
Since gatherings were still a no go, the band tracked much of the material in isolation – a process Calderone likened to “building the airplane mid-flight.”
“We laid down the rhythm parts and my scratch track first, then added everything layer by layer,” he said. “Most of the musicians hadn’t even heard the viola or piano parts, for example, until toward the end.”
For Ghost Town, Calderone pulled together a crew of ringers. The guitar of Frankie “Ranks” Moniz alternates between expert Tele chicken pickin’ (“Undone”) and tasteful, more subtle leads. Greg Johnson’s viola adds a pleasing texture and refinement – his finest moment is the beautiful solo in “Interstate Interior,” a jangly country tune.
The rhythm section of bassist Jeremy Sencer – Calderone’s bandmate in Bellwether – and drummer James Toomey holds things down without distracting from the tunes. Ghost Town is being released under Toomey’s Where The Living Room Used To Be imprint, and he’s also behind the area’s leading music podcast of the same name.
But to me, it’s mainly about the vocals. Caldarone and vocalist Annie Jaehnig play off each other with Everly-style close harmonies, reminiscent of the Civil Wars or RI’s own Brown Bird.
The ever-present musical kinship gives even the more humdrum tunes like “Figure 8” and “Make Believe” a lift. These “lightning in a bottle” vocal partnerships are something you really can’t fake, and High Planes uses it to full effect.
“Season for the Ghosts” is a soaring ballad that Calderone wrote after a conversation with an empath, and “Fearless and Wasted” is a rockin’ two step.
I’m not usually one to laud the six-minute album closer (aren’t the long ones always the closers?), but one of my favorites ended up being “Orphan Songs and Dirty Hands,” in which Calderone takes stock of his life (“I used to play in a punk rock band/the songs slowed down but it’s still the same four chords”). It’s another case of super tasteful instrumentation and playing, in this case boosted by Paul Dube on accordion and Joe Lusi on harmonica.
An example of Calderone’s “always on” writing style is “Deep As Any Ocean (Ella’s Song),” which came from a melody his daughter, 8 or 9 at the time, was plunking down at the piano. “Right then, I created a chord progression on top of it, and it became a song about the depth of love you feel for your child.”
Ultimately, Calderone sees High Planes as a collective whose sound is always evolving. “I’m not a huge fan of playing by myself. I like that everyone can bring whatever they’re feeling to it – I’m in this to get inspired by the people around me.”
Ghost Town comes out on April 15. Hear it at Bandcamp.
High Plains will hold a record release show at Askew on April 29th with Allison Rose and Bank of Ireland.
I’d also be remiss not to mention the sudden passing of Nick Iddon, stalwart drummer for acts like The Quohogs, Viking Jesus, Animal Face, Ravi Shavi, and others. I can’t say I knew Nick at all, but did catch more than a few sets with him ripping it up behind the kit, and always enjoyed his energetic playing. RIP.