George Thorogood hasn’t exactly been burning up the young peoples’ mp3 players in recent years. Blame it on our inability to reproduce young bar flies, or perhaps it has something to do with the absolute nosedive rock music has taken in favor of pop, heavy synth and digital acts or the larger than life hip-hop acts like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. If you haven’t noticed, rock ain’t kickin’ much ass these days. The leveling out of large rock arena acts is in large part due to the quantity of options becoming available digitally, as well as a democratization of music accessibility that has the diversity of fan bases resembled in equal diversity of sound and genre on stage. But there are a few acts keeping the fickle flame of barroom rock and Americana music alive, turning a blind eye to commercial industry trends. Some of the best live shows to hit the road in recent memory include The Hold Steady, Drive-By Truckers, Cloud Nothings, Deerhunter and the ever-inventive Spoon. Cloud Nothings is the only band on that list that aren’t journeymen with at least three high-quality albums under the belt. So if the quantity of rock being made and its listenership is down, you could make a strong argument that the quality is on an upward tilt.
Enter, Jake Simmons, 25, a Kalamazoo native who has been kicking around the West Michigan music scene for a couple of years. Formerly of the Dead Scene Radio, Simmons has been developing his solo work while rotating pieces of a full band. His present backing band, tagged the Little Ghosts, includes Matt Blasco on guitar, Ben Bojanich bass, and Ian Cooper on drums. Longtime friends of Simmons that have come and gone at different points the past few years, the Little Ghosts are clearly comfortable in their roles. Fresh off a recording session and some flattering if predictable local attention (including a comparison to Otis Redding), it’s clear that Simmons and his newest lineup are making some waves. And it’s easy to hear why. Well-versed in many of the journeymen acts mentioned already, Simmons has a polished sound that betrays his age and youthful look.
The name Little Ghosts is a misnomer considering many of the highlights on the new EP, “Them & Them & US” are chant-along crescendos Simmons hits with the little ghosts providing a big vocal backing. While not quite at the level of a Hold Steady concert, it’s easy to see how fans get accustomed to the communal sing-sang moments of these shows. It’s fun. And it’s inclusive in the way these acts’ live performances operate. It’s also refreshing that their studio sets can’t completely replicate it. The shows are immediate and frenetic, and I find it hopeful to see a young band emulating such great live performers.
This foursome packs plenty of pop hooks inside the gritty southern rock sound on the new EP. The backbone of the group begins and ends in Jake Simmons, who writes all the songs and composes most of the arrangements. His writing is thoughtful and sincere with a “call-to arms”-type yelping. The same “pitchfork-in-hand” sentiment might come off as a poor creative writing trick when handled by most 25-year-olds, but Simmons pulls it off here. It may be a the result of a sharper focus which Simmons suggests they had on the EP: “On the first record we tried to incorporate all the different types of music we were into onto one [recording], and from there we figured we would go off on different tangents . The EP is a lot more punk rock than the last record.”
The track “Who Are You” off the bands new EP is one of the best pieces Simmons has written. He rasps through the second stanza: “We pray to save our souls/We pray to heal our minds//We pray to rock and roll/We pray to Jesus Christ//You try to keep the past in the past and your head above water/Can you tell me who are you?” – as if thinking out loud what right he has to deliver these words. But a reverbed guitar lick clears his head and he turns his attention on an ugly outward subject: “You don’t know my mother’s name/You don’t pay my bills//You don’t fight the wars/and you don’t fill the chill//You don’t write the words that get me through the day/You just write the rules/ then look the other way.//Now who are you?/Who the fuck are you?” Pick at random the authority he might be referring to (and maybe an intentional nod to The Who?). It’s this subtle turn in song form and narrative that marks a maturity in Simmons. These are no longer the stories of the lying, cheating bitches explained to be the inspiration to “Different Shades Of Green” on a live recording back in February of last year.
The maturity seems to exist throughout the group. My viewing of the band’s live cuts online had suggested somewhat immature young guys rumbling and stumbling through a set, and while the boys were still more than willing to rollick through a playlist and banter between songs when I saw the band perform in person, it was clear they were taking our enjoyment seriously and didn’t want to disappoint. The set was efficient, tight, and most importantly, fun.
The playfulness remains on the EP opener “Them (In These Hands),” featuring a refreshing female backing vocal from Simmons’ friend Jena (in an all boy club, ghosts or not, this was welcomed), and a repeating chorus that serves as a sugary earworm grabbing your attention. But there is a complexity to the five-song composition even if the arrangements remain similar to previous work. The most enjoyable element of these songs is how effortless the pop, rock, and Americana transitions are for these guys, and how much fun they’re having switching those gears. As polished as the group and Simmons already are, it will be interesting to watch where they go from here. From the sound of it, the band has a large catalog of unreleased songs they hope to incorporate into a full-length release in the near future: “The idea was to put all these songs we’d been playing for a while on the EP, but we wrote entirely new songs that defeated the purpose of what [we had] been shooting for.” So a full-length will likely follow by the end of 2013.
Let’s not call the kid Britt Daniel of Spoon or Colin Finn of The Hold Steady (or Otis Redding for that matter), but Jake Simmons and the Little Ghosts are gaining a head of steam.