It only took two songs for Paul Cary to win me over. Two songs tucked away on a split EP wih John Dwyer’s Thee Oh Sees and I was firmly on board whatever bandwagon he was driving. Cary was the frontman of US garage band The Horrors (not to be confused with the UK incarnation), whose 2000 debut on In the Red is a standout album, even among that label’s stellar catalog. Full of wired, frantic garage rock from the Midwest, it’s an absolute blast that follows in the template laid down by The Sonics all those years ago. Yet in these two new tracks, Cary was working with a more laid back, reflective sound that drew as much from country, soul and blues as it did from rock ‘n’ roll. “Coyote” in particular was all smoulder and swagger leading up to a howling outro that sent chills down my spine. “Goner” was even more stripped back and soulful with some lovely horns. These songs weren’t just a surprising shift in approach – they felt like a new leap in his songwriting, more evocative and subtle. So when a full-length Paul Cary album was announced, all I could hope for was that he’d produce something that could equal these two amazing songs.
So when “The Curse of China Bull” opens with slow-burn rockabilly with Cary’s sneer pasted all over it, and then this raggedy-ass sax solo comes skronking along in the middle like a drunken noir soundtrack, I was immediately blown away. It was exactly what I was looking for – rough and dirty and full of bitter soul. “Yes Machine” kicks up the tempo a little, running on fumes, all loose stomp and swing. “Iryna” and “On the Rise” deal in dirty, blistered-fingers blues, all ruckus and drooling static. They’re electrifying without losing that ragged songwriter’s heart. Really, what’s best about Cary is that he doesn’t simply slavishly copy what’s gone before him – he takes the spirit of the music that influences him and filters it through the aesthetic he knows and loves, resulting in these bloody-edged songs that sound alive and essential. It’s the same trick that Greg Cartwright pulls off time and again, and it’s no small compliment to say that Cary’s work on this album is right up there with the best of Cartwright’s.
“Angel from Heaven” functions as a sort of mid-album bridge between the more up-tempo first side and the ballad-heavy flip. Initially it comes across as slight, a simple acoustic ditty that could’ve been dredged up from some lost ’50s collection (although the line “maybe I’ll tell her she’s ugly and wait for her reaction” isn’t quite the typical sentiment of the era), but over multiple plays it feels more and more charming, especially in his vocal delivery. But as many delights as the first half of the record holds, it’s the final three tracks that elevate the album to truly extraordinary. “Ghost of a Man” slinks into view with this gnarled, woozy guitar line with Cary crooning his way into a wordless chorus that sways and shivers. It’s almost impossible to separate out the strands of blues, country and soul from in here; it feels like it comes from a time before such distinctions were made and it’s all the better for it.
“Bad People” is even better, opening with Morricone-tinged guitar flickering in the firelight. “It’s a classic tale of good versus evil / And it starts and it ends with just two people,” Cary sings, before telling us, “If it wasn’t for the devil, the Bible would be so boring.” The chorus sits on a bed of dissonant strings humming over what sounds like castanets. “Bad people make the world go round,” Cary croons, safe in the knowledge that he’s one of them. There’s a moment when the bass comes in and kicks up the pace a little that’s just wonderful (and, bizarrely enough, reminds me of Blur deep cut “The Man Who Left Himself”). It’s all kinds of gorgeous despite the misanthropic subject matter, especially when he breaks into falsetto. “If it stings and it burns, that’s when you know it’s real,” he sings, and it feels a little like a guiding principle for him. Closing track “Green Monster” strips right back to basics, just Cary’s voice and a close-mic’d acoustic guitar. “I was so messed up when I met you, all full of liquor and hate,” he sings, and it only gets worse from there. “Let me tell you ’bout a place called hell / There’s no fire and there’s no flames and there’s no sleep.” The lovely solo he breaks into towards the end is a small light in the darkness before he succumbs back into the chill of despair. It ends with just his vocals, singing about how “it’s bitter and it’s cold and it starts at your feet / Creeps up the back of your legs, through the spine and into your heart.” Part of me wishes there was something after this song to buoy me back up, but it makes for a hell of an effective ending.
It’s always been a crowded market in the garage rock scene, but every so often an album comes along that stands head and shoulders above the pack by virtue of being more awesome than the rest, by having more soul and more feel. Paul Cary’s Ghost of a Man is the latest to grab me by the heart. It feels right and it feels necessary. It’s a record that I want to live with. And, best of all, it makes me believe there’s still more that can be done with the simplicity of a man and his guitar.