Little known to American audiences at the time, Ghost had long mesmerized the couple, who’d been turned on to Ghost music by friends. Yang even wrote a fan letter. “I felt this incredible kinship,” she recalls, “and I just thought, Who are these people? This music is so unearthly and beautiful.” While the letter never made it into the band‘s hands, their eventual meeting has proved auspicious.
Recorded in their home studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between Christmas and the dawn of 2000, Damon and Naomi’s With Ghost is a full-on partnership that takes Krukowski and Yang to new creative heights. While their three previous duo recordings (the first two with heavy involvement from Kramer) are filled with engaging if not standout acoustic songs — moody neo-folkie narratives evoking melancholy and isolation — With Ghost is an esoteric stunner. The songs are built like suites, with surprise twists, intricate delicacy and spacious density, and a recorded sound that seems to breathe and expand.
“We suffered this time,” says Yang. “It was just incredibly complicated. For our last record [Playback Singers], we were still figuring out how to use our studio. Then we decided to take on another challenge — getting three musicians over from Japan, and working on the songs internationally, back and forth. It was a very long process.”
“It‘s a collaboration,” says Krukowski, “and the arrangements are among the aspects that most reflect the participation of Ghost. They’re really gifted at that. They inserted some things that don‘t occur to us, like bridges, intros and stops — usually there’s no stop-time in our songs.”
The opening song, “The Mirror Phase,” becomes a complex composition that flip-flops in on itself and inverts, reflecting, as the title suggests, a portent of things to come. Throughout the album, skillful shaping, a judicious restraint, and timing are everything, dictating texture, temperature and intuited rather than metronomic tempos. On Michio Kurihara‘s extraordinarily crafted electric-guitar solo on “The Great Wall,” tension is created by not letting things explode. Ghost leader Masaki Batoh’s sole composition, “The New World,” a medieval-like contrapuntal melody with a minuet-waltz feel, marries a sample of chanting monks in a monastery, suggesting, perhaps, Moondog meets Fairport Convention to dance in a Far Eastern temple.
The cross-pollination of tradition and inspiration with continually morphing time signatures carries With Ghost to sublime elegance. Kurihara‘s tempered guitar and fuzz box intertwines with Batoh’s acoustic finger-picking (replete with warmly preserved squeaks), Kazuo Ogino‘s childlike genius on keys (as on the lullaby-inspired rendition of Big Star’s “Blue Moon”), and instrumental and vocal contributions from Damon and Naomi, whose desire on this project was to sound like a folk-rock band from the time in which they were born. And they do.
“We are not on the side of the exploiters!” This is Krukowski, wrapping up a rant on contemporary folk music using Suzanne Vega‘s “Luka” as Exhibit A of what he doesn’t want to do. “To observe that this homeless boy must have a lot of troubles in his life, that‘s not real politics, that’s like the politics of detachment. It‘s political to be engaged in the issue and the problem on your own terms.”
From her end of the phone line, Yang is clearly tickled. “Are our songs political?”
“There are some politics hidden on this record,” Krukowski answers. “If you’re emotionally engaged with a subject, then you inevitably make clear your stance.”
The personal is political, and emotional engagement simmers rather than simpers: With Ghost is a sacred celebration wherein the common dialect of bendable time arranges itself to transcend the limitations of language. Closing with Tim Hardin‘s heartaching “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce,” featuring Batoh’s chord-progression alchemy and Yang‘s sultry croon of English lyrics translated to Japanese and back again, this “meeting of the minds,” as Krukowski calls it, induces something at once strange and familiar. Damon and Naomi, with Ghost, to borrow from their ballad “Judah & the Maccabees,” are “say[ing] the prayers that [we] should understand.”