By Eleni P. Austin
Son Of the Velvet Rat is throwing a party and you’re invited. The High Desert denizens are playing a show at Spaghetti Western on Saturday, February 3rd, celebrating the upcoming release of their new album, Ghost Ranch. The band, which centers around the duo of Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder first formed in Austria at the turn of the 21st century. But their sound is suffused with the dusty and desolate ambience of their Joshua Tree environs.
Coming of age in Austria, Georg was inspired by a surfeit of musical genres, equal parts sophisticated (Jaques Brel, George Brassens) and primitive (‘60s Garage Rock, ‘70s Punk). He held a special affection for the Arcane Country-Punk of Portland, Oregon’s Dead Moon and Paisley Underground favorites, Green On Red.
He cycled through a series of bands before meeting Heike, who was gaining a reputation as a talented artist. Georg was in the process of forming SOtVR with bassist Albrecht Klinger and drummer Muck Wildman. All the puzzle pieces came together when Heike joined the line-up, adding vocals, keys and accordion. Their sound, much like the band moniker, split the difference between mysterious and memorable. A densely intricate cross-pollination of influences that simply defied categorization.
Over the next few years, they recorded and toured at a furious clip. releasing four EPs and nine long-players. Critical acclaim was swift and effusive. Folk-Laureate Lucinda Williams caught the band playing at Hotel Café in Los Angeles and began singing SOtVR’s praises.
Nearly a decade ago, Georg and Heike relocated to California, settling in Joshua Tree. For more than a half a century, The High Desert enclave has been a destination for artists and musicians. Early trailblazers included British Folk-Rocker Donovan, Cosmic American Music pioneer Gram Parsons and British Invasion Blues-belter Eric Burdon. In the early ‘90s, celebrated singer-songwriters Victoria Williams and Mark Olson took up residence, along with L.A. transplants Fred Drake (original owner of Rancho de la Luna recording studio) and Teddy Quinn (affectionately known as the honorary musical mayor of Joshua Tree).
Like Bloomsbury at the dawn of the 20th century, Paris in the Roaring ‘20s or Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s, this small town at the edge of a National Monument has provided respite for creative folk burned out from the claustrophobic sprawl of life in the big city. The arid landscape immediately informed SOtVR’s next effort, the brooding, sepia-toned Dorado. Produced by Joe Henry (Ani Difranco, Solomon Burke, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright III, Bonnie Raitt). It landed on a plethora of critics’ Top 10 lists. The band quickly followed up with a live set, The Late Show, in 2018.
Their 10th album, Solitary Company first took shape at Gar Robertson’s Red Barn Recorders, just before the Covid pandemic went into effect. Overdubs happened in Georg and Heike’s garage and the effort was completed in Graz, Austria. Released in 2021, it was richly evocative record bathed in shadow and light as Graz gravitas gave way to California sunshine. Now, they’ve returned with Ghost Ranch.
The opening two cuts are swathed in mystery and intrigue. “Bewildering b/w Moments Captured On Trail Cams” shudders to life with the faraway sound of clanky carousel music. Soon enough, high lonesome harmonica sidles between strummy guitars, swirly Hammond B3, thrumming bass and a rattle-trap beat. Georg’s world-weary croon wraps around the notion that apocrypha and truth can quietly coexist: “There’s no such thing as a false prophet, there’s no such thing as wrong or right, you may be listening to a liar, but it may get you through the night.” The tempo downshifts on the break, cascading guitar notes line up with flinty harmonica and purring keys. The final verse offers a brittle mea culpa: “There’s no such thing as a hopeless sinner, there’s no such thing as a love untrue, I was you at heart, I was just a beginner, I never meant to sadden you/Is it just bewildering black & white moments captured on trail cams that you see, or maybe just some long gone, kind of twisted series of memories.”
Barbed acoustic guitar washes over fleet electric fretwork, wily bass, shivery harmonium and brushed percussion on “Are The Angels Pretty.” A mordant meditation on the hereafter, it begins with a chance encounter: “Kick my feet against the counter, see the patrons and the saints, and I see you through the smoke of my cigarette, is it true that we deserve what we’re gonna get? And are the angels pretty?” On the break, the guitar drifts from moody to splintery and prickly, reflecting the beautiful disarray.
There’s a cerulean tinge to both “Southbound Plane” and “Deeper Shade Of Blue,” surrounding each song in sky and sea, sadness and sangfroid. Sun-dappled acoustic guitars and woozy Hammond B3 give way to searing electric riffs. Freighted with emotional baggage, Georg seeks to lighten his load, noting “All god’s creatures are getting restless…and there’s a stillness in my mind that I can’t explain, angry men and women in their family vans, spreading the gospel, but I’ve got a ticket for a window seat on a southbound plane.” The spiritual fog seems to lift and there are “blue, blue skies for as far as my eyes can see.”
The latter is a dusty and desolate chanson. Sugary acoustic guitar partners with shimmery electric notes, mercurial keys, slinky bass and a chunky backbeat. Georg’s phlegmatic delivery is shaded by Heike and Jolie Holland’s pliant polyphony. A restless quest for peace of mind is momentarily achieved: “I am surrounded by the seaside, and I pay for a sea view, but all I see is a deeper shade of blue, watching the waves roll in from the ocean watching the sun go down over the beach, I can have it all, I can see it coming, all I have to do is reach. Since SOtVR usually zags where they’re expected to zig, it feels wholly apropos that the instrumental break isn’t dominated by a thick guitar solo, but instead, a lone whistle echoes the plaintive Blue Yodel that dotted Jimmie Rodgers’ music.
The record’s most compelling tracks feature additional vocals from Jolie Holland. The Texas native is an acclaimed singer-songwriter in her own right, who first received critical hosanas as part of The Be Good Tanyas in the late ‘90s. She made one album with the trio before embarking on a richly rewarding solo career. On the buoyant “Beautiful Day,” tart piano chords collide with twangy mandolin, roiling bass, jangly guitar and a jittery beat. Jolie and Heike’s harmonies orbit Georg’s vocals much like the earth spiraling the sun. Surprisingly sunshiny lyrics like “Beautiful day- you may see me walking on solid air, I got my Sunday suit and a ticket for the county fair,” are the antithesis of SOtVR’s typically pensive mien. But the skittery, skronky guitars that bookend each verse seem to foreshadow a more permanent (and less happy-go-lucky) destination: “Beautiful day- stretching into infinity, never going to fade, ghost train coming for one and all at the Penny Arcade.”
Despite the title, the lunar soundscape on “Kindness Of The Moon” feels dark and foreboding. A skewed Kettle drum beat is matched by lowing bass, prowling guitars and a processed violin that sounds spooky and sepulchral. As a gypsy violin see-saws through the mix, cryptic lyrics oscillate between parallel tableaus: “From the flash boulevard to the burial ground, from the underpass to the merry-go-round, sand in the pockets of the camouflage guise, saltwater wind in their hands and the kindness of the moon in their eyes.”
Finally, the aching “Rosary” is powered by knockabout percussion, willowy violin, spectral bass, reedy theremin and gritty guitars. Trenchant lyrics revisit the pain and pleasures of childhood, where solitude and camaraderie ebb and flow: “….today even the bullies are trying to be nice to me, if I had a friend I know he would agree, justice will be done eventually, I even saw it written on St. Anthony’s marquee and Daddy’s gonna take me to the shooting range for my birthday and Mama’s gonna give me a rosary.” Piquant guitar licks dart through the mix mirroring the angst, ennui and anticipation at the precipice of adolescence.
Other interesting tracks include “New Frontier,” “The Golden Gate” and “The Waterlily And The Dragonfly.” A bare-bones affair, “New Frontier” is just Georg and burnished acoustic guitar. Something of an anxious adieu, lyrics address a former adversary, as antipathy has been replaced by kindness: “You’ve been my enemy for so many years, a vessel for my sympathy, a face for all my fears…all the places we used to go, I don’t go there anymore, I see the pale blue light in the afterglow of a long-forgotten war.”
Heike’s whispery harmonies lattice Georg on the slightly more expansive “Golden Gate.” A tender encomium to enduring love, this poignant couplet says it all: “You don’t need to give me directions, I’ll just follow you, follow your delicate lotus tattoo, nothing but skin between me and you, and a dream to live up to.”
If “Waterlily…” seems familiar, that’s because a more austere version appeared on Solitary Company. This time around the naked emotions are cocooned by a tumbling back beat, spidery guitars, quavery Omnichord, loose-limbed bass and forlorn harmonica. Languid and intimate, this song pulls you in and holds you close. The record ends with “Cicadas.” A courtly instrumental anchored by fleet filigrees as the chirping Hemiptera provide a decidedly cicadian rhythm.
This album was produced by Georg, recorded and co-produced by Gar Robertson at Red Barn Recorders. Heike and Georg handled vocals, Omnichord, percussion, theremin, acoustic and electric guitars, respectively. They also relied on a wolfpack of talented musicians including Jay Bellerose and Danny Frankel on drums, Janie Cowan and Jennifer Condos on acoustic and electric bass, the legendary Bob Furgo on violin, sui generis guitar god Marc Ribot on electric guitar and Tony Patler on Hammond B3. Gar added mandolin and piano and Jolie whistled and played processed violin.
Ghost Ranch is a hauntingly beautiful record. By turns, rough-hewn and hypnotic, sly and seductive. Nuanced narratives brush up against moody, melancholy melodies. The symbiotic connection between Georg and Heike is the album’s through-line. The pair are fully present in the moment, completely in-tune with each other. That’s a rarity in this era of instant gratification and short attention spans.
Son Of the Velvet Rat will host an album pre-release show, performing at Spaghetti Western, 50048 29 Palms Highway, Morongo Valley. www.eventbrite.com/e/son-of-the-velvet-rat-at-spaghetti-western-pre-release-show-tickets-767687422747.