Dark Fantastic – Goodbye Crooked Scar

Dark Fantastic
Goodbye Crooked Scar

Does Mark Pickerel peg his pants?
It’s not difficult to imagine his band, The Dark Fantastic, being popular alongside 80’s bands like Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, or Dead Can Dance. (Or, for the child of the 90’s, Morphine – especially when the saxophone comes gliding in on tracks like “Your Avenue.”) The group’s second release, Goodbye Crooked Scar, is steeped in the strangely gothic (not necessarily goth) pop of the 1980’s.
I have a huge soft spot for the music of the 80’s. It’s the music I grew up with, and when I’m looking for comfort music – tunes I can just mindlessly sing along with – I usually go for R.E.M. records, or the Smiths, or Echo & The Bunnymen. And even the Bauhaus, Siouxsie and Dead Can Dance albums, if I have the energy to dig out my vinyl. But somehow I have difficulty with The Dark Fantastic, who are drawing on these same bands for their influences, recreating a sound so faithfully that it’s easy to picture them cavorting around some sound stage in a shoddy, early MTV-styled video, with lots of moody lighting and a guy in a giant bug costume menacing the band members.
Especially weird is the fact that bandleader Mark Pickerel spent the 80’s playing drums for the brilliant SST (and SubPop, and Epic) punk rock band Screaming Trees. With that fact in mind, it’s definitely possible to see the relationship between his new band and the material that Trees’ singer Mark Lanegan produced on some of his early solo efforts (indeed, Pickerel shows up as the drummer on Lanegan’s first solo record, The Winding Sheet). But where Lanegan opted for stripped-down, almost country sounding arrangements for his sparse tunes, Pickerel dresses up his songs in layers of spooky guitars, moody percussion and spacey effects.
This is not to say the songs themselves aren’t good. That’s the thing. The songs are *really* good. Eerie and evocative, in places the record reminds me of early Love & Rockets albums (in particular Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven), only better produced – less reliant on chorus-effect-drenched vocals and gated snare sounds. Pickerel produced Goodbye Crooked Scar himself, alongside Martin Feveyear, and the pair managed to perfectly capture the best sounds of the mid-80’s, and for that they must be congratulated. A track like “Architect,” among my personal favorites, could easily have been recorded during Echo & The Bunnymen’s sessions for Ocean Rain in 1984.
Yet I can’t help but feel sort of ambivalent. Sort of. I can’t even really decide if I feel ambivalent, that’s how ambivalent I feel. And I have to wonder whether I would feel this way if I didn’t *know* that Goodbye Crooked Scar was a new album. They could have sent me this record with no label and told me it was some obscure 80s re-issue. And listening to tracks like “When Night Lost Meaning,” with its breathy, Cocteau Twins-like background vocals and trippy, reverb-laden guitar, I would have believed it without a doubt. And I most likely would have dug it like a grave.
But as it is, Goodbye Crooked Scar sounds so weirdly dated that I can’t help but wonder what Pickerel’s up to. Is his tongue in his cheek? I doubt it; there’s no musical ‘wink’ that lets me in on it. When Pickerel sits down at a piano or with a guitar in his lap, these must really be the kinds of tunes that just naturally come bubbling forth. A telling clue comes near the end of the record, in the song “My Wandering Eye,” which concludes with the line “Old habits don’t die / and now I know why.” Pickerel, in addition to his musical talents, is also the proprietor of a popular used record store in the Pacific Northwest. Which means he probably spends a lot of his free time listening to obscure records, a la John Cusack in “High Fidelity.”
I guess, ultimately, I have no problem with that. I don’t own a record store, and I *still* sit around doing those things. My girlfriend kind of rolled her eyes when we saw “High Fidelity” last year, because she recognized me up there on the screen. I was just glad to know that I wasn’t the only one. And now I’ve discovered that Mark Pickerel does it too, plus he gets to make records that will go into other people’s collections. Which is a pretty great trick. As it stands, this will be a record for a long drive at night, hopefully in the rain. Singing along with its tales of loneliness and desperation will help me get to wherever it is I’m going. And if that happens to be down memory lane, so be it.