Review: Marked Men, Ghosts

Let me confess before I begin: I think The Marked Men are the best band of this young century. On certain days, I think they are the greatest band to have ever existed. They could have released a garden hose and I would have called it the first cumming of Christ.

The Marked Men’s new album Ghosts is not only their finest work, it should be enshrined in the musical cannon as the punk rock album of our generation. Ever since The Marked Men formed from the dust of The Reds in 2002, they have been chiseling away at the three-minute pop-punk song, rending its edges so that its most elementary fibers are exposed to the world. Hailing from the southern punk Mecca of Denton, Texas, these veterans have been distilling “the punk album” to its highest proof for nigh on a decade. With co-songwriter (and innovative leader) of the group Mark Burke leaving for the much stranger pastures of That Mythical Land Over The Horizon (Japan), they gave themselves one final shot to set the formula right. And they made a damn fine effort of it.

One could argue that The Marked Men’s last album, Fix My Brain, backpedaled slightly from their sophomore masterpiece On The Outside. Or at least, I would argue that. I know people who say that each album has progressively improved, and while I recognize the virtues of their arguments, I simply can’t agree. The slurred pace of Fix My Brain couldn’t hold the weight of the musical ideas that The Marked Men had placed on its shoulders. To my ears, where the first album was frenetic and the second was furious, the third was flimsy. They had all the pop hooks that seared On The Outside into my memory, yet without the conviction to let them tear at my soul.

Where Fix My Brain is the spiritual successor of On The Outside, Ghosts is clearly the extended thesis of their self-titled debut. And for those who throw Ghosts on once and dismiss it as an off-kilter play on their first release, you have my sympathy. Meanwhile, I’m content knowing that every single album sounds different, while always sounding like The Marked Men. Ghosts is not an album that is made for first impressions. In fact, if you’ve never heard any of The Marked Men’s material before, I recommend taking the time to run through their previous releases as a primer.

Ghosts is an album that challenges the listener: It will lay down a honeysweet vocal hook, and immediately finish the song; the guitar works only to further the idea of a melody, either relegated to two-chord pounding, or completely dominating a song; drum fills exist for a beat at a time, signifying a phrase change and then subsiding back into the 200 BPM fury that lives under the song itself. Many songs will do all of these things simultaneously. The Marked Men have essentially made their statement on what a punk album should be: Sparse and complex, reckless and tight.

If you’d like some idea of how important this album is to my life, imagine this: I own an iPod shuffle and this is the only album on it. I’m going to keep it that way until I feel the need to listen to something else. Right now, the only thing that is even giving this album a run for its money is my longing to listen to the older Marked Men albums.

Out of pure curiosity, I sat down and tried to write down what I thought of every song as it played. I gave myself no more time to expound upon my emotions as was allowed by the song: No corrections, no second-guessing. I did my absolute best to balance grammar, commentary, and insight at a breakneck pace. Fifteen tracks of this ephemeral complexity call for extraordinary tactics. I felt it was the only way to justly summarize what this album is all about: a million things erupting into existence, one shot to contain them.

So, if you are so idle as to want more of my rambling, feel free to peruse my take on every track on the album, two minutes at a time:

All In Your Head – Starts strong. Mike’s drums have consistently gone up in the mix, and starting with the hi-hat here it’s obvious that that tradition continues. I like it. Overall this is pretty standard MM. It could easily fit onto one of their middle albums: short verses, complex chorus’ with lots of backups and word/music exchange, straight ahead guitar solo that ends on that signature MM squeal. Then the chorus comes back and you remember that this band writes a pop hook about as well as anyone. Still, not so far from the beaten path.

Ditch – Mark is really coming into his own as a song writer. This is stronger than any of his other opening songs. It’s clear from the chorus that Jeff’s song writing style is rubbing off on him, even while he struggles to keep his own voice. And really, that chorus “Ditch. Stuck in a Ditch.” is damn catchy. The pre-chorus has quite a bit to recommend it as well, though as a whole this song doesn’t really hit quite as hard as what is coming up on this album…

Fortune – And holy shit. Here we go. This is the first song that really let’s you know what this album is going to do. It’s fitting that Jeff kicks off the transition, as he has been the major creative force in the songwriting on the albums so far. The verses are absolutely solid, with some complex interplay between the vocals and guitar. And goddamn, that pause into the chorus is just priceless. It’s obvious that Jeff knows what he’s doing with this song because he only gives you the gold once and then moves onto the next song. Leaves you begging. Also, who fucking knew Joe could shred the bass like he does at the end of this song? Christ.

My Love – A pretty clear throwback to their first album. It’s the song that relies most on the lyrics. Unfortunately, the simple fare doesn’t hold up as well as some of the other songs. The chorus hits just when it needs to and when Mike comes off of the hi-hat and into the ride the song takes you for a ride. Still, as the guitar feedback comes in and we get another round of the chorus we know that this songs “time is up.”

I Must Be Dead – Some solid screaming to set this song off. I love it when this band leans on their vocal chops and cuts back on the guitar. When they finally come back into it on the second verse, with a relatively simple, chordless guitar line, they really set up the rest of the song well. The solo doesn’t go far from previous MM territory, but when they come back with “and act like a child. Woh oh oh oh…” We know that they have hit the right spot. Classic S/T finish too.

Head Set – Probably my least favorite song on the record. Another song that relies pretty heavily on the lyrics and with a bit of a forced guitar line. It’s that kind of off kilter progression that works so well on the later songs; but where Jeff can turn key changes and odd notes into magic, it just seems a bit out of Mark’s ability. Still, as the weakest song on the album, it’s still definitely listenable, it just doesn’t really come FUCK

Locked Up – Fuck Yeah! This might be my favorite punk song every written. Jeff takes the system before: quick changes, straight to the point verses, choruses, and solos, and packs it in as quickly as possible. Doesn’t give you any time to sit back, just rock rock rock. The end hits and you don’t even understand how complex the song you just listened to was.

Not That Kid – Another scorcher. I really like when the verses pound as hard as this and the chorus comes in and sets everything into a pop lullaby. Another song that doesn’t stick around very long and doesn’t give everything away on the first listen. The final chorus has SO MUCH going on in it, between chord changes playing off of lyrics and drums that sound like a whole different song: Great shit.

Stay Away – Another song where the vocals take a back seat to the chord changes. The opening sets up the basic idea of the song and they really drill it home well. By the time they hit the bridge you have forgotten the little guitar hook, but you expect it to hit subconsciously before it happens. Even after one listen. That’s solid fucking pop writing right there. Even though the chorus doesn’t do much for me, the mental trick they play is pretty cool.

Get To You – As can be expected, the MM slow down a bit before hitting the home stretch. This is the last song that really leans heavily on lyrics, but this time there is a huge payoff. They pull from so many of their previous songs, taking those lines that everyone loved to sing aloud as they listened, then condensed them into one song that slows down just enough to let you sing the whole thing. When they really get into the groove and bring in the patented, MM-back-up-filled chorus, you are on your knees screaming “I would die if I missed you.”

Ghosts – Yup, there’s a reason this is the title track. Fuck Mark. You have really quadrupled your song writing over these four albums. Where Jeff has a pretty discernible sound, Mark’s musical arc just keeps going and going. I know I’ve said it a lot, and I will say it more in the next few paragraphs, but goddamn this band writes COMPLEX fucking punk songs. I’m probably on listen number 50 and I’m still hearing little fills and bass lines that are just making themselves apparent, even though I knew they were there. I read a review before that said something like “Hearing and listening to this album are two different things” and this song proves it. OOOOOHHHH OOOOOOHHHH!!!

Shaky Ground – Keep that tempo up. Fuck, did he just say “It feels like death to me, this haunted century”? If he did, color me impressed. If he didn’t, I don’t care. This song is just a fucking straight ahead rocker. Sounds like it could come off the S/T but the chorus and verse play are so clearly new that you begin to appreciate, fuck it’s over.

Red Light Rumors – Joe! We haven’t heard him sing on an album yet. And while he isn’t exactly a Jeff or Mark, who can legitimately sing, he puts his fucking heart into and it shows. The song writing is great, though I don’t know who can be thanked for that, but the verse guitar parts are on a whole ‘nother level. It’s obvious to see why The Reds were so popular. When these two really get to play together full on, they are fucking unbeatable in the punk world. So many parts, so many little hooks buried in the mix. Glad to hear solid backups again.

One More Time – When you hear the opening screech you think it’s almost certainly the closer, then you see another track. Shit yeah. MM finally realize that they have a fucking weapon behind the kit. After hearing this song I wish every MM song had two drum tracks. In fact, if they did a tour with The Cherry Valence, I would kill to see a two set, two drummer rock orgy fiesta. Dreams. Oh yeah, there is nothing wrong with this song, by the way. So many great parts I can’t list them here, but I will just say that The Beatles would kill for the MM’s sense of vocal play and harmony. So, so fucking good. And then they come back and end it on guitars because they know they can. Just awesome. Two drums to close it out is poy-fect.

Blew My Head – I’m willing to sacrifice the time to count: Okay, 17 chord changes in the verse. Maybe that’s why they don’t need a fucking chorus. The vocals are so unbelievably strong on this song. They go through a few different keys and it never sounds like anything is out of place. When those drums come back for the second verse, and the last on the album, you know that you are about to lose something really special. There is absolutely nothing in the world that sounds like this. And to close it all out, is that piano or synth I hear? Where every other MM album would end on a solid scream, with some harmonized pop hooks backing them up, they let their chops talk for them. Classic.


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