Nikki Speake is from Alabama, Nikki and the Phantom Callers is her band and they currently make Atlanta their home. These are not just simple biographical facts from the PR notes as a way in to the review – well actually they are, but they have more meaning here than just that. The notion that this is her band and that the heritage that built it (and her) is deeply Southern is fundamental to the sound of this record. Ensuring that it is as close as Speake has yet come to delivering her vision of the music she wants to create.
The Southern Baptist church upbringing is where Speake got started on this music thing and it’s been some journey to arrive at the cracking record we have before us today. Not many would-be rock stars cut their teeth in a Future Farmers of America harmony group or have degrees in Graphic Design and Nutrition. Sensible she may be, getting career options in place in case the music thing doesn’t work out but there is no sign of that utilitarian thinking in these grooves. From start to finish it feels full pelt ‘devil’s music’, alternately rattling and slithering from the speakers with some obscenely melodic and potent kick-ass rock n roll fuelled by an unabashed emotional rawness.
Over the years Speake has played around with numerous bands, side projects and day jobs, with her commitment to full-time music waxing and waning in line with the pressures of ‘real life’. It should be to our great delight that in recent times she has devoted herself to her artistic endeavours with stints in a number of bands including the surf-noir power trio Midnight Larks (checkout their ace ‘Gunfighter’) and the all-girl psych-pop ensemble Shantih Shantih. A quick look at the bands they have shared stages with will tell you a lot of what you need to know about the sound of this record; Black Lips, L.A. Witch and Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires on the one hand and Joshua Hedley, Lydia Loveless and Shooter Jennings on the other. These playmates may lead you to expect a southern, garage-rocking country tinged sound. If you did, you’d be bang on.
Speake is clearly in charge here, songwriter in chief, lead singer and rhythm guitarist. As she herself has pointed out, this project is the first one that is all hers and she has finally put together a group that can deliver the ‘country-rock sound she has always wanted to make’. The Phantom Callers are completed by Speake’s Shantih Shantih bandmate Anna Kramer on bass and vocals, guitarist Aaron Mason and drummer Russell Owens. “Everybody’s Going to Hell (But You and Me)” was recorded at Maze Studios in Atlanta and the production delivers a full, confident sound that still has an appealing brittleness and the emotional depth to complement its complex sonics. In truth the 60’s sounding girls-in-the-garage vibe is more prominent than the country stylings and it is mainly the moody, late 60s kind of garage found in strobe-lit cellar night-clubs rather than the rowdy frat party kind.
The excessively tuneful musical settings can seem somewhat incongruous for the often dark, even macabre, bent of the lyrics. Through her songs Speake offers a Southern gothic evocation of desolation, loss and recrimination; exploring a striking darkness at odds with their predominantly luminous tone. The regional character of the record is most apparent in an almost morbid manifestation of the Southern essence that fuses the musical influences and lyrical preoccupations into something enthralling and very much the band’s own. As Speake describes it, her very Southern Baptist upbringing was surrounded by so much fundamental grief that this became the primary influence on her lyrical vision.
We have to assume that Speake is creating a series of characters for her narratives (the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate) and these characters exquisitely bring to mind detective Dave Robicheaux, another tortured Southern soul wrestling with the ghosts and demons that invade his thoughts and dreams. The parallels with masterful Texan storyteller James Lee Burke’s central protagonist are most noticeable during ‘They’ve Never Walked Through Shadows’, where the martial rhythms and sparse, cold arrangement bring to mind the battalions of marching civil war dead that increasingly torment the detective. With his sumptuous, visionary style and ageless literary themes of defeat and redemption, Burke is in many ways the perfect literary equivalent for this record.
Music which clearly references or is rooted in a particular period can be a recreation, an homage or a pastiche. On rare occasions it can be a loving extension, stacking the basic building blocks of the original in such a way as to create a new edifice that is altogether different, even challenging – as say the White Stripes or Royal Trux have done with these musical blocks in recent times. Nikki and the Phantom Callers don’t quite go that far, there is nothing extreme or out-there about their take on this sound. What they do offer though is much more than pastiche or even homage, it is a genuinely rousing and thought provoking debut record that gives us a profoundly individual take on grief, desolation and a world ill at ease with itself.