2009 release, a creepy yet cool release from this duo featuring actor Ryan Gosling. The other half of Dead Man's Bones is fellow Canadian Zach Shields. The pair recorded the album with Silverlake Conservatory Children's Choir in Los Angeles. The duo describe their musical inspiration as 'Disney's Haunted Mansion, Doo Wop and '60s girl groups'.
Review by Heather Phares
It's a blessing and a curse that one half of Dead Man's Bones is Academy Award-nominated actor Ryan Gosling. It's a blessing because Gosling and his partner, Zach Shields, undoubtedly got more attention for their self-titled debut album than they would have otherwise, and something of a curse because it may not be seen for as genuine a project as it is. Shields and Gosling originally conceived of Dead Man's Bones as a horror-themed musical, but kept the songs they had written when they realized putting on a stage production would be too expensive. Despite the high concept, Dead Man's Bones are pretty far from a vanity project -- if anything, they're the opposite, with Gosling and Shields stretching far from their comfort zones at almost every turn. They played instruments they'd never touched before making the album, and brought in the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children's Choir to add young voices to their virtually untrained ones. They also set rules for themselves while recording: no electric guitars or click tracks were allowed, and they could only do three takes for any given part. All of this gives Dead Man's Bones the feeling -- in the best possible way -- of a bootleg recording of an elaborate grade-school Halloween pageant. By embracing their amateurism so completely, Gosling and Shields turn any weaknesses into strengths, and while influences ranging from the Arcade Fire and Beirut to Roy Orbison to the Langley Schools Music Project to Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride can be heard, the way Dead Man's Bones combine them is unique. Over the course of the album, the duo covers an array of moods and sounds that more experienced musicians would be glad to express. These songs range from gentle ("Dead Hearts"' spectral folk) to dark and driving ("Lose Your Soul") to fiery (the Nick Cave-esque "Dead Man's Bones"), and sometimes all at once. Some of the most striking tracks mix jubilant music with images of death -- or undeath, in the case of "My Body's a Zombie for You," where the kids can't help but shout out the chorus as Gosling croons like a zombie-fied '50s teen idol. Dead Man's Bones also do a fine job of balancing the campy and spiritual aspects of a concept album about love, death, and undeath. "In the Room Where You Sleep" is gleefully terrifying; "Young & Tragic," the only song the Silverlake Conservatory kids sing on their own, uses their delicate, flawed voices to express something deeper. Throughout it all, there is a "hey, kids, let's put on a show!" exuberance that makes the album all the more winning. Dead Man's Bones isn't perfect, but it's often fascinating and nearly always charming -- and Shields and Gosling wouldn't have it any other way.
Some records are an absolute void of interesting review angles, forcing us critics to do, like, actual work. Dead Man's Bones is not one of those records. Fact: Indie dreamboat and RealDoll lover portrayer Ryan Gosling is one-half of Los Angeles band Dead Man's Bones. Wow! Fact: Dead Man's Bones' self-titled debut is a concept album vaguely about supernatural themes, released less than a month before Halloween! Gee! Fact: The vast majority of Dead Man's Bones utilizes a real-life, full-on children's choir, recruited from hipster kid academy the Silverlake Conservatory of Music. TILT TILT TILT! Step aside Girls, we've got a new backstory winner for 2009.
It's a credit to the record then that none of these angles turn out to be easy nooses by which to hang the project. The one triggering most alarm bells, of course, is Gosling's involvement, since everyone knows that movie-star bands tend to range from amateurishly terrible to inoffensively generic. Well, I'll dispel that preconception straight away-- Dead Man's Bones is a really, really weird record, a project where the musical reference points at least indicate that Gosling and his co-conspirator Zach Shields have record collections that go deeper than an iPod nano.
The other two angles-- spooky themes and a kid's choir-- are both symptoms of the record's most endearing quality, a surplus of ideas and a willingness to combine them in ways that are vibrant, sloppy, and fun. Though the record begins with a pretentious spoken-word introductory track (kind of a necessary concept-album evil) followed by its worst song (the Ambien-overdosed and over-serious "Dead Hearts"), the remainder of the project is slapdash, giddy, and surprisingly dense. Like an old Elephant 6 record, Dead Man's Bones has a lo-fi warts-and-all feel that's less lazy aesthetic than charmingly handmade, even more charismatic for it's unevenness.
That enthusiasm manifests itself best in places like the hand-clap percussion that propels "Lose Your Soul" and "In the Room Where You Sleep", both of which feature Gosling's surprisingly effective croon. Songs follow unusual paths-- "In the Room" goes from "Monster Mash" organ-rock to a soft Rhodes coda; "My Body's a Zombie For You" has a flute solo breakdown and an a cappella chant; several songs repurpose laughter and chatter from the kids of the choir as ambient noise. And while most of the supernatural themes are more grade-school Halloween party than horror movie, there are a handful of genuinely unsettling moments-- the aquatic ghost story of "Buried in Water" slashed through with sad, shrill children's voices that remind of Bob Drake's brilliantly scary The Skull Mailbox; a creepy whispered monologue in the middle of "Young & Tragic" that sounds like a kid conversing with an imaginary friend.
I recognize that the children's choir might be a dealbreaker for some, but the tenaciousness with which Dead Man's Bones use the choir should win over all but the most ardent kid-haters. Sure, there's a bit of the time-honored Roger Waters tradition of making kids sing slightly inappropriate lyrics-- the first line they're given to sing is the eerie "Like a lamb to the slaughter" and their participation on a song called "My Body's a Zombie For You" is ever so slightly disconcerting. But the kids also add swooping, dramatic "woah-ohhhs" that would make the Arcade Fire jealous, and get some meatier parts in the harmonized syncopations of "Lose Your Soul" or the showtuney curtain-dropping chorus of "Flowers Grow Out of My Grave".
Overall, I'm as surprised as you are with Dead Man's Bones. So many ways for it to go wrong, but instead it's a unique, catchy and lovably weird record, with highlights (the electric piano singalong "Pa Pa Power", the Beck-ish "Werewolf Heart") that could hold their own with the best indie singles of the year. Perhaps all those easy angles are a smokescreen, a diversion to lower expectations on a record strong enough to be listened to both without preconceptions and long after its Halloween expiration date.
— Rob Mitchum, October 6, 2009