The new album by the Dead 27s, Ghosts are Calling Out, starts off with a string of strutting, gritty rockers, moving from the Zeppelin-style swagger of "What a Waste" to a bouncing, late-'60s garage-rock nugget called "Queen." After slowing the tempo somewhat with a sweet-and-sour twin-guitar tune reminiscent of post-reunion Allman Bros., the band pulls a bit of a switcheroo. Suddenly the heavy guitar rock gives way to a warm, infectious mix of soul, funk, and gospel. "Grey Skies" sounds like it could be a lost Stax Records gem, and the pulsing, ascending chorus on "Fantastic" is anchored by a molasses-thick rhythm section that would make Al Green and his producer Willie Mitchell proud.
It's not an easy balance to strike, and the 27s are even able to bring things full circle toward the end of the album with a gorgeous wide-screen acoustic ballad and one final rocker before calling it a day. It's a full-album experience in an age of singles and EPs, and guitarist Wallace Mullinax says that's exactly how they planned it.
"Sequencing the album was definitely something we spent a lot of time working on," he says. "We didn't want to do a concept album per se, but we wanted the experience of an album as opposed to what you get sometimes these days where people are really just focused on a single and there's not a whole lot of flow from start to finish. We were really focused on taking the listener on a journey. Of course you want to start out with some good rock songs up front — that's kind of our bread and butter. But we really like funk, we like soul, and we thought it would be kind of cool to get some of that going deeper into the record."
The album follows the band's self-produced EP, Chase Your Devils Down, by two years, and Mullinax says the game plan going into their debut full-length was completely different than their first recordings. "The learning curve was pretty steep the first time out," he says. "You definitely learn how the band works. It lays the framework for how the next session will go. You figure out different roles for different players. But other than that I really don't know if there's a whole lot of overlap, because the songs were so different that the approaches were more tailored to some of these songs. We were doing some different stuff."
A lot of that difference comes from Ghosts are Calling Out's producer, Ben Ellman, who plays sax with the New Orleans instrumental funk outfit Galactic and has done production work for Trombone Shorty and the Revivalists. "Ben was like another band member for these sessions, maybe even the most important band member," Mullinax says. "And it was a very different experience for us. Self-producing is great if it's your first time — you kind of have this idea about how you want everything to sound. You're trying to get your ideas out there. But this time it was so cool to have someone shake it up for us. Ben definitely had a lot of ideas for the production stuff that's really over our heads as far as how to get these sounds out of this instrument."
Mullinax is certainly still in awe of Ellman's work on the album. "He is such a dedicated, focused worker," he says. "I was whipped from those sessions. We'd do guitar tracks, and it would be an all-day thing, from 9 a.m. to 10 at night. But the next day, I'd get to come in and just hang out and watch someone else do their thing. Ben couldn't do that. He worked as hard as he could every day. I can't really overstate how much he helped us develop the vision and see it through."
Not that the band didn't do their fair share of prep work. The songs on Ghosts are Calling Out were tweaked to near-perfection before the band set foot in the studio. "When we started getting the ideas together, we'd do band retreats where somebody's uncle would have a house somewhere and we'd just go take it over," Mullinax says. "We really worked hard on demos. We did three or four of these writing sessions, and we'd try to put the songs together and send them to Ben. We weren't able to do that with the first record."
The album as a whole puts off a serious "old-school" vibe, both in terms of the warm, analog-sounding percussion and the band's throwback rock and soul style. Mullinax says that's a fair description but adds one caveat. "Those are our influences for sure, those old soul and funk and rock records from the '60s and '70s," he says. "But I think that what we tried to do with this record was remain true to those tones, the nuts and bolts of that music, but up the production a bit and feel a little more current. A lot of artists are doing this throwback sound where they want it to sound like it was recorded at Stax or Chess Records. We didn't want to go that far. We wanted to give you the parts of those old records that sounded so good but then try to give you some new sounds that make it interesting. That's the idea — to take that stuff forward."