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FINDING THE LIGHT Dark Hollow Bottling Company.

Talk about a band stepping up their game. Dark Hollow Bottling Company lead off a busy summer of releases this weekend by moving from being a pretty entertaining and fun string band to putting out a genuinely important second album in American Ghosts that is emotionally gripping and excellently executed.

The five-piece, which added drummer Nick Scala for this album (guitarist and singer for Lost Cause Desperados, among other gigs), still mines old-time country and bluegrass territory for its sounds, leaning more toward the sound romps of the former than the in-your-face instrumental leads of the latter. But lead singer and songwriter Greg Klein has penned a group of tunes, with contributions from Scala and Corey Ramsey (banjo, guitar, bass), that capture in stark terms the new experience of American life, full of disappointing marriages, impossible financial situations, and absurdities that ought to be silly but are somehow all too real.

It's hard not to spot the paired tunes, "Why We Dream" and "American Dream," as the album's center. Klein's delivery in general has a melancholy lilt to it, paired with a grittiness that speaks of real empathy, and that's perfectly suited to the asked question, "Isn't that why we dream?," where you can't quite parse whether he's serious or not. The slow roll of the banjo and the quiet peal of Riley Shryock's fiddle combine to evoke the unending grind that everyday life can sometimes feel like.

But "baby's got a sweet voice . . . mama's cooking sweet smells like a perfect harmony/Isn't that why we dream?"

"American Dream" is more of a stomp, Scala's work emphasized into a driving beat, but mixed pretty far back. This one's a trucking song, an heir to Curless's "Tombstone Every Mile," built equally on appreciating what you have and an inevitable lowering of expectations: "It's never quite as bad as it seems/Living the American Dream."

No song here is as desperate, though, as "Marrow," a seven-minute-plus narrative that opens like Sara Cox's heartbreaking "No Harm" and plays out like a long Dylan song where you could listen to as many verses as he wants to pen. As Klein's vocals and acoustic guitar are joined by a string arrangement featuring Kris Day's bowed bass, Emily Dix Thomas on cello, and Lauren Hastings on violin (this really ain't a fiddle) the tune becomes increasingly haunted by bad decisions and regret.

It's hard not to feel that one in your gut.

"Sold" is powerful commentary, too, full of the desperation only a sparsely populated yard sale can provide: "So how much for a pound of my blood?/A pound of my flesh?/What you payin' for love?"

It's slow, and measured, and the harmonies resonate wonderfully. Todd Hutchisen's production (along with his numerous instrumental contributions) is live and raw and makes sure that all of that emotion and effort comes through.

Maybe it's not the perfect, sunshiney summer fare, but if this is an indication of what's on tap for 2012's summer season, we're in for some great stuff.

AMERICAN GHOSTS | Released by Dark Hollow Bottling Company | with the Ghost of Paul Revere + Travis Cyr | at the Empire, in Portland | June 8 | darkhollowbottlingcompany.com

  Topics: CD Reviews , Todd Hutchisen, Nick Scala, banjo,  More more >
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