There’s a lot of talk these days about the “new normal.” It’s a sugar-coated way of referencing America in decline, of underlining a potentially permanent new reality of lowered expectations. Much like the way Great Britain realized the incredible burden of empire, America is slowly beginning to recognize, even somewhat welcome, a new way of living. But if one were to cast their gaze on the aging suburban housing, dilapidated infrastructure, and fading cultural institutions, they would realize America has been in decline for quite some time.
Minneapolis’ Haunted House is a band that understands this new normal very well. In fact, the new normal is nothing new for them at all. The American suburbs are a self-admitted point of influence for this Minnesotan quartet. Their MySpace headline used to read “elegance,” and it is that fading elegance and the resulting malaise that their music is perfectly suited to soundtrack. It is a world of empty parking lots, musky old delis, and boarded-up storefronts, a world where everything has a faded brown hue for lack of use and care.
With Guess Who’s Not Coming To Dinner, Haunted House’s music births this disturbing, dark suburban reality into existence through a sort of paranoid, brooding take on classic American rock music. Imagine Bruce Springsteen without the hope or Bob Seger coming from a much, much darker place. Frontman Mike Watton’s garbled, throaty delivery above plodding, demented trad-rock instrumentation creates a direct analog to the hopeful, carpe diem, utterly candid music of former Minneapolis resident Craig Finn and his band The Hold Steady. The band embraces (perhaps somewhat facetiously) a “jam band” tag, but — even though they do jam in the sense that their music, in one straight listen, can take on a seamless quality — the likes of Phish and Widespread Panic exist in an entirely different galaxy than Haunted House.
Haunted House’s music is incredibly hypnotic, making this reviewer bug-eyed and a little bit fidgety after listening to a handful of songs in succession. This feeling backs up the band’s self-stated characterization as “Andrew WK as an Enya-inspired blackout.” “Oriental Rugs” is the album’s first cut, sprinkled with faux-elegant electric piano and a decidedly wistful attitude, almost like a re-imagining of Max from Rushmore as a sad and drunk adult lamenting the good times long gone. “Rattled Out In Makeup” lurches mournfully in parts; in other parts, that electric piano and Watton’s from-behind-the-deli-counter murmerings take on the ominous air of one too many late, gray autumn days. “Middle of the Drums” may be the album’s high point, a song that incorporates a nice breakdown of bass solo, drum fill, and spacious keys, providing a much needed change in tempo. Album closers “The Coliseum” and “Died In An Arena” end things on a hopeful note, with bouncy electric piano and surging guitars that do their best to break the gloom and malaise of the rest of the record.
The monotony of the vocals, the electric piano-styled keyboards, and the middling tempo can make listening to Guess Who’s Not Coming To Dinner a tedious process, but it can also reinforce an atmosphere of living the same Groundhog Day repeatedly, to the point where everything becomes a blur, where even the most pointed aspects of life are worn to a dull edge. I’m not sure that the sonic reality Haunted House creates is a reality in which I’d like to live, but a visit every now and then is certainly okay.