Although they formed back in 2003, Ottawa's the Acorn didn't garner much attention until 2007's Glory Hope Mountain, an ambitious concept album that chronicled the fascinating childhood of frontman Rolf Klausener's mother. The five piece's follow-up, No Ghost, isn't built around any particular theme or narrative arc, but it still stands as an album that impresses for its scope and songcraft. The album confirms that the Acorn possesses a masterful ability to evoke specific moods from the subtler manipulations of texture and space.
While that particular skill plays well over a song cycle with a definite story to tell, it also serves the Acorn equally well over the course of No Ghost because the individual songs are so thoughtfully composed and arranged. Songs like "Kindling to Cremation" and "On the Line" often play out as sketches, with their forms emerging from light-handed touches that are repeated to build a greater overall effect. The simple guitar figure that drives "Kindling to Creation" is played in an unexpectedly deep register and positioned against the song's vocal refrain ("This is how you pass the time away"), making for a wistful call-and-response structure.
The album's best moments are those that incorporate avant-garde percussion lines and flourishes of experimental pop. The title track is a particular standout in that regard, pairing a distorted guitar chord with a heavy drumbeat that runs contrapuntal to a vigorous Afrobeat-inspired rhythm track. That the song's melody rises and swells to match the kinetic energy of the percussion gives it an impressive heft. "Cobbled from Dust" employs some squelchy feedback loops to similar effect, using them to supplement the rhythm track as much as to add texture to the song's arrangement, while "I Made the Law" uses a cacophonous snare drum battalion in the context of an otherwise straightforward blues structure. The horribly named "Bobcat Goldwraith" is bookended by an assuming loop of handclaps, finger-plucked strings, and cricket chirps, but it crescendos to an arena-sized anthem once the percussion kicks in.
Unlike many of their peers in the modern folk and pop scenes, the Acorn understands how shifts in dynamics and tempo can truly enhance a song. And Klausener is smart enough to let those aspects of his arrangements, along with his plaintive, don't-call-it-emo tenor, do as much work as his lyrics when it comes to creating moods. Even when the songs are at their loveliest, as when Klausener sings of "counting the colors at my feet" on "Slippery When Wet," there is a fully developed, complex emotional subtext to them. No Ghost may initially present itself as one of the prettiest indie-pop albums in recent memory, but its structural depth truly demands and rewards active attention.