Stardust Angels Ghosts
BY JONATHAN WIDRAN
With the release of his sonically, rhythmically, and thematically eclectic fourth album, Nick Binkley discovers the solution to a challenge many artists endure trying to find the perfect title for a collection whose songs cover a great expanse of concepts and topics. Giving the fascinating 12 track set the unique name Stardust Angels Ghosts helps whet our appetite for the fresh, freewheeling flow to come – and totally justifies a musical approach that’s delightfully all over the map, from tender romantic ballads and hard-edged rockers to infectious lighthearted pop, gritty Americana and, on two of the three spirited songs inspired by his wife Sam, lilting reggae in collaboration with the late Jamaican legend “Toots” Hibbert, leader of the Grammy winning ska/reggae band Toots and the Maytals.
Binkley is releasing Stardust Angels Ghosts eight years after Binkley’s critically acclaimed 100 Parts of Heart, which celebrated and eulogized the life of his late wife and reflected on the long healing process, its shadowy movement from darkness and despair to glimpses of light. The emotional core of the new album is the three personal yet universal, wildly romantic and gratitude filled “Sam Songs” – “Brown Eyed Angel,” “Black on White” and “J’can Girl” -which collectively show a heart that’s healed, healthy and loving once again at a joyous full throttle. But reflecting on his being the proverbial Phoenix rising from the flames of loss and despair via the angel in his life is just part of the multi-faceted magic on the album.
In a streaming dominated age where album art is often an afterthought or at best reduced to a thumbnail, the cover imagery of Stardust Angels Ghosts by San Diego based artist Rion Schmid is an adventurous revelation. It depicts a vibrant, mystical, visually provocative and thematically illustrative depiction of a troubadour moving ghost-like through a dreamy, impressionistic barren desert landscape into a bright, colorful urban cityscape crackling with fiery energy. (In a more literal sense, when he was once in the Peace Corps in Tunisia, he spent days at a time in the desert landscapes of the Sahara). The concept so perfectly aligns with the H.G. Wells classic 1897 novel “The Invisible Man” that Schmid used the unique font that was on the cover of the original book for the title of the album.
Looking over his fascinating multi-faceted life careers in and outside of music, Binkley resonates with the “invisible man” idea in a variety of very personal ways. “The troubadour in me is like a ‘ghost in my own lost and found’ visiting in song many different realms in my lifetime,” he says. “When I look back on my life in the high-rise corporate suites of New York, London and LA and the music that life inspired, and being so involved in the production of ‘Free To Rock,’ I feel like a visitor for sure, but a participating visitor, passing through all these worlds, ghost and angel, surreal and real.
“Thinking more metaphorically,” he adds, “I can tie the theme back to ‘Novi Mir,’ a political activist song I wrote and recorded with Russian pop star Vyacheslav Malezhik 25 years ago, whose title translates to ‘New Peace’ or ‘New World.’ Considering all that is happening in our tattered relations with Russia now, the song appears like a ghost of all that could have been. I am re-releasing it as a streaming single, along with a new, remastered video which includes rehearsal footage of the two of us from 26 years ago.”
The Stardust element – fully embodied in the mystical/psychedelic Doors-like philosophical meditation track “Stardust” – has its roots in words of Binkley’s long ago biology teacher (an evolutionist and Deist) and the Walt Whitman poem “Song of Myself,” first published in the poet’s 1855 volume Leaves of Grass. Binkley opens the song with a trippy, echoing spoken word line taken directly from the opening stanza: “From every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you…,” which he follows with his own lyrics ruminating on the fact – especially important to consider in these trying times of intense political division and after the pandemic era of forced isolation – that “we are stardust. . .dew drops of intelligence . . .you and me, I am you, and we’re all in this together.” The song artfully and insightfully echoes Whitman’s expression of a specific individual melting away into the abstract “myself,” as the poem explores the possibilities for communion between individuals and their earthly surroundings. Throughout the poem, Whitman attempts to prove that he as narrator, both encompasses and is indistinguishable from the universe.
The “Ghosts” aspect of Stardust Angels Ghosts” is a bit more transparent, emerging through the jangling, country-tinged pop/rocker “I Am a Ghost,” a sometimes poignant, sometimes whimsical yarn about the adventures of a spirit who is fictional but grounded in the fascinating history of those who once inhabited his family property on Orcas Island, Washington. Binkley’s sense of metaphorical poetry imbues the engaging narrative: “I am a ghost, and I am lost…caught between the light and the dark….in the twilight of my life’s last dance…I am a ghost in my own lost and found.”
Building on those clever foundations, the no holds barred aesthetic of Stardust Angels Ghosts also allows Nick to wax political, on his up to the minute lament of American politics in “Far From Home” and to the hopeful paean in “Freedom Bells,” written after Obama’s election; to setting folk-oriented acoustic music to an anonymous poem written by a patient with terminal cancer exhorting us to appreciate life’s every moment before it’s too late; to losing oneself in reflection after waking from a romantic dream; taking a whimsical psychedelic trip to the fantasy-like glitz of Times Square on “Broad Day Night”; and to create a playful old-school pop love song (“Cherry”) that’s so delightfully infectious that it is Binkley’s overwhelming choice for the album’s first music video and streamed single.
Stardust Angels Ghosts was produced by Nick Binkley with co-production credits shared by Valery Saifudinov, Steve Dudas and Mark Hart. “Black on White” and “J’can Girl” were arranged and produced by Toots Hibbert and recorded by Nigel Burrell at The Reggae Center, Kingston, Jamaica. The main tracks were recorded by Saifudinov at Flight #19 Studios in San Diego, with remote recording of instrumental and vocal tracks by Steve Dudas, Mark Hart and Clinton Davis. The main band includes Binkley on lead vocals and acoustic guitars; Dudas on lead electric guitars; Hart on backup vocals, keyboards, Hammond B-3 organ, and pedal steel and slide guitars; Richard Sellers on drums and percussion; and Mike Kennedy on bass.
In addition to Toots Hibbert on drums, keyboards and electric guitars on “Black On White” and “J’can Girl,” Toots’ son, Hopeton Hibbert, plays electric bass. The album also features the late bassist, Doug Lunn’s last ever session performance with Binkley on “Slow Dance.” Other guests include John Rekevics on sax and flute, Erdis Maxhelaku on cello and Clinton Davis on fiddle. Choral arrangements for “Freedom Bells” were produced and conducted by Cedric Baltrip.