The Ghost of the Mountain

Gary Lightbody's supergroup release a worthy follow up to The Place We Ran From

Much like difficult second albums and cancelled tours due to exhaustion, the humble side project is an absolute staple of rock 'n' roll.

Since time immemorial (well, the 1970s at least), this sub genre has been favoured by bored egotists, huffy band members who have had enough of their day jobs and artists who feel that their fans need to hear a 16-minute long acid jazz track because bassoon solo wails, man.

More often than not the results prove to be bland at best, unlistenable at worst, but big name songwriters are often indulged because they have a proven track record, can spend lots of their own money on production and know how to pitch to label execs hungry for profits.

However, every now and then someone gets it right – in this case, Gary Lightbody. Tired Pony feature the combined talents of the Snow Patrol frontman, REM’s Peter Buck and Belle and Sebastian’s Richard Colburn – as well as Iain Archer, Jacknife Lee and a cast of others. Born in 2010, their debut record, The Place We Ran From, that took many by surprise.

It was, for the most part, pretty damn good. Pulling off a neat trick of sounding like the sum of their parts and also a brand new entity entirely, their country-infused Americana sounds marked these ponies out as thoroughbreds and left many, including this writer, excited about what would happen next.

Three years later, Tired Pony are back with The Ghost Of The Mountain, and while they have left behind the likes of Zooey Deschanel, M Ward and Editors' Tom Smith (who all appeared on their debut), this time around they've roped in singer/actresses Minnie Driver, Kim Topper and Bronagh Gallagher as big name collaborators.

Described by Lightbody as 'a fully-formed band in full flight', The Ghost Of The Mountain certainly feels like a group effort. It's by no means a vanity project. Centred around two characters – a male and a female who also featured on their debut, 'composite characters of lots of people who I’ve met in America', according to the band's chief songwriter – The Ghost of the Mountain follows their story at different points in their lives.

As with all good tales of love and loss, the American couple have been through hell and back after doing something terrible. (Unfortunately, Lightbody won't reveal what it is they did, so we have to use our imaginations.) Unashamedly soppy and heartsick throughout, the record is a wide-screen, cinematic listen that takes the Americana-influenced soundscapes of Tired Pony's country debut and adds in some soul, indie and folk for good measure.

Recorded over nine days in Topanga Canyon, the album opens with scene-setter 'I Don't Want You As A Ghost'. Arguably one of Lightbody's best vocal performances to date, here he sounds raspy and strained, and does a fantastic job of selling the story as brooding synths and sweet soul backing vocals score the events.

From there, the likes of the Beatles-esque 'Blood' – all clanking keys and staccato rhythms – add some welcome up-tempo pop rock to proceedings, while the introduction of a drum machine on the beautiful, folksy 'Wreckage And Bone' fleshes the tune out and proves that Tired Pony have learned a few new tricks since their last effort.

There are some stumbles along the way, 'The Beginning Of The End' being the main offender. Sounding a little too much like a Snow Patrol cast-off, this run of the mill indie number feels out of place next to the haunting title track, for instance. Elsewhere 'The Creak In The Floorboards', which starts off like a subdued 'The Boys Of Summer', sadly strays too much away from the country vibe and more into the tried and tested realms of stadium rock.

Still, the good definitely outweighs the bad (and the ugly) on The Ghost of the Mountain, and the spaghetti western strains of 'All Things All At Once' linger long in the memory – this track, for me, is a potential classic. As with the album opener, it boasts another stellar vocal performance from Lightbody and it alone is worth the price of the download.

The Ghost of the Mountain is available to download from iTunes now.