.The Lightness of Dark

Brooklyn’s Charming Disaster laughs at life’s gloom

Charming Disaster, the duo composed of singer/ukulele player Ellia Bisker and singer/guitarist Jeff Morris, write songs that concentrate on subjects seldom explored in popular music. Ghosts, paranormal activity and other inexplicable events drift through their singular lyrics, while the music remains upbeat.

“It’s true that we take on dark material, but our approach is pretty lighthearted,” the duo said, speaking as one. “We both have an appreciation for folklore and scary stories, along with a macabre sense of humor, so our music tends to live in the dark part of the forest. As for our own experiences with the supernatural, so far they’re pretty much limited to being possessed by songs that want to get channeled through us, but we’re open to other proposals.”

Super Natural History, the band’s latest effort, continues to showcase their fascination with forbidden subjects.

“The title of the record expresses the Venn diagram of interests we explore on this album,” the duo said. “There’s the paranormal or mystical realm of ‘supernatural’ and the scientific world of ‘natural history.’ People seem to interpret the album title according to where their own interests lie, so it’s a bit of a Rorschach test. It all comes down to curiosity and wonder in the phenomena we observe around us.”

The duo continued, “The oldest tune, ‘Bat Song,’ dates back to 2016, although it didn’t get finished until a couple of years later. It isn’t unusual for us to work on a song for a long time. The most recent ones are ‘Monsters,’ ‘Paris Green’ and ‘Mold and the Metals,’ which were completed in early 2021.”

When the songs were ready to go, the duo recorded some of them at their home studio in Brooklyn and others at Figure 8, with engineer Hilary Johnson. Final overdubs and mixes were finished at Figure 8, with Don Godwin.

“It can be tricky to simultaneously think as musicians, engineers and producers,” the duo said. “How do we want it to sound? How are we playing? What’s the best take and performance? At home, we were able to take as long as we needed to get the takes exactly right, but we were working in a space not acoustically designed for recording. We had to accept a certain amount of environmental ambiance, which perhaps lends a certain organic quality to those tracks.”

“Working with Hilary, at [Brooklyn’s] Figure 8, allowed us to focus on our execution and artistry in a live band scenario, trusting her ears and her aesthetic judgment,” the duo added. “Since our time there was limited, there was a sense of urgency that perhaps comes through in the energy of those tracks. Overdubbing additional parts and mixing with Don Godwin, who also played drums and bass, unified these two groups of recordings, connecting this album with our past releases. We’ve worked with Don on all of our albums, in some capacity.”

As on their previous albums—Cautionary Tales (2017), SPELLS + RITUALS (2019) and Our Lady of Radium (2022)—the performances have a low-key, Gothic pop approach. “Grimoire” is a tango that tips a pointed hat to the Wicked Witch of the West. The lyrics are sprinkled with images from the Wizard of Oz film and magical folklore, with the duo alternating between lead vocals and flowing harmonies.

Ellia and Jeff lean to the folk side on “Wrong Way Home.” It’s just two voices, guitar, uke and minimal percussion, describing life on stage with all its joys and uncertainties. They gently rock out on “Monsters,” a song about carnal carnivores and their various appetites. The lyrics are full of innuendos, given a wink and a nudge by their close harmonies on the chorus.  

“In our recordings, we try to realize the songs in their most elaborate form, the Platonic ideal—short of the London Symphony Orchestra, that is,” the duo said. “When it’s time to take them on the road, we have to strip down the recorded arrangements. We do everything we can as two people which, in addition to uke and guitar and voices, includes foot percussion.”

They added, “Ellia plays a hi-hat and Jeff plays a kick drum made out of a vintage suitcase that looks like a tombstone, with the band’s name on it. It’s primitive, but effective. It makes us sound more like a band than just two singer/songwriters.”

Charming Disaster plays the Make Out Room, 3225 22nd St., San Francisco, this Sunday, Dec. 10 at 7pm. More info at makeoutroom.com. Listen to the band’s music on their website: charmingdisaster.com or watch them on their YouTube channel: youtube.com/charmingdisasterband.

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