(feat. track – “Hold It Together” [spotify] from The Ghost That Burned Your House Down)

Left-of-center indie-pop act Cold Crows Dead emerged this past year couched in secrecy, via a few mysterious demos of (supposedly) unknown provenance leaked to industry folks, radio personalities, and, erm, this guy here (credit a chance SXSW run-in for that). There was a method behind that madness – they’ve since let slip that the project is, in fact, a collaboration between songwriter/producer Paul Steel and Murray Macleod, the frontman for Scottish grunge apologists The Xcerts, and while Cold Crows Dead doesn’t range far from Steel’s wheelhouse, it’s worlds apart from the better-known Macleod’s better-known gig.

Steel and Macleod put forth Sparklehorse as their prime inspiration, but there’s more going on here than just Mark Linkous-indebted oddball-indie. The Cold Crows Dead demos range in genre from hellhound-on-my-trail talking blues to spirally indie to tenuous freak-folk. There are bursts of music hall-Blur, and Radiohead-guitar freakouts; the softest of the tracks take on a sort of demented-Beach Boys vibe. All are shot through with an icy gothic chill. Macloed’s vocals bear witness to his aptitude for sweet melody, but exchange the damaged yelp he employs so effectively in The Xcerts for the grin of a madman: a little creepy, a little naughty, a little playful. Creative instrumentation abounds; the band incorporate everything from theremin to warped synth wheezes to muffled screams and pitch-shifted moans to paranoid spoken word (courtesy of poet Stephen Kalinich), yet it never plays as “quirky” or “wacky”. Somehow, it all works, brilliantly.

Cold Crows Dead’s first official release, the Ghost That Burned Your House Down EP,was issued in August (along with a fantastic video for the title track); it includes four of the demos, some in slightly reworked form, but a number of my favorites didn’t make the cut. I feel a little bit strange (elitist? hipster-y?) including a pile of unreleased demos in my Top Ten – they’re not freely available anywhere, and very few people have even had the opportunity to hear them – but there’s no getting around the fact that they’re easily some of my favorite, and most listened-to, tracks of 2012. The material released to the public so far is just, to quote myself, the tip of a magnificent iceberg.

The band has started playing live gigs in the last few months, and from what I understand, there will be a full-length Cold Crows Dead release in 2013, at which point a) you will be able to understand just why I’m raving like a loonie here, and b) I will find myself in the strange position of deciding whether the same songs can make my list two years in a row*.  In the meantime, The Ghost That Burned Your House Down is a good taste of what’s to come. And I may have snuck one of those demos onto my Best Of 2012 mix, if you’re so inclined.

I don’t know if Steel and Macleod have been baking up new material in the time since I received the demos; even if it just ends up being a refinement of the tracks I already have, the full-length Cold Crows Dead release is at the top of my most anticipated list for 2013. If you’d heard the demos, I guarantee you’d feel the same way.

*See also: Vampire Weekend 2007. Precedent says “no”. I say “why the heck do I care about my own precedent”?