Tim W. Jackson
Feb 24, 2023
Charming Disaster Conjures New Album
The song titles let you know this album ain’t from Taylor Swift or Harry Styles: “Mold and the Metals,” “Grimoire,” Manta Rays,” “Bat Song,” and “Disembodied Head,” for example. These tracks plus five more come from the fifth album by Brooklyn-based indie goth-folk duo Charming Disaster.
They’re unusual, spooky, wickedly talented, and completely unafraid to delve deep into the underworld in exploration of all things lurking in the dark. Their new album Super Natural History releases on CD, as a 12-inch colored vinyl LP, and on all digital platforms on March 3, 2023, and is self-described as, “a musical cabinet of curiosities … [uniting] the worlds of magic and science with songs that explore subjects like witchcraft, monsters, and the underworld, alongside bats, plants, poisons, and parasites.” In short, it presents alternate ways of seeing the world and considering its mysteries.
I can’t recall whether I stumbled across the Charming Disaster video for their song “Blacksnake” or if someone who knew my penchant for all things dark, macabre, and somewhat sinister sent it to me, but I do remember immediately loving it. That was about a year ago, and I quickly discovered that the duo had just released an album called Our Lady of Radium. Then, I watched the video for “Radium Girls,” which again, was superb, and off I went down the Charming Disaster rabbit hole.
A year later, and with the duo on the verge of birthing a new album, I was eager to hear the new music and pass along my thoughts to you, the beloved readers of Mixed Alternative. But first, a wee bit of background on this wonderfully weird pairing that is Ellia Bisker (ukulele and vocals) and Jeff Morris (guitar and vocals). With song topics dabbling in the mythical and macabre, nature and science, Charming Disaster blends those motifs in an amalgamation of folk, cabaret, and even musical theater to produce eclectic songs rooted in their own particular interests.
Some of the songs on Super Natural History were first recorded as early as 2021. Four tracks were recorded that year at Figure 8 in Brooklyn, NY, engineered by Hillary Johnson with bassist Bob Smith and drummer Rob Garcia joining Bisker and Morris. Five songs were recorded more recently at Tonal Park in Takoma Park, MD, with Don Godwin contributing bass, drums, and horns as well as engineering and mixing. The final track was a home recording, so, even their recording methods are eclectic!
As you dig into the album, a familiar theme of the paranormal pops up in the lead track, “Monsters”:
Can’t help what we hunger for
With appetites of carnivores
Teeth and talons, horns and fur
We are grotesque and powerful
This song is a wonderful opener to the album and sets the stage for the odd journey that lies ahead as the listener proceeds to hear a collection of songs far from the overproduced pop or country tunes that rule the radio. In fact, you won’t hear “Monsters” or any of the other nine songs on this album on mainstream radio, and that’s probably a good sign. In fact, we think that's definitely a good sign.
Bisker and Morris say they find their inspiration “in the gothic humor of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton, the murder ballads of the American Folk tradition, and the dramatic flair of the cabaret.” I can attest those influences hold true on this new album.
In a departure for the duo, the ninth track, “Manta Rays,” is a spoken collection of information about, well, manta rays. Factual and fun, weird and wonderful, it feels like it could have roots in Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Another song that is somewhat a departure from the usual for Charming Disaster is “Bat Song,” which is a slower, beautiful melody with stripped-down instrumentation and higher-octave vocals.
After some initial indecision, I finally concluded that “Disembodied Head” is my favorite song on the album. Bisker and Morris mentioned it has the vibe of something from Mark Mothersbaugh and Devo, but I’m hearing a bit of B-52s or even Southern Culture on the Skids in this tune that is the definition of an earworm.
You might be tempted to think Charming Disaster is some sort of novelty act, and in some ways, I suppose that’s true. But their song “Monsters,” for instance, is a long way from “The Monster Mash” or any of those one-hit, quirky novelty tunes. (Looking at you Rick Dees and “Disco Duck.”)
With subject matter that almost always strays from the mainstream, Charming Disaster uses makeup, fashion, and theatrical techniques in its live shows to create a certain vibe that has been developed over the past decade. Seeing them adds to your overall narrative regarding what Charming Disaster is all about. But as this album proves, the music stands on its own as an enjoyable listen, even without the optics.
Ultimately, Bisker and Morris are talented storytellers, and they prove that you can have interesting songs about topics other than love and lust, yearning and loss. They also have a knack for making the macabre fun. Super Natural History is certainly worth checking out, which we urge you to do. And looking into my crystal ball, I predict you’ll find yourself listening to their previous four albums as well.
I spent some time talking with this dynamic duo to uncover who they are as individuals underneath all the chills, thrills, and frills. So, let’s get personal. Enjoy the conversation, music lovers.
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*cover photo credit: Krys Fox