The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger is like reading Peter Pan for the first time. It’s like dreaming about Mary Poppins during an unexpected afternoon nap. It’s like the deep, golden sunlight of an Indian summer. Chilly and endearing at the same time, this musical couple reminds me of my favorite storybook as a child, written by Wilhelm Hauff. The music is so delicate and odd it can’t help but set a mood tailored for old German fairy tales – dazzling and ever-so-slightly cruel at the same time, populated by human automatons, anthropomorphic animals and all sorts of spirits, elves and gnomes itching to confuse and start mischief.
Sean Lennon seems to have inherited his father’s predisposition to forming musical partnerships, from the now-almost-forgotten Cibo Matto of the nineties (where he participated both live and in-studio while maintaining a relationship with one of the singers), going through a really quite good solo album inspired by a tumultuous relationship, to The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, where he seems to have really hit his stride alongside Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who I feel is the soul of the band. Don’t get me wrong, the duo has an uncanny ability to function as a perfect tandem and this band could definitely not exist without either one of them, but I feel the distinctive qualities which turn their music from good folk to something unique altogether come from Charlotte’s influence, her childlike wonder for music and instruments and her rather peculiar lyrical themes.
The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger makes music for objects – it’s music on which you might imagine toys coming to life when the owner’s out of the room, music to which Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince thinks his thoughts, lullabies for dried flowers and rhythms for paper airplanes to soar to. My previous Mary Poppins reference wasn’t an accident. In no other series of books have I found such virtuosity in animating objects and infusing them with personality. Statues come to life, stars dance (believably), chalk drawings on a sidewalk turn into an alternate reality, umbrellas fly, streets have shops which can hide, or rather only appear from time to time and, of course, people take on the characteristics of objects themselves, funnily bloated with laughter like helium balloons. It’s a wealth of imagery of a very particular brand, which I think Sean and Charlotte manage to capture exquisitely into sounds.
How do they accomplish this? In all honesty, this alchemy escapes me, although I believe it’s undeniably there. I think the way they construct their harmonies and the odd chords they use might hold the key. As a guitar player I can tell you that your fingers are sometimes drawn to rest in a certain position on the fretboard and the chord trapped under them sounds so fascinating and so alien at the same time that you can’t really fit it into any of your ideas. It’s like finding a jigsaw piece from a different puzzle than the one you’re working on. And so you either file it somewhere in your head, or drop everything and focus on it, use it as a starting point for something new. This fascination and stubborn determination to make the pieces fit, no matter how irregular they might be leads The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger to some truly wondrous places. Neverland comes to mind. Wonderland too. You get my drift.
One other thing I find enchanting about them is the subtle sense of humor which permeates many of their songs. “Sailing away on an old cliche” at the beginning of what sounds like a standard, immediately recognizable chord progression is the type of self-referential irony which really catches my eye, and they pull it off so well, with such pretty flourishes and delicate wit I can’t help but chuckle and admire them for it. There’s something about this gentle humor which makes me think of France for some reason, or rather a certain cliche of France I’m carrying around in my head – a certain matutinal ease, a certain joy in being witty and devoid of malice at the same time.
Give The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger a chance, it might take you to places you might not have been for a very long time…