In Las Vegas, where unfinished hulls of hotel-casinos and the incomplete sprawl of subdivisions rot in the sun, there dwells a young musician named Joshua Ellis. He records under the moniker Red State Soundsystem in an apartment next to a comics shop.
Unlike other lap-pop artists, Ellis (a former colleague of this publication's editor and mine) is a classic songwriter who isn't afraid to address the world and its problems, whether via his imagination—see "(Coda) Requiem for a Diplomat"—or based on his globe-spanning travels ("Berlin Floor Show") as a tech speaker and telemedicine professional.
Ghosts in a Burning City seethes with the awareness that the 21st century will be just as full of beauty and horror as the previous 100 years. Still, Ellis' preferred theme is people struggling to connect in a darkening landscape of war, poverty and globalization. "We're the patron saints of rented cars, last goodbyes and airport bars," he sings in "Scatterlings + Refugees," a downbeat electronic paean to his jet-lagged generation, in a husky voice that suggests too many cigarette butts in the ashtray, and too many man-eating women in bed.
There's also the spiky-guitar love song of "Divine Intervention," giving Paul Westerberg a run for his bar money, and the acoustic waltz of "Not in This World (or the Next One)," a dying soldier's last thoughts on an Afghan battlefield. As the West's happy façade falls, Ghosts is the proper soundtrack (www.redstatesoundsystem.com).