Spottiswoode & His Enemies’ new album Wild Goosechase Expedition is a throwback to those great art-rock concept albums of the 70s: Dark Side of the Moon, ELO’s Eldorado, the Strawbs’ Grave New World, to name a few. And it ranks right up there with them: if there is any posterity, posterity will view this as not only one of the best albums of 2011 but one of the best of the decade. Songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Spottiswoode calls this his Magical Mystery Tour. While the two albums follow a distantly parallel course in places, the music only gets Beatlesque in its trippiest moments. Ostensibly it follows the doomed course of a rock band on tour, a not-so-thinly veiled metaphor for the state of the world today. Most of this is playful, meticulously crafted, Britfolk-tinged psychedelic art-rock and chamber pop – the obvious comparison is Nick Cave, or Marty Willson-Piper. Fearlessly intense, all over the map stylistically, imbued with Spottiswoode’s signature sardonic wit, the spectre of war hangs over much of the album, yet there’s an irrepressible joie de vivre here too. His ambergris baritone inhabits the shadows somewhere between between Nick Cave and Ian Hunter, and the band is extraordinary: lead guitar genius Riley McMahon (also of Katie Elevitch’s band) alternates between rich, resonant textures and writhing anguish, alongside Candace DeBartolo on sax, John Young on bass and Konrad Meissner (of the Silos and, lately, the Oxygen Ponies) on drums.
As much lush exuberance as there is in the briskly strummed title track, Beautiful Monday, there’s a lingering apprehension: “Hoping that one day, we’ll be truly free,” muses Spottiswoode. It sets the tone for much that’s to come, including the next track, Happy Or Not, pensive and gospel-infused. Slowly cresendoing from languid and mysterious to anthemic, the Beatlesque Purple River Yellow Sun follows the metaphorically-charged trail of a wide-eyed crew of fossil hunters. The first real stunner here is All in the Past, a bitter but undeterred rake’s reminiscence shuffling along on the reverb-drenched waves of Spottiswoode’s Rhodes piano:
I was young not so long ago
But that was then and you’ll never know
Who I was, what I did
How we misbehaved
Who we killed
I’ll take that to the grave
The song goes out with a long, echoing scream as adrenalizing as anything Jello Biafra ever put on vinyl.
A bolero of sorts, Just a Word I Use is an invitation to seduction that paints a hypnotic, summery tableau with accordion and some sweet horn charts. A gospel piano tune that sits somewhere between Ray Charles and LJ Murphy, I’d Even Follow You To Philadelphia is deliciously aphoristic – although Philly fans might find it awfully blunt. The gorgeously jangly rocker Sometimes pairs off some searing McMahon slide guitar against a soaring horn chart, contrasting mightily with the plaintive Satie-esque piano intro of Chariot, a requiem that comes a little early for a soldier gone off to war. It’s as potent an antiwar song as has been written in recent years.
All Gone Wrong is a sardonic, two-and-a-half minute rocker that blasts along on a tricky, syncopated beat. The world has gone to completely to hell: “They got religion, we got religion, everything’s religion,” Spottiswoode snarls. Problem Child, with its blend of early 70s Pink Floyd and folk-rock, could be a sarcastic jab at a trust fund kid; Happy Where I Am, the most Beatlesque of all the tracks here vamps and then fades back in, I Am the Walrus style.
This is a long album. The title track (number twelve if you’re counting) might be an Iraq war parable, a creepy southwestern gothic waltz tracing the midnight ride of a crew who seem utterly befuddled but turn absolutely sinister as it progresses: it’s another real stunner, Meissner throwing in some martial drum rolls at the perfect moment. All My Brothers is a bluesy, cruelly sarcastic battlefield scenario: “Only the desert understands, all my brothers lie broken in the sand – freedom, freedom, freedom.” The satire reaches a peak with Wake Me Up When It’s Over: the narrator insists in turning his life over to his manager and his therapist. “Don’t forget to pay the rent…tell me who’s been killed, after all the blood’s been spilled,” its armchair general orders.
McMahon gets to take the intensity as far as it will go with The Rain Won’t Come, a fiery stomping guitar rocker that wouldn’t be out of place on Steve Wynn’s Here Come the Miracles. The album ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note with the one dud here and then the epic, nine-minute You Won’t Forget Your Dream, a platform for a vividly pensive trumpet solo from Kevin Cordt and then a marvelously rain-drenched one from pianist Tony Lauria. All together, these songs make the album a strong contender for best album of the year; you’ll see it on our best albums of 2011 list when we manage to pull it together, this year considerably earlier than December. It’s up now at Spottiswoode’s bandcamp site.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Monday’s song is #317:
Katie Elevitch – Kindling For the Fire
If she keeps doing what she’s doing right now, someday the powerhouse New York rock siren will rank up there with Nina Simone and Patti Smith. The version on Elevitch’s live-in-the-studio 2008 cd is excellent as it is – and as its bassline menacingly rolls out, she and the band jam this out live into a witches’ sabbath. “Slaves stillborn gather round the hearse – kindling for the fire!”
Burning with primal power and raging intensity, New York rock siren Katie Elevitch’s second cd is astonishingly good, one of the best that’s come over the transom this year. Recorded mostly live in a now-demolished historic house overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York (they stuck the bass amp in the bathroom), this is a dark, fiercely intense, thematic collection, echoing both Elevitch’s anguish over the loss of her father as well as resignation to the fact that the house would ultimately be gone as well. Elevitch’s voice ranges from a sultry alto to a fearless, completely unleashed, sometimes completely unhinged wail. While her stepping-off point is classic soul music, the songs here range from Siouxsie Sioux spooky to raw PJ Harvey-esque stomp to slashing Patti Smith strange. In the cd’s quieter moments, the band’s interplay sometimes borders on the telepathic, Tim Vaill’s stately drum work echoing the somber, quiet boom of bassist Jonathan Maron (who also stars in the excellent funk band Groove Collective) while lead guitarist Riley McMahon adds every conceivable shade of macabre. Perhaps this is the result of playing together as a unit for a few years, not to mention that Elevitch chose to record them live rather than overdubbing each individually.
The cd kicks off auspiciously with the concert favorite Corner of Love and Fear, a long, slowly pulsing, crescendoing minor-key anthem that goes doublespeed to the bridge, totally Siouxsie. The intensity is relentless. Before the big crescendo on the bridge, Elevitch bares her soul, “Half empty and half full…I can’t convince you if it’s beautiful.” The song builds, wailing for escape “from the concrete street…I’ll be waiting on the corner of love and fear.” The slinky, soul-inflected Katamaran Riding builds from an ominous intro, something akin to Ninth House as covered by Alice Lee, capped by a marvelously noisy, skronky McMahon guitar solo. Starting Gate, by contrast, is a delicately beautiful yet searing tale of abandonment. “Did you really think that I’d wait forever, like waiting was my only endeavor?” accuses Elevitch, as her band echoes the sentiment in a soaring gospel choir of voices.
The cd’s title track is an improvisation not unlike Patti Smith in her more inspired, raging moments (think Land or even the intro to Rock & Roll Nigger), starting with a sinister low-register chord sliding up the bass, macabre piano tinkling in the distance. “Kindling for the fire,” Elevitch whispers, and it’s bloodcurdling. McMahon turns in his finest work on the cd here, echoing Lenny Kaye’s noisy vulture-wings on Radio Ethopia. The next track, I Never Win is a study in contrast, quiet matter-of-fact verse exploding into a fiery chorus much in the same vein as early PJ Harvey. Its title used as a mantra for maximum effect, Hurt People is another concert favorite, again with a big crescendo from a slow 6/8 verse into a pummeling, hypnotic dance. The cd ends on a hopeful note with The Inside Room, its narrator possibly worn out from all that exertion and finally ready to deal face to face with the world again. The effect of all this is visceral: don’t put this cd on if you feel like winding down. You won’t. Put it on headphones and turn it up loud (in an impressive stroke of generosity, it’s now streaming on her website). As you would expect, Elevitch and her band are sensationally good live and love to jam out their best songs. They start a monthlong Friday night residency at Banjo Jim’s at 9 PM beginning on Nov 14.