The new Spygenius album, “Man On The Sea,” is an expansive (17 song, 79 minute CD / Digital Download, a double album if you get the vinyl version) ride that defies immediate description.
There are a few touchstones that offer a high-level view of the scope and feel of the album. First, it’s a distant cousin to albums like Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and The Beatles “White Album” in that it combines tightly crafted, conventional pop/rock songs with more adventurous and experimental excursions. And like both albums, you can cherry-pick favorites here and there, but the true experience comes from putting it on and letting it play front-to-back, immersing yourself in the realm intended for you by the band.
I did exactly that, four times to be precise, before writing a word of this review. I spoke with a friend about my initial impressions of the album, particularly the “Tusk” / “White Album” reference I made above, and he came back with a response that sums this one up better than I can…the album is a throwback to the days in which it was “OK to do that.”
Let that sink in for a moment…it becomes a little lightning bolt out of the sky, a time for celebration and sadness all rolled into one. We used to sit back while artists like John, Paul, George and Ringo did whatever their muses called them to do, and when it was time for a new album, we’d eagerly ask “What have you got for us?” It didn’t matter if it came in the form of “Revolver” or the band dressing themselves up as a different, fictional band and making the entire outing a “concept.” We waited, we listened, and whatever came, we took it for what it was, celebrated it, and abstained from picking it apart under the microscope.
Things have changed. Modern “rock journalism” clutches forks and knives, to quote another member of the Fab Four, and does its level best to second-guess, categorize, and ultimately diminish artists who endeavor to simply put out breathtaking works that defy a quick and easy analysis. The quest to define “what it is” completely misses that result by the simple virtue of the process itself. Think back to 1969 and Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica”…what are you gonna say about that one? Can you put it under the microscope and compare it to anything that was being played on the radio at the time? Of course you can’t, and a half-century later, it still defies description, it still rebels against any category you’d like to shoe-horn it into, it still inspires and amazes, and it is still simply what it is.
I felt three distinct tones / flavors / attitudes on this album.
First, imagine John Lennon, circa “Revolver,” emancipated from his band mates and any deciding votes from Sir Paul. Imagine him set free, paired with a group of other musicians less concerned with meeting label demands for a commercial product, less concerned with maintaining an already established identity, and doing whatever the hell he felt like doing.
Then, add a bit of the Ray Davies wistfulness and cynicism.
And top it all off with a layer of Greg Lake, in the setting of ELP that relied more on melody and short songs than on sprawling, bombastic Keith Emerson excess and tracks that filled an entire album side.
If you can take those three elements and stick them in the back of your mind, without using them to draw black and white comparisons, and simply open yourself up for an hour and a half and let the album wash over you, you will enjoy the hell out of it. You’ll feel the adventure, the creative freedom of a band that simply listens to the muse, transcribes what she has to say to them, and heads off to the recording studio to capture the gifts she’s given.
Some of the Big Stir releases are short bursts of rock/pop joy, clocking in at three minutes or so, filled with hooks and bridges and choruses and solos, and that’s an important and essential element of the music we all enjoy. Other projects use that as a starting point and head to the launch pad to see where else they can take things. Certain artists on the Big Stir roster will take you to all of the expected destinations and then hit the booster rockets and take you to new and uncharted realms. Spygenius is in that second category…they can throw down pure pop for now people with the best of them…but there’s more, a LOT more, and if you can just sideline the need for a quick and easy to digest meal of what is expected, you’ll be thrilled with where this album takes you.
Highly recommended, this is an album that will continue revealing itself to you after many listens.
They’re quirky as all get out – song titles such as “And Her Snakes Were Decked with Smiles” and “The Friendly Stars That Glow” would seem to bear this out - but never at the expense of putting their snazzy melodies or trippy, tricky lyrics across. Spygenius’ entertaining ‘Pacephale is a 13-song concept record originally released in 2016 by the UK quartet, and now given new life by the good folks at the fledgling Southern California-based Big Stir Records label. (Having called this a concept album, I must admit I’m not quite clear on what the actual “concept” is, but it certainly hasn’t prevented me from digging the hell out of this record.)
At times a bit shambolic (“Back Door Son of Man” recalls a loosey-goosey, early Robyn Hitchcock number), other times very Britpoppy (“Shall I Show You in My Mirror?” and “Heathen”), whimsical (“Eucalyptus & Cigarettes”), Game Theory-like (“Get Over Yourself”) and inexplicably delightful and hopelessly catchy (“You and Me and Jiminy C”), everything here has the sweet air of psychedelia permeating the proceedings. Very nice. Grade: A-
Although Spygenius’ album The Comforting Suture came out in 2012, to find it amongst the spread out and slightly eclectic offerings on a long table, could be seen as serendipity, a moment of providence in which to take full advantage of and delve into at the very earliest convenience.
Whether you have heard them before or not, there is something, as the album title handily suggests, of the comforting nature of the band. Something terribly exciting but also placing the band in the realms of the reassuringly familiar, it may take a while but eventually it does spring forward like an over active Labrador puppy chasing its own tail. The sound that you are hearing and are gratefully enjoying is a hybrid somewhere between the humour employed by groups such Half Man, Half Biscuit, albeit with more of English southern county bent, the beautiful sound employed The Beach Boys and the keen observations on British life by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
The comfort is there and it makes for great listening, an album that can easily be played and forcing the listener to read between the well scanned lyrics for clues that lead them on a search for the playful melodic sound. There is no seam between the mid-60s sound that was fought over between the likes of Pet Sounds and any John Lennon track; the join, well and truly stitched over and patched together with songs such as the emotive California Sunshine, A Room, Full of Telephones, the excellent Trains, which is a track of genius, and the lyrically scrutinising K is Mentally Ill.
The four member s of the band on this album, Matt Byrne, Alan Cannings, Ruth Rogers and Peter Watts combine so well, that the deliciousness of pop, pop music if a certain era is invoked and enjoyed. The spirit from days long since departed and that may appear so far away now to the younger listeners of music, is simply as cool as it was when their parents heard for the first time albums such as the aforementioned Pet Sounds, Revolver or any of the music that was coming out of the West coast area of America.
The Comforting Suture may be a couple of years old now but if you can get your hands on a copy, you will not regret it. A class act!
IAN D. HALL LIVERPOOL SOUND AND VISION
There are certain bands that just defy convention, and Spygenius is one of them. The combo starts this album with a mix of lounge organ, guitars and percussion with “Digden’s Rise.” It could be some alternate James Bond movie theme, with it’s dark jazz elements and stormy ending. It’s a heady start, but it yields to the brighter “Smardy’s Fish Paradise” which smacks of Neil Innes or Stackridge with a ramble about English love. This style continues on “The Ballad Of Jack Snipe” where the XTC tradition of multiple themes and rhythms layered one after the other make a compelling listen. Guitar strum and handclaps lead the song “Stupid” and the stream of consciousness lyrics help keep it listenable. Unfortunately, the band seems to fall into a self-indulgent spiral on “Matter Out Of Place,” but they recover nicely on the great “First Do No Harm” which sounds like it fell off of a classic Crosby Stills Nash album. The album loosely tries to shift musical gears with each tune, and it doesn’t always work. “You’ve Got A Lucky Face” and few other tracks speed up tempo or volume to point where they feel forced. Thankfully another gem here “The Girl Who’s Everywhere” fills the air with Byrdsian guitars and vocals, and “Trolls” is a six-minute epic that any Stackridge fan will cheer loudly to. Eclectic listeners will find Spygenius a real treat.
Sometimes you get lucky and a great band just pops up, like Spygenius. This electric four piece from London, starts with a Beach Boys a capella opening (“Dumb Angels”) then gets all hippy funky, similar to the 1910 Fruitgum Company with “The Ballad Of Dr T.F. Bundy & His Hirsute Sweetheart.” The next track “I Want That Girl” sounds like Jack Bruce (Cream) fronting for a Doors/Jellyfish hybrid. The band mashes together some diverse 60’s and modern influences, in a very original way. Songwriter Peter Watts does a great job here mixing the psychedelic stew of chords and harmonies on “Gilgamesh” as well. The album highlight here is the quirky masterpiece “Pineapple Drive” where it’s jammed together in a party atmosphere. The humor here is akin to Bonzo Dog Band, without being too over the top silly. Then the album’s serious side appears on “13 Years (May Song)” where they channel Crosby/Stills/Nash. As the album progresses the sixties influences fade. The softness of the “A Bottle Of Reds & Two Good Friends” will remind many of Rick Gallego and Cloud 11. The latter tracks have a more modern feel (“Wintergarden Summertime”) sounding a little like Green and Yellow TV. Overall an outstanding album that is sure to hook you in and keep you humming. I will go out on a limb here and say this eclectic mix deserves a spot on our year end “best-of” list.