Sunday, November 28, 2010

46. Let It Come Down

46. Let It Come Down, Spiritualized (Arista, 2001)

Spiritualized, formed by members of Spacemen 3 after that group’s dissolution and led by Jason “Spaceman” Pierce, spent most of the Aughts in the shadow of their third album and masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (’97).  A natural progression from the opiated space-rock of the group Pierce led with Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember from ’82-’89, Spiritualized evolved beyond the majestically blunted grasps for sun-kissed ecstasy of its first two LPs for the sprawling sonic palette filtered through American blues and jazz forms of the monolithic Ladies and Gentlemen.  While Lay Back in the Sun from second album Pure Phase (’95) serves as the definitive exaltation of hedonism, Ladies and Gentlemen lyrically focuses on heartbreak and how to numb its pain—one of hedonism’s darkest sides.  The inclusion of horns, strings, and a choir sublimely embolden the effects-heavy arrangements.  The album received a deluxe reissue in ’09, the only Spiritualized release to earn such a treatment in the Aughts.  With the attention lavished on Ladies and Gentlemen between its release and reissue, it was easy to overlook the three studio albums released by Spiritualized during the decade.

Pierce fired several members after the release of Ladies and Gentlemen; by the time of Let It Come Down four years later, the group had been almost entirely rebuilt to include two former players from Julian Cope’s backing band.  Though his band now barely resembled its first incarnation, Pierce’s lyrical themes of freedom, catharsis, and ascension remained present.  Let It Come Down nakedly examines the dichotomy between flesh and salvation.  It opens with a ragtime piano frill and Pierce singing, “Let’s see how high we can fly/Before the sun melts the wax in our wings”; this icarian dare, repeated elsewhere, is an apt metaphor for the wantonness examined therein.  Though the habits outlined are excessive, they accompany idleness: “I’m planning on sleeping my life away” (Do It All Over Again); “I like to sit around/I’m just contemplating/sittin’ round” (Don’t Just Do Something); in The Twelve Steps, steps nine to eleven are simply staying in bed.  Excess is celebrated most explicitly in this last song—a frantic rock blast startlingly different than the album’s several purely orchestral arrangements—which states bluntly, “The only time I’m drink and drug free/Is when I don’t have to pay for what I need.”  The album’s side breaks emphasize the pattern of repeated abuse: side one, ambivalent laziness, likely hungover; a return to excess on side two; side three, its impact on loved ones; side four, Pierce’s pleas to God for salvation.  The yearning for religious epiphany is mocked (“I don’t think I’m gonna find Jesus Christ/So I’d rather spend my cash on vice,” The Twelve Steps), wistfully discarded (“If Jesus is the straight path that saves/Then I’m content to live my whole life on the curb,” The Straight and the Narrow), and, on the final two songs, desperately begged for.  Pierce originally performed the closing track, Lord Can You Hear Me, on the ’89 Spacemen 3 album Playing With Fire; here it is slower and bolstered by a gospel choir; Pierce’s repeated plea of “Lord can you hear me/Hear me at all?” makes for a compelling case that, despite earlier glibness, his pain is real and his torment about spirituality is no metaphor.  When he sings “The devil makes good use of these hands of mine” on The Straight and the Narrow, he sounds helpless yet resigned to his choices.  Let It Come Down suffered from the pressure of being the follow-up to a masterpiece, and is a denser, less immediate album, but perseverance reveals strengths that, in exposition and emotional impact, make it no less a stunning achievement.

Highlights: Do It All Over Again, The Straight and the Narrow, The Twelve Steps, Stop Your Crying

Sublime bit: The final two minutes of Lord Can You Hear Me, its arrangement swelling as Pierce and the choir plead for redemption.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

47. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

47. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Of Montreal (Polyvinyl, 2007)

A person discovering Of Montreal via their breakthrough eighth LP Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? might not believe that they began as a lo-fi acoustic venture long on tedium and short on hooks.  Led by sole constant member Kevin Barnes, the Athens, Georgia-based group made five albums with ever-expanding lineups—’99’s The Gay Parade lists six full-time members and twelve contributors—before Barnes retreated to record two albums almost entirely by himself.  Satanic Panic in the Attic (’04) and The Sunlandic Twins (’05; see #68) were his strongest works to date, expanding on the earlier material’s fanciful concepts yet drab execution to produce a new sound flaunting complex, multi-tracked arrangements and borrowing heavily from ’60s-era psychedelic pop.  Though the albums became increasingly solo productions, the stage show evolved into a theatrical extravaganza with a dozen or more people on stage, usually in costume.  They managed to keep the spectacle from overpowering the music, and Barnes’s increasingly impressive songwriting and the band’s high-spirited performances made Of Montreal one of the most interesting working units of the late Aughts.

More compelling than the live show, though, is the density of Hissing Fauna’s songs in execution and lyrical content.  The quixotic, elaborate style of its two predecessors remains; but, the manic bubblegum of songs like Suffer for Fashion and Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse are complemented by prominent servings of modern electro-funk.  Gronlandic Edit is built on a light, pulsing bass groove, and Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider has a slithering, smoky vibe; far beyond these dance-minded subtleties, though, is the flamboyance of Faberge Falls for Shuggie and Labyrinthian Pomp, both sung in an exaggerated, Prince-like falsetto that Barnes attributes to his alter ego Georgie Fruit, “a black man who has been through multiple sex changes.”*  While this persona affords Barnes’s lyrics a new aspect of sexuality, he uses no such guise to address the album’s most difficult material.  Much of Hissing Fauna is deeply personal, examining Barnes’s separation from his wife, a self-imposed temporary isolation in Norway, and reliance on antidepressants.  The album’s centerpiece is the twelve-minute The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, detailing the couple’s first meeting, courtship, and Barnes’s struggles with insecurity, progressing—all the while carried by a hypnotic, claustrophobic groove—to their tumultuous breakup; by its climax, Barnes is yelling “Let’s tear the fucking house apart/Let’s tear our fucking bodies apart!”  It is a chillingly naked dissection of private matters, intensified by the fact that the two reconciled and his wife plays on the album.  For all the costumes, playful gender experimentation, pop bliss, and jovial stage shows, the album often dares to forego metaphor to present some of the boldest self-analysis of the decade.  Barnes’s later attempts to outdo its ostentation and complexity resulted in a return to the muddled confusion of his earliest releases.  A dizzying album, at times even bipolar, Hissing Fauna is his high-water mark.

* See the November 2007 Barnes interview at

Highlights: The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse, She’s a Rejecter, Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider

Sublime bit: The “ooo-ooo-oooh” backing vocal that enters at 4:19 of The Past Is a Grotesque Animal and repeats for the next six minutes.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.