Quick Hits Volume 3: Sleepwalkers, Spoon, Manatree/Herro Sugar, and J Roddy Walston & the Business
Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.
Sleepwalkers – “Off on the Weekend”
I’ve seen Sleepwalkers four times this year without even trying. They emerged from some shadowy bend in the James River, wielding psych-funk jams and making shameless dalliances with 80’s pop in the various back alleys of the city. Their early shows opening up for local heavyweights like Black Girls and Avers typically started with a shellacking of heavy groove riffage found in songs like “Prey and Pressure” (which I happened to take a look at a while back as well). Then things got kinda weird. I was pretty sure they were covering a Flock of Seagulls song with some consistency and I was a bit lost. Maybe even taken aback at first. Which might not be fair, but I’ve no shame in my lack of affinity for popular 80’s music not made by Prince. Now, after a long wait, their most excellent debut album is here, and against all odds the mash of styles kind of makes sense. That pseudo-Flock of Seagulls track turned out to be their very own “Run Right Back”, which is unmistakably a lost 80’s pop-rock hit, but is executed so well it doesn’t even matter. “Off on the Weekend” is my favorite of the pop leaning tracks on the album. The guitar figure’s so lazy it can’t help but linger deceptively behind the beat, the drums shuffle with an alarming lack of urgency, and the bass line snaps things together with the kind of ambling precision that underpins any great laid-back soul-pop number. And then that pre-chorus. That chorus. That post-chorus! When you’ve got hooks and chops like these you can afford a dip this deep into the cheese bowl.
Spoon – “Do You”
It’s recently come to my attention that large parts of the world, and the online music-community especially (as manufactured and downright silly as that community is, me included), don’t see eye to eye on my estimation that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is Spoon’s undeniable masterwork. That people out there really do prefer Gimme Fiction or Girls Can Tell. Which is fine, I just assumed we were all in agreement for some reason. Spoon have been masters of their sound since their second album, wrangling together groove-heavy (but, by design, never funky) beats, percussive guitar playing, the occasional squealing noise freak out, atypical piano and synthesizer utilization, and a voice that can crack into a rugged shout without ever sounding like it’s trying very hard. To me, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was the album where the mastery of their sound was finally paired with a mastery of their songwriting style. 2010’s Transference was a fine album, but it also seemed like a retreat to the comforts of their sound. Their latest, They Want My Soul, feels more like the true predecessor. It’s all unmistakably Spoon, just with a sharper set of songs, and “Do You” might be the finest among them. As mentioned, Britt Daniel’s voice has a fascinating ability to reach a throaty howl without ever sounding like he’s trying to hard. Likewise, his songwriting has a knack for wringing pathos without ever going heavy handed. “Do You” is breezy pop-rock (it’s hard not to describe something as ‘breezy’ when it kicks off with a series of “doo-doo-doo-doo’s”) in the best possible way. If I cared about such things as a “Song of the Summer”, this would be my personal front-runner, and not just because one verse starts with the line “Someone get popsicles/someone do something ’bout this heat!”.
Manatree/Herro Sugar – “Animal Quietlies”
Herro Sugar were one of the first bands I saw when I moved to Richmond. Opening up for Black Girls (I’m sensing a pattern for these bands), they weren’t even old enough to enter the venue as audience members, but their songwriting chops and instrumental chemistry were obvious. Only a couple of years later, and with a name-change in hand, they’re prepping the release of a proper debut after a successful Kickstarter and a heck of a lot of support from veterans of the scene (their album was co-produced by members of Avers and The Trillions (whom I’ve somehow yet to cover here, but that will be rectified soon enough as they’ve got a new album on the way as well)). “Animal Quietlies” along with “Something” mark the first new music from these guys and it’s an impressive leap forward. The guitar interplay is especially impressive, cycling through riffs and intertwining leads. The track starts with a cloying, trebly guitar figure, occasionally bolstered by some distorted reinforcements. Elsewhere, the fuzz gets turned up, arpeggios spiral in from the sky, and tempo shifts bludgeon you into submission. There’s a palpable chemistry in the instrumentation that shows how long they’ve been playing together. It’s one thing to be able to stack layer after layer onto a track, it’s quite another to have multiple playing and writing styles mesh together to such a cohesive whole. The singing is borderline deadpan, but deftly manages that fine line between weary pathos and boredom/lack of confidence, always finding itself on the winning side. Considering the two tracks on display here aren’t even professionally mastered yet (in the audio sense, that is), and that this band is putting out songs of this quality so early in their career, it’s hard not to get a little overly excited about what’s to come.
J Roddy Walston & the Business – “Take It As It Comes”
OK, so this song isn’t new, but the video is (kind of, new enough at least), so I think that’s excuse enough to write about it. It also happens to be a song from my favorite album of the past 12 months (I wrote about Essential Tremors in my 2013 Top-Ten post, and it’s since taken over number 1) and my most played album in the time by what I estimate to be a very healthy margin. This track is among my favorite from the record (top 8 at least, which is high praise, even considering there’s only 11 songs) and the video more than does it justice. A steady groove accented by some reggae-like snare hits start things off with an infectious bounce before Ziggy Stardust harmonies line the pre-chorus while boogie piano and bluesy guitar licks lurk behind what might be J Roddy’s best vocal performance on record yet. His voice goes from soulful croon to out-and-out wailing with incredible ease. It’s also worth noting that it’s worth the price of admission to a live show just to see him bounce in his piano bench singing this song. What I like most about the video though is the focus on the lyrics. At first blush they sound straight forward (“You gotta take it as it comes” isn’t an overly complicated sentiment after all) but on deeper inspection (and the help of not having to decipher his howl) there’s a healthy dose of absurdity and darkness lurking under the surface (not to mention a knack for unique imagery that most songwriters in rock bands never even approach). Families claimed, money made, guns loaded, it’s probably best you figure it out for yourself. It’s been a pleasure watching this band’s stock steadily rise this year, and though I likely won’t get to see them in punk clubs like Strange Matter again, I can’t say I’m surprised with songs this good. “Your eyes say there was a choice but/Mouths move for destiny”.