Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Spectrals Play Like A Bad Penny

Leeds has an incredibly vibrant music scene. It's been mentioned more than once here. It’s where the Mekons got their start. It's where bands like Dopamine and the Diamond Sea are big draws today.

It's also what makes the Spectrals stand out. While they are technically part of the scene, the band comes across like a bastard stepchild. It's partly by design and partly no fault of their own.

The band is (mostly) a single person, Louis Jones. He's a 21-year-old redhead from Heckmondwike in West Yorkshire, which is about 10 miles from Leeds. He’s been dabbling in music and playing in bands for a number of years, usually with a punk bent.

Louis Jones is a multi-instrumentalist and insightful songwriter.

He started started recording his tunes in a friend’s homemade studio and then put the finished songs on his MySpace page for his friends, never expecting anyone else to listen. But they did listen, including reps from the labels Captured Tracks and Slumberland.

This gave Jones the avenue he needed to record a slew of songs, including the 7-inch Peppermint. The Spectrals is really a vehicle for Jones to shape and share his distinctive sound and his yearning lyrics.

Before you listen, keep in mind that the Spectrals are way out there. It's not like anything we've reviewed before. That, and Jones is an old soul, which is why his songs sound as though they’ve been written by someone who has done a lot more living.

Where Peppermint carried the surf pop forward, Bad Penny, the Spectrals’ first full-length album, is more of a detour from previous reverb-heavy work. It's very much a throwback.

This time out, except for the drums, Jones plays every part. (The drums are now handled by his brother.) As a prolific songwriter, it's no surprise that these are a brand new batch of songs, all of which carry a collective theme. It's about a relationship and all of its ups and downs. Mostly downs.

He didn't make it up either. The girl in question is Jones’ long-time love. So yes, there is a bit of a spoiler. He gets the girl in the end.

“Love songs are the kind of songs I like,” said Jones. “Not all of them are nice, but they’re all feelings I’ve had.”

Check out the video for Get A Grip, which finds Jones singing and playing guitar in a variety of Yorkshire country settings. Like the song suggests, the album, produced by veteran Leeds-based producer Richard Formby (Spacemen 3), weaves together doo wop, 60s surf music, soul, garage rock, and Phil Spector-like choruses.

The result is understated and nicely balanced. So while Get A Grip is dreamy, Big Baby is a brighter slice of California surf rock. Luck Is There To Be Pushed adds in tasteful piano and some of Jones' best songwriting. Start with those and then listen to the rest, and play the clips more than once because they do unexpectedly grow on you.

What you might find is that Jones does a nice job balancing his songs between his influences and his own vision. He grew up listening to a wide variety of music, and embraces his decidedly American influences.

In fact, the contrast between the American music and Jones’ Yorkshire croon gives the Spectrals a bit of charm. It seems to match his personality, which comes across as somewhat shy and sincere. In reality, he is a bit of a control freak. And that's why he plays nearly all the instruments.

According to Jones, he says he writes the music on his guitar first and then adds lyrics in after. He has consistently said he is not interested in anyone else shaping his songs or direction.

The result is a band that performs as a 4-piece, but any song played is really Jones times four. And if it doesn't sound like that, then it's not really the Spectrals. This attitude might also be why he's often kept at arm's length in Leeds. He's rebellious and intends to stay that way, doing his own thing. Here’s a clip of the Spectrals at Benicassim Festival in July 2011.

Bad Penny By The Spectrals Chimes In With 4.3 On the Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

If there is any criticism of Bad Penny, let it be that it does become repetitive at times. I also think that Jones is more engaging performing live compared to what he’s managed to put down on tape. It’s an obstacle he’ll have to overcome.

The Spectrals will be touring the United States in March and April. It will be very interesting to see if their mostly American sound truly resonates with actual Americans. You can keep up with the tour via MySpace and Twitter. Just don't expect too much about music on Twitter. Jones would rather talk football.

All 11 tracks from Bad Penny can be downloaded from iTunes. You can also find Bad Penny on Amazon. There is also a vinyl edition at Barnes & Noble, along with the CD.
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