Wednesday, April 15, 2009

When Tomorrow Hits: Spectrum Meets Captain America

Spectrum Meets Captain America, Indian Giver, Birdman [***1/2] 

"A meeting of the minds, a musical summit, staged in a sagging barn in North Mississippi."--Andrea Lisle in the liner notes 

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Years ago, I interviewed Pete Kember, alias Sonic Boom, and asked why he chose to cover Elvis' sparse lament "Lonely Avenue" on his debut album, Spectrum. His answer was simple: he had a thing for songwriter Doc Pomus, i.e. it was more about Pomus than Presley (and Indian Giver's "Til Your Mainline Comes" even features a noirish "Lonely Avenue" bassline). 

So, it's not completely unexpected to find that Sonic also has a thing—a jones, if you will—for Memphis session musician/producer Jim Dickinson, who's manned the boards for everyone from Big Star to the Replacements and contributed keys to the Stones' "Wild Horses." (And I can only assume the admiration runs both ways.) 

Their collaboration combines space-rock with southern stylings, and it's unlike anything I've ever heard before. Recorded in Mississippi with an eight-piece band plus the Tate County Singers, the nine-track recording represents a harmonious melding of two different worlds, to say nothing of divergent geographic and generational backgrounds (Sonic grew up in Rugby, UK), though the drone-rocker's interest in gospel has always been crystal clear; see "I Walk with Jesus," et al.

Throughout, the collaborators alternate vocals over a bed of Theremin, Moog, keyboards, synthesizer, saxophone, electric and acoustic guitar, upright and electric bass, fiddles, trumpet, and drums (plus, crickets on "Mainline"). 

The whispery Sonic sounds the same as ever, while Dickinson comes on like a crusty cross between J.J. Cale and Tom Waits. Neither is a great singer, but both have enormous appeal. I particularly like the way the Captain sounds as if he's singing through dentures or the bottom of a bottle of bourbon. 

For "Mary," "Mary Reprise," and "Confederate Dead," the gentlemen put the vocals aside. Fittingly, two sound like Sonic; the other like Dickinson (to clarify, Sonic decorates "Mary Reprise" with wordless utterings that have a certain "instrumental" feel). 

Spaceman 3 and Spectrum adherents will surely recognize three of the other tracks, specifically "Hey Man" (Perfect Prescription), Mudhoney's "When Tomorrow Hits" (Recurring), and "Take Your Time" (Highs, Lows & Heavenly Blows). These new iterations may not be superior, but they're hardly inferior. I particularly like the extra fuzz on the hymn-like "Man."


I doubt I'll be the first to describe Indian Giver as a sort of psychedelic gumbo or Delta drone. (For the All Music Guide, Mark Deming dubs the disc a "Dixie-fried freak-out.") Had I heard this record in April of 2008, the time of its original release, it would've easily made my top 10 for the year. Call this musical meeting what you will. I call it: absolutely fantastic. 

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"A gentlemanly agreement escalated into a full-fledged battle for the controls, and then whoosh! Sonic was ejected from the ship... an experiment halted midstream, with just these nine songs as proof that it even happened. Which man was in the right? Each has his battalion of saints ready to voice an opinion—and, each says, the collaborative door has shut. There will never be a second mission."--Andrea Lisle  

4/20 update: Will Bratton of Pomus Songs, Inc. writes, "Regarding the song 'Lonely Avenue' (Pomus), Pete Kember probably spoke more about Pomus than he did about Elvis because Elvis never recorded 'Lonely Avenue.' Ray Charles and countless others did, however. Pomus did write 19 other songs that were recorded by Elvis, including 'Viva Las Vegas,' 'Suspicion,' 'Little Sister,' 'Mess of Blues,' 'Surrender,' 'Kiss Me Quick,' and '(Marie's the Name of) His Latest Flame.'" I can no longer remember whether Sonic made the error or me—I suspect it was the latter—but in my mind's ear I could hear Presley performing "Lonely Avenue" while we were speaking, and I must've conflated song and performance with "Heartbreak Hotel." 

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Endnote: Spectrum plays Neumos on 5/2. Click here for my 1991 interview with Sonic Boom. Image from Pure Music and Harp (click the link for Fred Mills' preview).

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