Spoons – Static In Transmission (2011) – an album review

After years of inactivity, the band that once hailed from Burlington, Ontario, Canada reunited for a greatest hits package tour, a venerable enough tradition in Canadian rock circles these days. But unlike many of their peers, Gordon Deppe and Sandy Horne rediscovered not only their joy of playing together, but also their muse for writing and recording together. After a little retooling of the backing musicians, they headed into the studio and produced their first full album of original material together in almost two decades.

And now, over half a year later, I’m finally writing the review. I suck.

tl;dr Version: What? The Spoons? Who the… oh wait, weren’t they that 80s big hair band that used to sing about lying in traffic or something? They’re still together? Oh, this is gonna be rich.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Okay, first off, let’s try this one more time: They’re called SPOONS. Just Spoons. Like Sparks or Kiss or Queen. No ‘The’. Got it? Good.

Next, yes, they are still around, although there was a time when Gordon and Sandy were seeing other bands.

They DID have a few hits up here in Canada, with names like Nova Heart, Tell No Lies, and Romantic Traffic, amongst others. They were a pretty upbeat unit, for the most part, though that Gordon guy always seemed to me to have a bit of a dark side to him. 😉

And no, they don’t sound the way they did back in 1985. It’s been a few years since people recorded drums and keyboards that way, so of course things have changed.

That said, this album is a bit of a throwback, in that they deliberately worked to get some of their classic sound back, even though they were no longer working with the same people.

So if synth-heavy rock music with an 80s sensibility is your thing, you might want to keep reading.

Boring Version: Y’know what? I got nothing for this section. Gordon and Sandy (and Derek and Rob) were heroes of mine back in the 80s. I wanted to be in a band with those guys. Those were fun tunes, and they didn’t live too far away, either. It’s a long while later, and I still think they’re a great band. So you have to know going in that I’m determined to like this album. Fortunately, they don’t make me work for it. So let’s get to it.

Breaking In starts right out of the gates with a big, crunchy synth line, joined shortly by bass and drums, with some rhythm guitar crunching away in the background. It’s a neat little dance groove, having perhaps the slightest dash of that early 90s Manchester sound that the rave kids used to dig before that scene got tired. The sound over all is a nice throwback to that era, including a great middle eight that gives Gordon and Sandy a chance to really play to their strengths as a vocal duo, while Sandy’s persistent bass line just dances and glides over the whole song, giving the keys something to fight against. For my money, a great opening track, particularly for a band not well known for its ‘heaviosity’.

Imperfekt is like the flip-side to the previous track, opening with slightly effected guitar, but being joined quickly by a cute little piano part that soon makes even more sense when the drums, guitar and bass take up the rhythm and suddenly we’re in the midst of a sunny, Motown-inflected pop song, handily reminding us that Spoons were always Olympic-level genre-hoppers, even in the early 80s. It’s a charming tune about getting back to basics, enjoying things (like music) that aren’t tweaked and tweezed to within an inch of their lives. My favourite bit is the choppy little bass riff used to close the song, but it’s really a great, fun song, perfect for summer.

Numb is a slower, moodier tune, floating on waves of sound and a sparse click that is eventually joined by a slightly Eastern European scale bass line, which again is something we haven’t heard much allusion to since the end of the Cold War. The sound is more like something we’ve heard from Garbage or Portishead, but with less grunge than the former and more muscle than the latter. I would love to hear something like this as a closing Bond Theme, as it’s both cinematic and moody while having a certain anthemic scale.

Star Maps is a funky groove that again recalls the both 90s Euro Pop and the Manchester sound, with Gordon doing a better-than-passing Simon Le Bon imitation, which definitely puts this one in post-80s Duran Duran territory. I don’t consider that a slight, whatever Gordon may have intended for ths song. If you want to recapture the sound of the 80s, you’re a fool if you don’t summon up at least some of that classic Duran Duran sound. Bands like TV Eyes and several younger units have drawn from the same well as Nick Rhodes and John Taylor, including Duran Duran themselves, who worked to recapture their classic sound on two out of the last three albums they’ve made, so I see no conflict of interests here. It’s an aggressive number, which might surprise fans who only remember Spoons for their lighter pop fare. The guitar work Gordon turns in here is hot but tailored to serve the song, without being too flashy or self-indulgent. Solid track.

Escape With You opens on a sunny, breezy melody that soon serves to remind us what a lovely lead voice Sandy has. I would actually argue that her voice has gotten stronger over the years. The guitar and bass interplay on this track is probably the most reminiscent of their classic sound so far on this album. It’s a lovely tune, carried by a pleasant, burbling, bouncy bass line and softly chiming guitar harmonics.

You Light Up opens with some wonderful rhythm guitar and drums, which has a slightly Andy Summers/Edge Echoplex sound to it, which is then quickly joined by crunchy keys and bass in what I’m inclined to think of as one of the stronger openings. The verse is pure moody 80s magnificence. The song is one of those ‘I know I’m losing you’ songs, which Gordon delivers with enough conviction, I’m wondering if I should go buy the guy a beer or something. The middle eight has some muted but very crunchy guitar, which sounds fantastic. This is sizing up to be one of my favourite tracks from this album. Great closer.

B Movie enters quietly, an electronic ballad of losing love. Definitely going to have to buy Gordon a beer, if he’s walking around with this kind of heartache. There’s a nice middle eight with a not-quite Mellotron string-type pad, but the rhythm is mostly commanded by the reverberating guitar pinging back and forth. It’s a lovely tune.

End of Story opens with a slightly metallic drum rhythm and synth pad, shortly joined by a cool bass line and very A-Ha keyboard part. Sandy’s bass commands the verse on this one, only making way for that synth string attack on the reprising intro. The chorus sees a minor key return of that same keyboard part, with Gordon and Sandy harmonizing on the verses and chorus hauntingly. Another love gone wrong song. Gordon, what kind of beer do you drink? This is a great song, and so very 80s without sounding thin, like so many of the tunes that originated this sound.

Words Will Smash Walls is a slightly more 90s-influenced number with keys and affected bass up front in the mix while Gordon sings in the middle ground. Great groove, nice build when the drums come in, and it inadvertently borrows a riff from an obscure Anthony Phillips song from the very early 80s (if you don’t know the song, I’ll play it for you some time, Gordon. You know, over beers). This has got a really cool sound to it, with Sandy supplying one of those classic Spoons backing vocals, and Gordon getting to flex his tasteful guitar solo muscles. Very nice.

Closing Credits comes in on a plaintive grand piano figure loaded with reverb, giving it a seriously ‘old-timey’ feel, joined by the band, giving the song a slightly epic, cinematic feel, like a Bond closing theme, which is appropriate, given the title. It’s here that you realise Gordon has been playing a little game with us, telling us a story in album form, which technically makes this a concept album; not the sort of thing we expect from Spoons, but not at all unwelcome. If you’re going to make a comeback album, feel free to put everything including the kitchen sink in there. It’s a gorgeous song, and the vocals are just right, with the snare tapping out a staccato tattoo to echo the synth tom pattern burbling in the background. Swelling synth strings, fuzzy guitars, moody chord progression, and Sandy Horne singing in her ghostly high backing voice, echoing off toward some mythic Hollywood ending. Just lovely. I could probably play this track a few dozen times and not get bored.

Without patronizing a dynamic duo I’ve long admired, I’d like to say that this is the album I’ve been waiting to hear from Gordon and Sandy for a very long time. It’s not Arias & Symphonies, but it’s entirely its own special creature, and if there’s any justice left in this world, it will also be hailed as a classic in time. Here’s to the next one!

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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