Monday, October 10, 2011
Album: Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Jesus Christ, are the 90s on pace to become the best decade? For everything, that is. Visible social protest, a strong economy, independent movies, and great popular music (especially with hip hop, but lots of wow-I-can't-believe-they're-getting-airplay as well). Make no mistake about it, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is not an album that would be made today. But with people re-buying their entire collections in a new format, the music industry was booming in the pre-Napster late-90s. So it's not that crazy that what was really an indie band on a major label with a strong niche audience...got to make one of the most ambitious, expansive records of the decade. Personal preference for "most artistic" or "favorite" record of the 1990s aside, there is no doubt that Ladies and Gentlemen is a project whose scope in terms of length and size of production was unmatched through the decade.
Of course, none of this would matter with sub-par songs (as the sometimes-good, but ultimately weaker follow-up to this album, 2001's Let It Come Down, proves), and therein lies the genius of J Spaceman: "simple things done well" as a friend of mine once put it. On paper, the structure and layout of his songs dating back to the earliest Spacemen 3 recordings isn't that different from the songs here: two or three chords, verses and a chorus that are very similar and rarely is there a bridge that changes the chord shapes...diversity of song-structure is certainly not what his Spaceman-ness is known for. But the execution of Spiritualized's music is anything but typical, and while most current artists that are ripping off blues legends or writing garage rock songs sound derivative and painfully un-original, J Spaceman's compositions are a testament to how an artist can use a familiar form and do something new with it.
The album opens with the title-track: a lyric-for-lyric (partially, at least) cover of Elvis Presley's "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You". Restored for it's recent reissue, Spaceman gives the song new life, with superb vocal harmony rounds throughout the song. There are at least four vocal tracks by my count on the original release (1. Spaceman with distortion 2. Spaceman without distortion 3. Choir 4. Spaceman loud at the end), along with guitars, keys, and all sorts of other instrumentation. There's a lot going on, but rarely is everyone playing at once, giving the song an amazing amount of space to breathe. That's the album's primary strength: lots of instrumentation, but used well. The album never feels overblown, no matter how much is going on.
Another example is the superb third song "I Think I'm In Love." Though ten-minutes long, the foundation of the song is a 7-note bass riff played at the end of a measure. No matter how far out the song goes...it always rests on that riff. The song has only two parts, and within those two sections they don't stray from their core melody. Still, the simple lyrics and simple melody are carried by the song's ability to just have everything in the right place.
With Ladies And Gentlemen, Spiritualized turned a pretty big corner. The first album and early singles were obviously extensions of what Spaceman was doing with his side of the Recurring LP. Pure Phase was a more diverse, but slightly less cohesive album. At this point, the band was still relatively stripped down and doing simple things. Ladies and Gentleman, however, is longer, more diverse, and bigger than anything he'd tried. The songs are not all guitar-centric, and songs like "Come Together" and "Electricity" showcase Spaceman's newly-found ability to rock out (something he'd really never done before). The symphonic strings of "Cool Waves," the cool jazz of "Cop Shoot Cop" and the bombastic orchestration of "The Individual" are further examples of new things. Whereas earlier album's featured abstract, drone-scapes for instrumentals, the one's here are more aggressive and really fit the album a lot better.
Spiritualized started the 2000s off with high popularity, before Spaceman's pneumonia side-lined the band for three years. They've recently come back in vogue, and with reissues and tours around this album, it's easy to see why. Perhaps it was a bit dwarfed when it was released the same year as OK Computer, the album finally seems like it's getting it's due. And Spiritualized are certainly not alone in terms of 90s bands finally getting the respect they deserve. The album is more dynamic and diverse than most albums in general, let alone the 90s. It remains a remarkable testament to what a band can do when given major label resources (besides just selling more records, like most indie bands strive for when going big time). There's unlikely to be another album like it anytime soon, so enjoy it now!