Canterbury, UK-based band Spygenius play densely lyrical, erudite rock that draws on sixty years of classic tunesmithing. Their new double gatefold vinyl album Man on the Sea – streaming at Bandcamp – is as ambitious as it is vast. Their ability to channel an amazing number of styles is breathtaking. New wave? Check. The Beatles? Doublecheck. 80s pop, 70s art-rock? Check and doublecheck. Clever puns and cynical humor notwithstanding, frontman/guitarist Peter Watts’ songs occasionally take themselves a bit too seriously. But when this band connect, they really hit it out of the park (gratuitous American baseball reference in a review of an English band, WTF?), and they do that a lot here.
The opening track, Another True Story is Rubber Soul Beatles as Squeeze might have done it, with a twelve-string guitar: Oxford group Dada Paradox come to mind. Likewise, Albion, a snide dismissal of icy British conformity, is a McCartneyesque ballad with hints of the tropics and an unexpected snarl as it goes on.
Propelled by Ruth Rogers’ bubbly, dancing bass and Alan Cannings’ tightly clustering drums, If You Go A-Roving looks back to the chimepop of 80s bands like Happy Mondays, with a Celtic tinge: keyboardist Matt Byrne’s trebly carnival organ is a deft touch. They keep the jangle and clang going throughout Salaud Days, a sendup of hypocrites. The title is a pun: “salaud” is French for “bastard,” Watts using the word in the Sartrean sense of an individual who refuses or neglects to exercise his free choice.
Side one concludes with Tomorrowland, a very clever critique of wide-eyed, futuristic techie fantasies, Byrne’s piano leaping and bounding uneasily. Side two begins with the Kinks-ish Café Emery Hill, followed by the sobering Dolphinarium 1986, a moody Celtic folk-rock reflection on how nostalgia is the enemy of history.
New Street is a snarky mashup of organ-driven 60s psychedelia and mid-80s REM. The album’s high point is the metaphorically loaded seafaring ballad Man Overboard: this grimly detailed account of a mutiny wouldn’t be out of place in the Charming Disaster catalog if that band played eight-minute songs.
Green Eyed Monster opens side three amid wild sheets of noise and then an anthemic, minor-key sway like the Church circa 1985 or so. From there the group segue into In a Garden, Byrne’s phantasmagorically twinkling piano elevating it above REM ripoff level. “She can’t help being stupider than you,” Watts rails in the scampering, organ-fueled Don’t Blame It on Your Mother, a dis to somebody who’ll do anything to avoid facing up to responsibility – a recurrent theme here.
Midnight Bandola comes across as an Irish take on the Grateful Dead circa American Beauty. Rogers sings Spite, its bright Manchester pop sheen masking her hilariously venomous portrait of a pompous twit. Watch Your Back rises slowly from unresolved Robyn Hitchcock jangle to a big payoff. Windy (an original, not the 60s pop hit) has its airy late Beatles ambience: it could be late-period Love Camp 7 with a keyboard. That’s where the album ought to end; the intro to the last track is torture. Back in the radio-and-records age, this band would have been huge.