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A Gorgeously Bittersweet Farewell to Manhattan from Art-Rock Maven Spottiswoode

The Manhattan that Jonathan Spottiswoode came up in back in the 1990s was far from perfect. The seeds of the city’s death by real estate speculation had already been sown. But there were a lot more places where an often witheringly lyrical, lavishly orchestrated rock band could play then than there are now. Spottiswoode & His Enemies may have sold out the release show for their latest magnum opus, Lost in the City, at Joe’s Pub on the 30th, but twenty-one years ago they could have done the same at a much bigger venue. So it’s fitting that the album – streaming at Bandcamp – is an elegaic salute to a vanished, urbane metropolis, and that Spottiswoode has since relocated to his London birthplace. At least we’ll always have the memories – and this epic.

While Spottiswoode is no stranger to largescale creations, this is arguably his most lavish release. He’s always had a knack for latin sounds, and he dives more deeply into the Spanish Caribbean here than ever before. The opening track is Hoboken. It’s dead ringer for a brooding Pink Floyd ballad: Spottiswoode’s voice has weathered to resemble Roger Waters more and more over the yearas, and Tony Lauria’s gospel-tinged piano completes the picture. The migthy Springsteenian bridge is spot-on, right down to Laura’s Roy Bittan impersonation. “I tried it like all the rest, not what I dreamed I guess, but I did ok,” Spottiswoode muses.

With its bluesy minor-key swing spiced with horn harmonies from saxophonist Candace DeBartolo and trumpeter Kevin Cordt, the title track could also be peak-era Springsteen. With Lauria’s erudite, Fever-ish solo at the center, it’s a long-lost cousin to 10th Avenue Freeze-Out. The nimble pulse of bassist John Young and drummer Tim Vaill propel the funny, filthy, syncopated latin soul anthem Love Saxophone, a look back to a period ten years further back, and several Manhattan blocks north and east. 

Antoine Silverman’s acerbic, Romany-flavored violin kicks off The Walk of Shame, a hauntingly orchestrated vignette of the dark side of the bright lights: “The night was so delicoius/Now a puddle is a mirror for Narcissus.” Then Cordt and trombonist Sara Jacovino work a punchy conversation in Because I Made You, a return to swinging oldschool soul.

The way Spottiswoode sets up the narrative in the distantly ominous, wistful clave-soul elegy Goodbye Jim McBride is too good to give away. The starkly bluesy, doomed, reverberating ambience of It’s on Me wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album. Next, the band hit a slow, Lynchian swing groove with Batman & Robin, a disconsolate picture of a divorced dad out with his kids on the weekend.

Riley McMahon’s hailstone reverb guitar mingles with Lauria’s stern salsa piano and organ in Now Didn’t I? McMahon and the bandleader bulid spaghetti western menace over a 5/4 beat in Tears of Joy: as Lauria’s electric piano twinkles eerily overhead, it could be Botanica. Then the band hit a blazing soul-blues sway with Dirty Spoon.

A mashup of late 60s folk-rock Kinks and Springsteen E Street shuffle, Still Small Voice Inside could be the album’s most poignant, relevant number:

Hello, good evening
Did you accomplish what you planned?
Don’t you know the feeling
Too much supply no demand
Yeah it’s a drag, at least you tried
Now listen to the still small voice inside

Young’s big bass bends anchor McMahon’s lingering guitar and blues harp in Cry Baby. Wistful strings and Lauria’s elegant piano mingle in Sunset, a vivid, Ray Davies-esque vignette, followed by the wryly Waitsian swing blues Going Home for Christmas.

The album’s musical high point could be the swaying 6/8 noir soul instrumental East Village Melody, Cordt and then DeBartolo channeling wee-hours melancholy over the band’s glistening, distantly ominous backdrop. Spottiswoode’s gritty vocals soar in You’ll See, an unexpectedly optimistic Weimar waltz. The album winds up with I Don’t Regret, its lush strings and Leonard Cohen inflections: it’s an old rake’s colorful, defiant defense of a “sordid life.” The sounds on this album are old but timeless: it will age well, just like the guy who wrote it.

Yet Another Gorgeous Album by Spottiswoode

If Spottiswoode never made another album, his place in the art-rock pantheon would be secure. From his days in the 90s fronting Washington, DC’s the Zimmermans to his similarly lyrical but considerably darker, Leonard Cohen-tinged career in New York starting around the turn of the century, multi-instrumentalist baritone crooner Jonathan Spottiswoode has been writing and playing richly arranged, sardonically elegant, angst-fueled songs that span from debauched Tom Waits-ish vignettes to lavishly orchestrated epics. He’s back with yet another good album, English Dream, streaming at Spotify. His snarling, psychedelic, politically-fueled 2012 masterpiece Wild Goosechase Expedition was arguably the high point of his career, a hard act to follow. Smartly, he goes in a completely different direction with this one, focusing more on purist tunesmithing than savage lyrical content – although there’s some of that too, and it’s characteristically choice. The band includes John Young on bass, Tim Vaill on drums, Candace DeBartolo on sax, Kevin Cordt on trumpet, Riley McMahon on guitar and Tony Lauria on keys.

The opening track, Till My Dying Day, sets the stage, a jangly, swaying nocturne with richly layered guitars, piano and melodic bass, rising and falling with lustrous, ambered horns in as it winds out. Spottiswoode’s voice has taken on more gravitas and soul with the years: he’s never sung more effortlessly, and more affectingly, than he does here.

The second track, Golden Apple, sounds like early zeros noir NYC legends DollHouse doing a creepy bolero – it’s a kiss-off anthem. Clear Your Mind is the Byrds as the Church – or for that matter, Marty Willson-Piper solo – might do it. I Didn’t Know I Was So Sad works a steady, vintage Bowie/Ian Hunter piano ballad groove, with hints of flamenco and 60s psychedelia. The title track moves from stark to even darker over a tricky 5/4 rhythm, like Joy Division’s The Eternal reinvented as early 70s Britfolk.

The aptly titled Majesty works a series of titanic swells up from pretty pastoralia. Genius Flower sets an ominous horn chart and Beatlesque chromatics to a staggered, dancing rhythm. With its anxiously fluttery, tremoloing intro, swooping clarinet and elegant electric harpsichord, the moody chamber pop anthem Butterfly might well be the album’s best song. Spottiswoode picks up the pace after that with No Time for Love, its brasslike guitar track and brisk new wave beat evoking the Church at their catchiest circa 1986 or so.

Gorgeously clanging bouzouki mingles with deep autumn orchestral colors on Another Year, a sardonic look at getting stuck on the romantic treadmill. So-called “coming-of’-age” songs usually suck: they tend to romanticize everything, but Dreamer Boy, a bittersweet recollection of middle school-age angst, reaches beyond that for a grandeur that finally peaks with a series of absolutely gorgeous downward runs on the piano. It contrasts with the snidely bluesy Blonde on Blonde sway of Who Were You Baby, a look back at a girl who would have turned out to be poison had she stuck around.

Melancholy Boy blends jazzy horns into tasty major/minor changes and then a long, lush, rippling outro. The album ends up with the gorgeously jangly, high-spirited nouveau-Byrds anthem Sweetest Girl. Much as the era of the big-studio album is pretty much finished, it’s heartwarming to see Spottiswoode still at it, artfully layering all those intricate, tastefully played tracks of bass and drums and guitars and keys and vocals into a majestic, cohesive whole. What else is there to say: as you would expect, it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2014 so far.

Spottiswoode and His Enemies Celebrate 15 Years of Art-Rock Brilliance

In the wake of the hurricane, Spottiswode and His Enemies didn’t know whether they’d be able to do the fifteen-year anniversary show they’d been working on right up until four days before the concert actually took place last night. But it was a last-minute triumph to rival any staged in New York this year. Adding a touch of class, a little holiday spirit and spot-on ambience, the nimble organist at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher Street played a little Bach, a carol and finally a solo introduction to the band’s first song from her perch up in the balcony. It was a trope straight out of Pink Floyd, one of the groups that this inspired, sharp bunch of art-rockers resembles. In over three hours of music spanning two long sets, the band left no doubt that they’re even more formidable a beast than when they had their first New York residency at Coney Island High back in the 90s.

Bandleader Jonathan Spottiswoode uses artsy, lyrically-driven 70s British folk-rock as a stepping-off point for his often witheringly lyrical songs. For most of the show, he played acoustic guitar over lush, soaring arrangements from a six-piece band that included Riley McMahon on electric guitar, mandolin and glockenspiel, John Young on bass, Anthony Lauria on piano, organ and acccordion, Candace DeBartolo on tenor sax, plus a tersely excellent trumpeter and equally terse drummer who felt the room, held back and let his beats resonate in the boomy space.

Spottiswoode’s best songs are intense, and his cask-aged baritone conveys that, nonchalantly but vividly. This being a celebration of a band’s fifteen-year survival, they wasted no time looking at it dourly with Salvation, a gospel-tinged, Nick Cave-ish reflection on getting old: even a long, horn-driven crescendo didn’t lighten the mood. But Spottiswoode’s songs are self-aware. It only took him til song two to take a poke at the too-cool-for-school crowd: “Life is dreary if you’re world-weary,” he intoned over a brisk folk-rock shuffle. He led the band into noir tango-rock after thatwith  the Lou Reed-inflected Nice Girl, and then Enfant Terrible, a savagely sarcastic, vaudevillian waltz directed at a spoiled woman who “dresses her children like sluts” and won’t sleep with her much younger boyfriend because he slapped her around once. Those are the kind of details that populate Spottiswoode’s best songs and make them so entertaining.

The band was sensational. Was the high point of the night DeBartolo’s rain-drenched, gorgeously minimalist opening solo on the salsa-grooving You Will Rise Again? Or was it the paint-peeling guitar duel on a flamenco-tinged epic later in the first set, Spottiswoode and McMahon blasting through as feral a jam as Steve Wynn and Jason Victor could ever come up with? Good as the band was, they couldn’t have done as well without such solid material. The rest of the set ran the gamut from the blithely sardonic, cabaret-tinged Ukrainian Girl – a Quentin Crisp acolyte who turns out to be “a laboratory rat in her underwear” – to a long, theatrically shapeshifting take of the Bush War parable Wild Goosechase Expedition – to the understatedly poignant, Lennonesque Chariot, a considerably quieter but equally powerful antiwar song.

The second set was a lot looser, sometimes more carefree, sometimes more lush, notably on a careening, raspingly gloomy take of It’s All in the Past and a bit later with a long, nebulously atmospheric tableau, its narrator staring pensively at the Hoboken skyline from across the river, a song that predated the hurricane by several years but fit the lingering after-storm ambience like a glove. They finally closed the night with about fifteen minutes of one of those long, lusciously dark, psychedelic latin grooves that Spottiswoode does so well, You Won’t Forget Your Dream, allowing plenty of time for solos from pretty much the whole band. For a long time, this group was ubiquitous in this town; understandably, shows have grown fewer and further between. This happened to be one for the ages. Here’s hoping they do a thirtieth anniversary show someday where the hurricane comes afterward.