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(Okay, so that's a tad dramatic)
After several "artistically diversifying" releases that have amounted to little more than pleasant albums to fall asleep to, the founder of one of the '80s most important bands - Spacemen 3 - has thankfully given up on rewriting the same Velvet Underground tribute song in favor of something fresh. And in Jason Pierce's case, returning to his roots - white-hot rhythm and blues - after almost two decades is indeed fresh, even if the garage rock trend has been labeled non-trendy by now. Noticeably absent from the majority of Amazing Grace are the gentle symphonies, the brooding atmospheres, and the snooze-inducing shoegazing that best characterizes the rut of Spiritualized's past two albums.
There will be those that will bemoan this shift in focus and newfound aggression, but to hell with them. It's not as if Pierce has decided to ditch his psuedo-religious hymns. Instead, he's opted to divide and conquer. You'll still get a sense of the airy majesty that has become Spiritualized's trademark space blooze over the course of these eleven new songs. But, not before Pierce knocks you on your ass with his overhauled, passionate rock and roll attack.
The album opener "This little light of mine" is pure dragon's breath. Ten seconds of distortion is abruptly swallowed by a muscular guitar riff that gives way to a completely chaotic mess. Jerry Lee Lewis pounds the piano over the top of multiple lead guitars bending notes sideways as the drums are smacked to hell. At the zenith is Pierce sounding less banal than ever. His aggressive, affects-laden vocals are a burly sucker-punch unlike little else he's mustered as Spiritualized. This is hardly a headphone symphony.
"Hold on", however, is. Pierce makes us wait eight minutes before he gives us what we expect from him: a peaceful, pretty hymn. (Yet, even this song begins with a swell of noise, like a rock and roll orchestra tuning up before the big gig.) Like many of Pierce's recent songs, "Hold on" is really a quiet bluesy nod to Black Pentecostal hymns. Pierce sings "death can not take what you've already lost", as the slide guitar, harmonica, piano and drums crescendo into a gentle roar. (It reminds, in fact, of U2's remake of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" on Rattle and Hum, minus the black choir.)
There's no choir missing from the bombastic "Oh Baby", though. A string arrangement and angelic mass of voices makes the song a dead-ringer for Pierce's grandiose work on Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space.
But back to this rock and roll thing, "Never goin' back" is a humorous wink and a nod to Pierce's alter-ego as front man of Spacemen 3. Pierce strains above the din of noise, "I ain't never goin' home."
But in reality it's Pierce's willingness to return to his boyish inspiration that has breathed life back into his music. And nowhere else on this album is that point made more clear than the transition from the feedback-drenched R&B of "Never goin' back" to the subtle piano strains that open the following song, "The power and the glory". A warm, organ-coated instrumental that makes fine use of a fierce horn arrangement, "The power and the glory" is borderline jazz that flirts with the intensity of Miles Davis' early '70s material before it all comes crashing down upon itself.
Fans of Spiritualized's late-'90s work will trip over their tongues in singing the praises of Amazing Grace's next two songs. "Lord let it rain on me" milks dynamics by featuring an adult choir that sounds as if they were captured in the same reverb-drenched gymnasium that Hans Fenger (of Langley Schools Music Project fame) recorded his students at in 1975. Meanwhile, "The ballad of Richard Lee" is a bluesy, down-tempo number that oddly enough recalls Portishead with its dreary string arrangement and slinky percussion.
"Cheapster" picks the pace back up with horny organ, staccato percussion, and a funky guitar riff lifted from a long-lost mythical Meters jam session. Not quite as T. Rex glam-inspired as the song's title might suggest, "Cheapster" is still a bit over-the-top and comes across as harmless wanking off.
"Rated X" one-ups several of Spiritualized's contemporaries (namely, Air) that have done their best at improving upon the Spiritualized space-rock formula. An Eno-like ambience clumsily plods along, building into sweeping organ tones of various flavors as Pierce talk-sings about...I've no clue. His choice of vocal effect-what amounts to mumbling into a megaphone-all but eradicates any hope of you understanding what he's going on about. But, in keeping with the feel of the music, it does lend a worthwhile layer of ambiguity to the song's tender arrangement.
For an album that rocks as hard as it does in places, Pierce has chosen the conventional wind-down for Amazing Grace. Albeit, "Lay it down slow" is a standout track. Returning once again to a spiritual message and hymn-like songwriting approach, the closer rocks in a late-Beatles kinda way. What begins as an electric piano ballad develops a case of the melancholic-rocker blues, complete with the mid-song George Harrison guitar solo that makes the knees quiver. And then the song fades away, disintegrating into nothing, giving up when it surely could have continued for minutes.
For Pierce, there's always a yin and yang. But never have the two worked as well together as they do on Amazing Grace. Inspiration, it seems, has come full circle. And Spiritualized is better off for it. Welcome home Jason. SEE ALSO: www.spiritualized.com
A former staff writer for LAS whom we like to call Diggles, Mr. Hoepker is currently laboring away on various music-based projects. He now works in academic publishing (ahem), but is perhaps still best known by his DJ moniker, The Noiseboy.
See other articles by Doug Hoepker.
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