After Spacemen 3 called it a day around the dawn of the decade, singer/guitarist Jason Pierce was free to expand upon his more classicist theories of dream-state drone as pure pop with Spiritualized. Only slightly less narcotic in effect than his previous band, this free-flowing aggregation has proven slightly more likely to assent to verse-chorus-verse structure (albeit an extremely distended form thereof), while preserving the spangled sonic surroundings that add such a transportive quality to his compositions. If you can imagine LaMonte Young and Brian Wilson jamming at a corner (hash) bar, you’ve got a pretty clear vision of the Spiritualized totality.
Lazer Guided Melodies takes full advantage of Pierce’s facility for crafting songs that build slowly — majestically, even — from simple acoustic kernels to fully orchestrated euphonies. With the core quintet augmented by full horn and string sections (put to best use on “Step Into the Breeze”), the band plays with texture to the point that songs like “Angel Sigh” and the sunny, gentle “You Know It’s True” take on an almost sculptural quality. That trait is accentuated by Pierce’s tireless tinkering with sound qua sound — vocals are flanged, notes ping-pong from speaker to speaker, keyboard tones modulate madly — as well as the vinyl-oriented assemblage of tunes into four neatly configured three-song suites, culminating with “200 Bars,” a whirring number that lasts precisely as long as its title indicates, with the bars quietly enumerated by keyboardist Kate Radley. More than merely psychedelic, it’s positively celestial.
Fucked Up Inside is a limited-edition seven-song live release initially available only by mail order. Among the selections are a version of Spaceman 3’s “Walkin’ With Jesus.”
Judging by the intricately layered sound of Pure Phase (an utterly appropriate title), it would be reasonable to assume that Pierce spent every last moment of the three years that separate Spiritualized’s two longplayers parked behind a mixing board. With the band stripped down to a trio of Pierce, Radley and new bassist Sean Cook (although still augmented by as many as six brass players, the Balanescu Quartet, first-album guitarist Mark Refoy plus three singers credited with “slide vocal” and “flow vocal”), he makes more use of the fissures between notes. Although a cursory listen leaves the impression that it’s merely a refinement of the first album’s spacey ambience, Pure Phase actually represents a great leap forward — or sideways, at least — into minimalist structure. In the place of Lazer Guided Melodies‘ ebb and flow, Pure Phase offers one long, sustained crescendo. It may vary in volume, from the placid “The Slide Song” to the wailing void-blues of “All of My Tears,” but there’s an amazing consistency of tone running through the album’s fourteen songs, not to mention a spiritual aspect that elevates “Lay Back in the Sun” and “Let It Flow” to a gospel-like emotional pinnacle. (The English edition was released in a spectacular glow-in-the-dark embossed slide-cover case.)
Ostensibly a “single,” the lavishly packaged Let It Flow actually stretches over three CDs, boasting three versions of the title song as well as nine other tracks — live work and radio sessions, the bulk of which are otherwise unavailable. Of the rarities, the pulsing raga “Things Will Never Be the Same” (an S3 oldie) and the heady, harpsichord-tinged “Take Your Time” are particularly substantial.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was the most ambitious and most fully realized expression of the Spiritualized aesthetic thus far, the final installment of a trilogy begun with Lazer Guided Melodies. The CD’s original packaging — manufactured by a pharmaceutical company — was a clear statement of intent. The disc came encased in a foil blister pack like an enormous pill, the sleeve notes mimicking the patient- info slip for a medication named Spiritualized®. The album itself is another heady cocktail of familiar ingredients (gospel, blues, garage rock, psychedelia, free jazz, minimalism and systems music), with a continued focus on the intertwined themes of love, drugs and salvation. Despite some squalling, dissonant instrumentals (“No God Only Religion” and “The Individual”) and a couple of numbers that gesture back to Spacemen 3’s garage inclinations (for instance, the charging “Electricity”), Ladies and Gentlemen isn’t as immediate in its impact as previous albums (if any of the band’s earlier work can accurately be described as immediate in its impact). Pierce assembles dense layers that take the onus off simple melodic lines and most tracks build unhurriedly, drawing listeners in gradually. The most compelling numbers develop into Spector-sized symphonies, elevating Pierce’s prosaic lyrics to epic stature: “Broken Heart,” a rather mundane song of lost love, gains the illusion of earth- shattering gravitas from its string and horn arrangement. The record also gains weight from occasional backing by the London Community Gospel Choir. Pierce has described his records as “reclaiming religious music for non-churchgoers” and that’s clearer than ever on Ladies and Gentlemen, which is also lyrically fixated on salvation, through love, drugs or both. Indeed, the two often blur together — “Love in the middle of the afternoon / Just me, my spike in my arm and my spoon,” Pierce sings on “I Think I’m in Love” — but the album’s two final gospel-tinged tracks chart starkly different paths to redemption. Whereas the sweeping “Cool Waves” would have ended the record on a note of sanctified renewal through the healing properties of love, Pierce opts for a less uplifting conclusion. In the tormented, 17-minute “Cop Shoot Cop” — with Dr. John on piano, a five-minute noise freak-out and brooding, mantric gospel vocals — Pierce attains a sense of rebirth through the “hole in my arm where all the money goes.” Although ending the album that way implies an ultimately failed quest, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is a sacred and profane masterpiece.
Given the storied studio perfectionism of an artist who has spent years diddling with record before releasing them, the notion of Spiritualized in concert might hold little promise of greatness. But the two-disc Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 Live proves not only that the group is able to successfully bring itself live but that it does so in spectacular fashion, complete with string and horn sections and a choir. (The Albert Hall gig reportedly required a four-hour soundcheck, however.) Recorded at the end of the Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space tour, and drawing primarily on material from that album, the live disc is full of epiphanies, both fleeting and extended. The simple moment of transition from the introductory version of “Oh Happy Day” into “Shine a Light” is breathtaking, as white-noise chaos gives way to sheer tranquility. Elsewhere, and in contrast with its more austere studio incarnation on Lazer Guided Melodies, “Take Your Time” gradually swells to almost euphoric proportions. The two final tracks revise the pessimistic conclusion of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space: a dark and stormy “Cop Shoot Cop” gives way to a rousing full gospel choir reprise of “Oh Happy Day,” punctuated with joyous sonic explosions, and the record ends on an unmistakably celebratory note. Live albums rarely add anything significant to an act’s oeuvre, but Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 isn’t just any live album.
Pierce made sweeping personnel changes in Spiritualized for Let It Come Down, which ultimately involved more than 100 musicians over the two years it took to record. If Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space was a heavy, grandiose work that bore the weight of its ambition gracefully; Let It Come Down is lighter and less adventurous. But that isn’t an issue — the problem is that it’s uneven, and the sublime tracks here only accentuate the weaker and occasionally dull material. With a focus on anthemic orchestral numbers and conventional rock, the symphonic, gospel-tinged tracks are the most effective. “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In)” and the wall-of-sound ballad “Stop Your Crying” are excellent, but the highlight is the spellbinding closer, “Lord Can You Hear Me,” an old Spacemen 3 number. That said, however, it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that Pierce has fallen for formula; that symphonic numbers are a one- dimensional means of producing an emotional effect. What’s missing are the slow-building patterns, the hypnotic minimalist elements and the expansive textures that laid the foundations for Spiritualized’s most engaging songs. The band’s best tracks have often seemed to grow organically, as if they had a life of their own, but the music on Let It Come Down doesn’t get the same space to breathe and evolve. While Pierce’s vocals have always been detached and sparing, serving as punctuation or as another texture, here they are surprisingly overbearing. Nevertheless, his newfound garrulousness is perfect for “The Twelve Steps,” a galloping number — among the hardest-rocking songs he’s done — which contains some of his most humorous lyrics (“The only time I’m drink and drug free / Is when I get my drugs and drink for free” and “I don’t think I’m gonna find Jesus Christ / So I’d rather spend my cash on vice”). The way Pierce ironically steps back from his drug-addled image is symptomatic of the lighter tone throughout this album; Let It Come Down undoubtedly has a healthier, happier, less intense feel, but unfortunately that makes it less compelling. At the risk of romanticizing misery or self-destruction, it’s inescapable that some bands do their best work in such throes.
The Complete Works Volume One is a two-CD compilation of rarities, singles, BBC session tracks and alternate versions that follow Spiritualized’s emergence from the ashes of Spacemen 3 (with the single “Anyway That You Want Me”) through the 1993 Electric Mainline EP. Striking a balance between the band’s most memorable material and offerings for Spiritualized archivists, it caters both to the uninitiated (who just want an introduction) and those who need four versions of “Feel So Sad” or a track consisting of Kate Radley counting to 100.
While the making of Let It Come Down was an epic process, Spiritualized took a markedly different approach on Amazing Grace. Recording essentially live in the studio over a three-week period and de-emphasizing production, Pierce sought to capture the spontaneity of his musicians playing together. The intricate minimalist textures of the early records are absent, but signature influences still resonate as Pierce continues to explore his pet themes (drugs, love and an ironic interest in God and salvation). If Pierce sometimes lost the plot on Let It Come Down, here he cuts to the chase with an economical, stripped-down feel and a refreshing immediacy. The disc is brief (43 minutes) by Spiritualized standards and the songs comparatively short. With distorted guitars, “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)” and “This Little Life of Mine” kick out the jams more ferociously and abrasively than the group’s previous forays into garageland. But although a sign reading “less is more” might have been taped to the mixing board, Amazing Grace is not one-dimensional. It occasionally opens out into familiarly expansive sonic spaces, filled with strings, brass, female backing vocals and all manner of keyboards and percussion. Various combinations of these elements come into play on the pocket symphony “Oh Baby,” the hymnal “Lay It Down Slow” and “The Power and the Glory,” a free-jazzy instrumental (featuring saxophonist Evan Parker and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler) that builds to a tumultuous climax. Gospel numbers have become de rigueur for Spiritualized, but the majestic “Lord Let It Rain on Me” is a revelation, proving that it doesn’t take ten minutes, an orchestra and a full choir to create an emotionally powerful song: four minutes built around simple acoustic strumming and sparse percussion, it’s as potent as Let It Come Down‘s “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In).” Amazing Grace definitely isn’t as significant as Ladies and Gentlemen, but it signals that Pierce is prepared to explore new ways of working.
The Complete Works Volume Two is similar in format to Volume One. Featuring singles, EP tracks, alternate versions, live numbers and rarities, this two-CD set covers the period from Pure Phase to Let It Come Down. Like Volume One, it satisfies two different constituencies, whetting the appetite of newcomers and also giving longtime fans the chance to get their hands on material they may have missed.
After playing in Spiritualized, guitarist Mark Refoy (also a major contributor to Spacemen 3’s Recurring album) formed Slipstream. The quartet’s two albums (which have two tracks, including a shambling cover of Kraftwerk’s “Computer World,” in common) center on light, appealing guitar pop with ambient/noise fringes that occasionally (especially on Slipstream) move from threat to domination. Refoy’s voice, wan but lovely, nicely augments the relaxed tone of songs like Side Effects‘ “Hearing Voices,” “Late Too Late” and “Give It Some Time” and the harder-rocking Slipstream‘s semi- acoustic “Harmony,” “One Step Ahead” and “She Passes By” (which paraphrases another Kraftwerk classic). Although the eponymous debut is more consistently alluring than Side Effects, which is basically a singles compilation, both are tasty treats.