One way to experiment with songwriting is to throw convention out the window, eschew verses and choruses, try to be completely unique. Sometimes the idea appears that if a song sounds like anything that came before it, well, that's points deducted like a gymnast who missed her landing. It's derivative!
When Spencer Albee experiments with songwriting, he buries himself ever deeper in the "rules" of songwriting and elbows around and mucks things up within the confines of the box he's purposely built around himself. He likes the way songs have traditionally been written. You do, too. Your brain is hardwired to like the way songs have traditionally been written. Part of Albee's appeal is that his songs sound like the songs you love by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Bad Company, but (sometimes just a little bit) not. It's derivative!
On Albee's newest project, Candy, Cake, and Ice Cream, by Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia (generally written, recorded, and performed by Albee; released by Mark Curdo's Labor Day Records), he is not just as free and easy with his pop/rock roots as he's ever been, but — fittingly for a band he basically slapped together to play SPACE's Homecoming Dance party last September — he is as free and easy, in general, as he's ever been.
Of the now seven albums Albee has fronted, this is the first time I've truly believed him since I first heard the Popsicko album in 2001.
He's a kid at heart, if a sort of manic and scruffy one, and that kid is desperate for it to be okay to have fun, for it to be okay to want things to be "So Good," with no apologies or cynical posturing. Let's sing along. Let's dance. Let's eat candy, cake, and ice cream and give each other presents and live life in Technicolor, for God's sake.
So Albee's taken that "So Good" song As Fast As contributed to Greetings From Area Code 207, Vol. 6 (November 2005) and built an album around it, if only because he could. Opening with an "I Love You! Good Morning!" that references the first Rocktopus album in title and "So Good" with a melody line played by Tim Emery (the McCarthys) on sitar, the album proceeds to ramble and jangle through loves lost and found, life lessons and aphorisms, and a fuck-all aesthetic.
"And I start to sing a song I thought no one could hear/But you knew all the words/And you start to sing along/Because there ain't nobody here/It's you and I, so good."
It's as pretty a duet as you've heard (equal to Albee's turn with Darien Brahms in his Frankenstein days), stripped down and made acoustic, with none of the pure-pop punch of the original version. But who's that he's singing with? Oh, it's his sister, Katherine Albee, and isn't that perfectly innocent and sweet, and not even in a saccharine or Pixy Stix kind of way? Yeah, it really is.
Sure, there might be a clunker or two here — like "Whatever Garry," full of Death Star lasers of bass — and it can get weird that every song has some kind of "wee-oo-oo-ahh-ahh" backing vocal thing in it (I have the same problem with Brian Wilson's Smile), and you've got to be okay with silly, but if you were waiting for the Spencer Albee album that keeps getting better 10 and 20 listens deep, this is it.
Listen to the way he buries a "Mah Na Mah Na" (the Piero Umiliani song, not the band Menomena) hook into the chorus of "Opportunity Knocks," which is Oasis as sung by cavemen, an exploration of our basest instincts.
And holy crap is the open to "Glad You Came Back Home" good, a spare mix of ukulele, wood block, and bass pops. And while it could have gone darker when the full band enters, you get the sense it's a painted-on smile: "Why'd you let him kiss your lips?/Did you really want him to?" Try to keep your socks on when Megan Jo Wilson and Katherine echo those lines.
Albee proves he can do a mature break-up song, as he does with "Nobody Got Off Easy," full of resignation instead of anger and bitterness, with vocals and guitar from As Fast As bandmate Zach Jones, now well established as one of the smoothest players around. Shuffling with bells and clip-clop percussion, Albee is detached and relaxed: "It's true/You found somebody new," but "we all lived to tell the tale."
"Pass the time/Pass the time," he implores. Pay no attention to the hurt behind the curtain.
No, Albee's anger is reserved for his own past choices, it would seem. "Tried to do what I love, but it broke our hearts," he sings in "Betaphorm," "Never should have trusted those executive shits from the start." It's a mean-streets kind of song, with a low-down piano line paired with a swarthy cello from Emily Dix Thomas, and after it crescendos with a whir of sound we're delivered a terrific melodic pairing of piano and guitar, unloading an angry and pointed bridge.