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November 2002
Jason Spooner, Lost Houses
By ROBERT BRYANT

When Jason Spooner played on the FACE stage at the Old Port Festival in June, I was struck by the timbre of his voice. It had a raspy quality that was pleasantly melodic, with a good range, able to belt out Johnny Cash or Rolling Stones tunes with equal ease. Something about it caught me, and I wasn't alone. Many that day asked if he had a CD available. The unfortunate answer was 'no.' Spooner has finally rectified that with a debut release. Lost Houses. The disc comprises eleven songs that span a large period of time, and includes several loyal fans' long-time favorites interspersed with some newer work.

The Lost Houses title is thematic more than specific. "I combed through the songs for some kind of nugget, some crystallized element to what I felt this record was about," Spooner explains. "There's a moment in 'Morning' where the woman is speaking aloud while she's sleeping, talking about things she left behind, or going from what she expected to happen to what really happened."

Many of the songs have a retrospective quality to them, from the wistful yet pointed opener "People Like You" (Don't pretend that I don't see/the ripped and broken branches of your family tree/That's why people like you stay away from people like me) to the mournful "Cry Me To Sleep" (Men and women who worked so hard/Now feel the cut so deep/No more work in the old steel yards/Where will the children sleep), which Spooner wrote in high school. "But I don't feel it's a melancholy record," he says. "It's more where you're looking back into situations or places that are no longer with you. They're lost in your memory, but they're still sort of there in a way."

In the chorus of "Big Black Hole" (All my life I've been overcome with those memories of the past/And when I think about what we've become I think it slipped away a little too fast), Spooner's voice evokes thoughts of Paul Simon. Others have made comparisons to Kelly Joe Phelps, or John Mayer, or J.J. Cale. The comparisons are not new to Spooner, nor altogether distasteful - "every musician has a Simon and Garfunkel phase, he says. "From a songwriting standpoint, you have to have a little bit of that in your bag." Its probably good that listeners describe Spooner's voice as 'sort of like' so many artists—too many references to one sound would indicate a lack of individual style. "And it's human nature to compare," he points out. "To give context is to compare. I'm not put off by it and I don't think I should be. It's just how people make connections and describe music."

Spooner's approach to songwriting is two-fold, he says. "There are really two opposing forces I connect with in songwriting. One is the more general, almost wide-brush-stroke approach painting pictures with words that can be interpreted a number of different ways, but it's still a very meaningful song." Then on the literal side, Spooner points to artists like Johnny Cash, whose songs are "poetic almost in their frankness or in their staunch reality," he says. Such brashness can be equally as compelling. "So I'm between those two poles - something very poetic, and un-specific, and something down to the reality of what's happening line by line."

It doesn't get more literal than the fun, campy "Pickup Truck" (Her family's strange but not half bad/Except for the fact that her uncle is her dad). The song provides a nice break in the album, falling between the introspective "Morning" and the rolling groove of "One More Moment." While other musicians may have questioned Spooner's sanity for including the Maine-stereotype-spiced tune (She's got more features than a Winnebago/She's had more rednecks than Lake Sebago), many fans encouraged him to do just that.. "So what the hell," he says. "I tried to write a cool country tune, but it ended up always being kind of campy, so I just went full-bore with it."

Solid performances by several local musicians lend a wonderfully complete sound to the record. Reed Chambers (Relish) matches his drumming nicely to Spooner's voice, driving yet never overpowering the poetry. Carter Logan (Jerks of Grass) provides the banjo behind "Pickup Truck." Adam Chilenski (The Bel-Isle Trio) fills out the bass, with Josh Williamson on lead guitar, Hank Decken on dobro, and Nancy Cartonio and Heather Caston providing backing vocals. "They're great," Spooner says of Cartonio and Caston. "They've been singing together since they were teenagers and their harmonies are just so tight." Spooner is selflessly appreciative of all involved with the project, not least of all the recording and mixing of Steve Drown (The Studio). "I felt like we were in the trenches together, banging out guitar tracks and me being a complete freak and perfectionist on so many things. He's probably the closest thing to a therapist I've been to," he quips.

Live, Spooner is joined by Chambers and bassist Andy Rice. Having a rhythm section has changed Spooner's performance style a little, he says. "It's good to come from a solo thing and evolve into a full band because [as a solo performer], you have to really hone the songs, make them interesting and not rely on the arrangements." On some days he still prefers the solo thing, "but I just love having that interplay, the spontaneity up there. I'm playing with two phenomenal players right now, two very creative players. It's just kind of funny that I've managed to find two guys who can turn it on and really rock, and can also kind of hang back and do the songwriter thing and let the songs stand on their own."

The trio was super-tight during recent gigs at Gritty's and Bull Feeney's, playing through many of the tunes from the record and a host of covers all done up in Spooner's unique style. He has a knack for making a song his own, rendering moot the listener's memory of the original despite radio overplay. His version of George Michael's "Faith" seems really strange until you hear it, and even Terence Trent Darby's "Wishing Well" manages to groove right along.

While he's happy playing the bars and doing the numerous cover tunes, Spooner recognizes any future is as an original song-writer. "I'd like to do more songwriter situations where I can say 'Hey, these are my songs.' I should be trying to do more opening gigs," he says, opening for bigger, visiting national acts. "But Maine's a little bit Out of that touring New England folk circle. It would make so much sense if there were a great listening room in Portland, " he muses, and-mentions the Maine Songwriters' Association (mesongwriters.com). The group hosts Wednesday-night open mics at The Breakaway, and is slowly growing. "It's a cool little scene of people developing. I lope we can widen the range a little bit because it's meant to be a state-wide thing."

"But right now we're just getting the cd out there and playing lots of gigs," he says.

Lost Houses is available at Bull Moose Music, on CDBaby.com, and of course at live Jason Spooner shows. Watch his web site, jasonspooner.com for news about a CD release party in November.