The Phoenix 


Burn Baby Burn

June 27, 2007

Jason Spooner’s smoldering Flame You Follow

Jason Spooner’s a real easy guy to like. Smart and talented in areas other than music, floppy-haired with a ready smile, he’s a mother-in-law’s dream come true. Of course, the music world is littered with charming young men who can strum a guitar, sing, and write a tune with a few literary allusions and maybe a wry joke or two.

How does one separate himself from another? Hmmm, maybe get a band?

Such has been Spooner’s path to a second album that kicks his debut album’s ass. Which is not to say that Lost Houses sucked or anything. It’s just that in 2002 Spooner was still mostly a solo performer, and though he had a full band sound with the likes of Adam Chilenski on bass, Reed Chambers on drums, even Carter Logan on banjo, it didn’t yet feel like a cohesive unit and the record wound up sounding a little rough around the edges, with individual highlights you might throw into a playlist, but not something you’d keep in a five-disc changer for very long (as though people still have those nowadays).

The Flame You Follow, released early this month and to be celebrated with a pair of gigs this weekend, is a big step forward, an album that feels like an album, by a band that sounds like a band, even if Spooner gets top billing. You can tell Spooner was really feeling his oats here, as he’s brought back an old favorite in “Meant to Be” — with Abbie Gardner (Red Molly) sitting in on dobro and Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone lending a hand on strings — and made it into the song it was meant to be. “There’s no substitute for honesty,” Spooner sings with a breathy and conspiratorial delivery, “and you’ll be sure to get yours when the good lord comes.” Part of honesty is the confidence to be honest with yourself, and having confidence in your backing band doesn’t hurt either. Chambers is still around on drums, bassist Andy Rice has been playing live with Spooner for years, and a rhythm section that can turn out a dark, tribal foundation like this makes it really easy to bring in guests as bright lights of melody.

He turns the trick again on “Fight the Fire,” with bowed bass to open and then a segue into something really funky, with sax by Ryan Zoidis and a hint of samba. Spooner here spits in a quick delivery and rides rising horns behind the chorus like Bob Seger and his Silver Bullet Band (can they retroactively get a cut from Coors Lite on that?). The keyboard fills in the background by “GQ Lazorbase” might remind you of a certain McCartney fan in town, too. This isn’t exactly deep of me, but Spooner just seems cooler now, which is a lame way of evaluating somebody, but I think coolness is closely linked with worldliness, depth, soul and a lot of other things that give a song a certain something to elevate it beyond children’s music or, worse, the pap offered by any number of earnest singer/songwriters these days.

Guster turned a similar trick with Keep It Together, and Spooner manages to share their feel for a great pop chorus that dances with winsome and settles into world-weary from time to time. I noticed it most on the album-opening “Black and Blue,” which features fine harmony and an active acoustic guitar strum behind the chorus: “That’s how I think of you, what can I do/It’s how I remember you, in black and blue,” which is a decent play on black and white, recalling the films of our increasingly distant past and the stark contrasts that former loves can sometimes force on us. And it all happens in Las Vegas, where it’s kind of easy to get bruised up.

There are a lot of songs on Flame that I ended up liking a lot more than I thought I would. Does that mean the intros need work or just that Spooner builds songs that require a little investment? I’m not sure, but I’m leaning toward the latter, especially considering his take on the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” which at least isn’t obviously the best song on the album (always a danger with covers) and manages to be earthy and warm where the Heads purposely created digital distance. Best is the way Spooner retains the call-and-response chorus, solo for the call, with help on the response.

“Put away that gun,” David Byrne first advised, “this party’s simple,” and Spooner holsters the Heads cover to finish his 11-track disc with “Hover,” a simple piece that opens a lot like “Fools Rush In” (possibly the single-most covered song of all time) and finishes with Spooner and Kim Taylor trading gorgeous verses. “Somehow, you’re all the more beautiful now,” Spooner sings. I could say the same for him.