The many tentacles of Jason Spooner's Sea Monster

June 16, 2010

Jason Spooner is an amalgamation of John Prine and John Mayer great songs and great hair, all in one package. Their aesthetics are similar, too. Sure, there are important and wounded songs in the bag, but these guys aren't afraid to have a good time, either.

If you're looking for a reminder of this, play Spooner's brand-new Sea Monster back-to-back with the great new compilation of Prine songs, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows, featuring some of the rising talent in roots music today (and, I guess, do it while watching a Pantene commercial by no means listen to the latest Mayer album). Both songwriters have their break-up tracks and social commentary, but the former finishes with a Dixifried honky-tonk special encouraging people to "get back to the chicken shack" and the latter suggests, "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian."
Those with little patience for a little silliness in their music might scoff, sure, but both songwriters have always seemed particularly interested in exploring the breadth of the American songbook.

Sea Monster is easily Spooner's strongest effort to date, continuing to improve upon his mixed debut, Lost Houses, and the much-improved Flame You Follow, released in the summer of 2007. Again, Spooner has increased confidence and swagger, with a better feel for working in the studio with Jonathan Wyman that results in forays into songs that are occasionally R&B or funk-flavored, but keep a central Americana sound at their core.
It's hard to know whether this solid material or Spooner's hard and smart work has resulted in his increasing success. The music industry is just so strange right now. No doubt, it's pretty cool to see Spooner's tracks listed on Starbucks' domestic playlist right between Elliott Smith and Steely Dan, but whoever thought we'd be judging success by a coffee chain's seal of approval?

There are four Spooner tracks from Sea Monster pounding their ways into baristas' heads, actually: the opening "Crashing Down," with a digital beat in the open seemingly meant to alert the listener that this isn't your average singer/songwriter album; "Time is Running Out," with an exquisite clasping high hat sound and some of Spooner's best vocal work ("I'm a newborn baby at the top of the stairs/I'm a shadow of your doubt/I'm a wasp in your hair"); and "Seed in the Ground," infused with harmonica in the chorus: "I don't want to be the one to tell you/That I will only be the one to sell you out." Plus his "Wishing Well" cover.

Yes, Spooner covers Terence Trent D'Arby. Nor is it a wink, wink, congratulations-for-making-it-to-the-end kind of thing. Plunked down right at track number four, it's a central tune here. Combined with his cover of the Talking Heads' "Slippery People" on Flame, you've got to cede him a reputation for choosing interesting covers. Spooner does, admittedly, come off more fey than D'Arby (seriously, go watch the video on YouTube 1.8 million other people did), but he's much more organic too, with a horn section and a ripping bass player.

That'd be Adam Frederick, taking over for Andy Rice, part of Spooner's long-time trio with Reed Chambers on drums (now that Emilia Dahlin's back in town, she and Spooner will have to fight over Frederick considering Dahlin's married to brother Aaron Frederick, I like her chances if she goes to the mattresses). Frederick is a terrific player. His work in "Fossil" helps to make it one of the best tracks here, moving an underlying melody while acoustic fingerpicking slips along overtop a pedal steel atmosphere.

"Fossil" is a California tune, with lines like, "move north of the high Sierra, with the devil on the breeze/It's a life that's wasted, hating all the typical mistakes/And she said he's out there waiting, with the silence of a snake." California tunes are hard, since they call to mind pieces by the likes of Jay Farrar, Rufus Wainwright, Rogue Wave, Steve Poltz (a San Diego guy "California" at its weariest), and the Beach Boys.

But Spooner does well to create separation, with a moody piece that picks up in the chorus and has real emotional depth. I'd like to see more moodiness, frankly. When Spooner gets dark and angry-sounding his vocals take on more body and get away from the thinner higher-register that's been more featured on earlier albums. For "Let It Go" he even distorts his vocals quite a bit, adding a menace for lines that imply some doubt about this whole music-as-a-profession thing: "I just don't believe, with a dollar in my collar and an ace in my sleeve/Inside the dream is still alive, but we keep just as private as a suicide."

Best is "Color of Rain," which I've privately been thinking of as "the Bruce Cockburn song," as it apes a bit of "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" and is as close to politicized as Spooner's going to get. The extended rhythm-section-driven instrumental break in the finish is a fitting mean-streak wrap-up.

I'm a little surprised, actually, that it's "Half a Mind," with a Blues Traveler open and a jam leaning, that's been released as a single and landed on Triple A magazine's top 50 last week, charting radio stations that have added each individual song to their playlist. It's a good track, though it didn't scream out to me at any point. But the listening public is so fractured, and it's so hard to know who's listening to what outlet, that I'd hate to be the one choosing anyway. Certainly, Spooner's made a lot of good choices during his slow climb up the ladder over the past 10 years. I'm not going to doubt him now.