Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy March 11, 2005
For those who think Dave Spalding’s been quiet since Northwestern instrumentalists Pell Mell faded into the ether after the muted majesty of gems like Interstate or Star City, think again.
The guitarist, now rooted in New York City, has been carefully refining the dreamy, expansive textures of the band he helped to define for much of the 1990s and has reinvented them as landscapes for sugary singer-songwriter pop on the self-released/unreleased Invisibles.
The mostly-solo collection is modestly pressed to CD-R but light years beyond most of the rough-draft curiosities or works-in-progress some have come to expect from the format. The 13 tracks on Invisibles are fully formed and frequently enveloping songs, works that easily — and sometimes frighteningly — both stand up to Pell Mell’s sonic grandeur and offer a kind of post-script to the group’s late work.
What’s most surprising about the disc, though, is how smoothly Spalding has made the transition from sometimes long-form, instrumental (and often cinematic) post-rock to the smaller and more intimate worlds of the singer-songwriter. From song one, the transformation is readily apparent.
There are Spalding’s familiar guitar touches — the foundation of a repeating guitar figure, the hammered and bent notes, the even-handed lead guitar crescendos, the interplay of guitar and bass lines — but there’s also a more traditional sense of verses and choruses, each of them cemented to the music with emotive but underplayed vocals from Spalding himself.
How the man packs this much sound into three-minute pop songs is still a mystery.
The mood varies from song to song, ranging from the pensive (the spare acoustic “Snow,” the blues-folk of “Theory” and “The Hard Way”) and the instructive (“Listen”) to the dreamy (the boozy, bluesy sway of “Murder,” the glassy “Never Gave”) and the optimistic (the addictive “Where I Want To Be,” “The Letter”).
At points, Spalding sounds like jazz guitarist Bill Frisell covering Elvis Costello. Elsewhere, he’s a post-Gastr del Sol David Grubbs dueting with Mark Knopfler from the Dire Straits.
There’s not a single dud from beginning to end and there are a few tracks you’ll never be able to shake from between your ears.
On his debut outing as both singer and songwriter, Spalding also is unusually comfortable in his new skin, playing the role of frontman as an emotive, inviting troubadour and not a spotlight-hungry auteur.
His lyrics focus on fairly routine topics, whether it’s the intoxication of love (“As I watch you sleep it seems it’s me who’s dreaming … there’s no other, no place I’d rather be”) or the helplessness of giving one’s life over to fate (“Everything that was given eventually just gives way … Destination unknown”) but his delivery, sometimes bordering on a kind of whispered dead-pan, lends an emotional punch to the proceedings.
And then there’s the instrumentation and the recording, where Spalding seems to shine the boldest and the brightest.
Over the course of the record, there are flourishes that keep each song feeling incredibly vital and fresh and engaging, from carefully layered backing vocals and tambourine (again, the radio-ready “Where I Want To Be”) to bassy thumps and the tickle of a bar-room piano (“Long Way Down”) to weeping or country-western-inspired pedal steel (“Universe,” “The Scene”) to hand-claps (“A Letter”) to electronic interjections (“Over The Moon”) to the familiar Hammond organ that swelled in the background of more than a couple Pell Mell songs (“Murder”).
The list runs on.
Spalding is ably abetted by drummer Tony Leoney, studio guru Tim Champion and others, but Invisibles is clearly his record and it’s proof, if any were needed, that Dave Spalding clearly knows what he’s doing.
It may be a few years since Pell Mell put a new record in your stereo speakers but Spalding’s Invisibles, a misleading title perhaps, proves that one of the group’s members hasn’t run his full creative course.
Welcome to the next chapter.