Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Spooky Tooth - Spooky Two

Spooky Two's 1969 sophomore effort definitely stands as one of those albums I've listened to so many times that it gets more difficult to back away and think analytically about it.  Revisiting it, though, I'm reminded just why I've listened to it so much--it's pretty awesome.  While late 60's hard rock isn't everybody's flavor of choice in 2011, for those who enjoy it I can think of few forgotten bands who do it as well as Spooky Tooth.

What I notice most re-listening to this is how well everything comes together to make the album comprehensively strong.  In the end, it's not really an album where the quality of the songs carries the music past the performances or the production masks a lack of passion or attention to detail in arranging.  Rather, all of these elements are paradoxically workmanlike yet outstanding in the way they complement each other and the overall cohesion of the album.  Take, for example, the lead-off "Waitin' for the Wind," (I love how musicians are never satisfied with just dropping the "g" when singing; they have to make sure the word ends in an apostrophe in the song title, even when the words aren't actually in the song).  It's the perfect opener--30 seconds of drum beat that gets some delay slapped on it around the 20 second mark, and finally a bass/organ riff that sounds like the heaviest thing you've ever heard.  Dual vocalists Mike Harrison and Gary Wright start singing about...well, nobody really knows what the hell they're singing about on most of these songs (something about the wind giving the narrator life advice), but it sounds awesome because they sing with such undeniable conviction.  For such a hard-rocking song, there's hardly any guitar--just on the chorus, where heavily-reverbed harmony vocals lift the energy above the already-driving main groove.  Such is the strength of this whole album--the band hits the sweet spot in all areas without really standing out in any one of them.  As far as I'm concerned, that's as worthy a musical goal as any, and a thoroughly excellent album is probably one of the hardest achievements to rack up.

Sound-wise, Spooky Tooth sets themselves apart from the rest of their UK contemporaries by slathering their sound with heavy gospel influences (the aforementioned reverb, female backing singers and a whole lot of keyboards) and maintaining a fine balance between eclectic songwriting and a cohesive, recognizable sound.  The gospel influence comes through strongest in "I've Got Enough Heartaches," where the backing vocalists share center stage as much as Harrison and Wright, and to a somewhat less classifiable extent on "Feelin' Bad," where the band wrings unbelievable heaviness out of the production and low piano keys.  Elsewhere, though, the band diverges quite successfully into poppy country rock, catchy hard riffing, anthemic folk rock, and heavier vestiges of the psychedelia of their nearly-as-formidable debut, It's All About Spooky Tooth.  Principal songwriter (and the band's only American member) Gary Wright (yes, that Gary Wright) certainly deserves credit for bridging so many styles, even if he now feels embarrassed by his falsetto singing.  On that subject, half the fun here comes from the juxtaposition of Wright's ridiculous head voice and Mike Harrison's awesomely thick, manly and soulful pipes (he's got one of the best rock voices I've ever heard, somehow able to out-Steve-Mariott Steve Mariott, at least in the vocal department).  On the subject of dual lead singers, nowhere is this more righteous than on "Evil Woman," (no, not that "Evil Woman"), probably the album's most epic cut.  The song also features what's really the only guitar solo on the album, which reminds me of my original summation of this album's balance--Grosvenor's solo is so wickedly grimy that it proves his chops in one fell swoop, yet the band as a whole acknowledges that the rest of the songs don't really call for solos and refrain from any excessive lead parts.  It's this restraint that I find most inspiring about this album--the ability to recognize what's actually best for the songs and the overall album isn't an easy one to acquire, and it elevates these guys from a second-tier group of rock journeymen to a level of judgment few big stars ever even reach.

Sadly--if predictably--the band's creative balance didn't last, with The Last Puff proving Harrison couldn't really hold up the whole band without Wright's vocal counterpoint and songwriting, and Witness showing that the duo's chemistry alone couldn't really make up for less-inspired writing from Wright and the absence of some original members.  As it stands, Spooky Two is a treasured example of everything coming together for a group, and--perhaps even more importantly--it's a glaring reminder that the conservative collection of mega hits packaged and branded by music and radio corporations as "classic rock" isn't doing us any favors when it comes to revealing the totality of good music that was produced during the period.  Shame on them for making us work so hard, but the effort is worth it when you find albums as good as this!

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