[…continued from last post]
Some songs are simply so splendid that they inhabit a level of emotional sweep that few others can reach. “Nova Heart” is one such song. Beginning with an insouciant 808 rhythm, the deception of its casual handclaps pulls the listener into the two note descending synth bass riff that seem a little foreboding. Then the synth riff and guitar move out of the shadows, allowing some shafts of sunlight to penetrate the pre-dawn gloom as the song’s ascent began. And if anything, this song was about ascent!
The soaring melody of the song was impassioned and, yet the production was fleet-footed and nimble. Somehow managing to avoid any pitfalls of pretension as the intriguing and evocative lyrics, which bear comparison to no other song I could name, hint at some vague yet crucial paradigm shift that will leave the current powers of society behind. Maybe it was simply the prerogative of the next generation? It was in doing research for this series that I saw an interview with Gordon Deppe where he revealed that the inspiration for the song was Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel “Childhood’s End!’ Which, having read that a good six years before I ever heard “Nova Heart,” I can now see in retrospect how the song connects back to that.
Meanwhile, the 808’s rhythms provided the true “nova heart” of this song as Rob Preuss’ synth arpeggios flowed copiously through the song like rushing streams that could not be stopped. Sandy Horne’s gossamer expression vocals floated through the song as if they had been airbrushed into it. After the two main verses and choruses, the vocals dropped out and the song briefly drifted into minor key before gifting us with the most glorious instrumental middle eight possible, as the synth solo that Preuss took made it’s ascent up through the core of the song.
Then Deppe and Horne returned for a restating of the chorus and the chorus became the coda to the song. This song mas a paradox in that it was musically simple but it expressed an emotionally complex scenario. How many other Pop songs were about evolving beyond our forbears? Wrapping up anxiety and a sense of loss along with the desire to move forward no matter the cost. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that this song connected with an audience as everyone experiences these feelings growing up, and the band were certainly of the age where this is felt most acutely.
Next we were served something completely different with a curve ball from the 808 via the Latin rhythm outlier that was “South American Vacation.” Some of the percussion on this track sounded real, not virtual. The vacation gone bad lyrical slant here was the odd one out on this album, but it served well as a palate cleanser at the point in side two where the paradigm needed a little shaking up. The whammy bar activity on the clean guitar lines in the middle eight served to reveal how the bass was taking the lead on this one. Meanwhile, the arpeggiator of the Jupiter IV was still getting a workout with lots of synth filigree.
Then things moved further out of the wheelhouse of the album as “Girl In Two Pieces” began with a subtle vocal trill at the lowest levels of the mix. Until I listened to this album on headphones for the first time, I don’t think I had ever heard that before! Making a big break from the album’s stylistic footprint, this was the one song here not obviously driven by 808 rhythms. I’m guessing that the shifts in tempo it featured must have precluded any drum machine usage.
This was another accomplished psychological portrait from the pen of Deppe, and the song featured a bifurcated arrangement to match the lyrical conceits with a slow tempo Reggae verse structure alternating with the slashing, urgent Rock of the chorus. While Mr. Preuss provided minor key synth atmospherics and baroque flights of keyboard fancy, we were delivered a metallic, bluesy distortion solo from Deppe in the coda as the synths curdled around its fade for the last word. Making the track a perfect gateway to the intense peak of the album in “Walk The Plank.”
Following a razor sharp edit with no dead air as the last note of “Girl In Two Pieces” was cut short by the high velocity guitar riff in “Walk The Plank’s” intro. The 808 was back with compulsive rhythms and the handclaps that were part of the vocabulary of this album following the southern hemisphere excursion of the prior two songs.
This fiery song had every component on full power. Unleashing urgent bass, more synth arpeggios, and guitar howls alternating with slashing chords in the serious peak of energy for the album with Derrick Ross’ martial fills pushing hard on the song’s accelerator. The high seas piracy metaphor lent itself well in examining the eternal chase. We had Deppe on lead vocals with atmospheric expression BVs from Horne, but they both sang the fierce chorus mixed together almost as a single androgynous power. The cold ending at the track’s frenzied peak leaves me breathless even 40 years later.
The gentle machine rhythms and languid pace of “Blow Away” seemingly finished the album’s arc on a relaxed note. The intro featured Preuss’ synth droning like a didgeridoo while winsome synth leads on delay cascaded on the surface like raindrops on a lake. As the song developed in a leisurely fashion, wailing synth leads somewhere between choral and string patches, heavy on portamento as Deppe’s delivery of the carefree chorus belied the finality of the lyric it delivered.
Another instrumental middle eight brought back the drone from the intro before a surprising tempo shift into frenzied double time saw the track suddenly shot through with arpeggiated synth and rhythmic guitar as Ross’ fills came faster and more furious as we hurtled towards the climax to the album, with the last burst of drums and guitar lashing together for a visceral impact that was underscored by the finality of absolutely necessary reverb.
I have to admit that I’ve not heard the first Spoons album. For the pre-internet decades from 1980 t0 2013 it was incredibly scarce to someone in the Lower 48. And I never saw a copy on my several trips to Canada. Only in 2013 was it reissued in a silver disc available from the official Spoons webstore. And I’ve yet to buy what would now be over CA$100 of music from that store since I’m perpetually on a low budget. But I did manage to find the 1994 first Spoons CD ever, “Collectible Spoons,” which compiled highlights of the Ready Records era. It featured about two thirds of “Arias + Symphonies” on the preferred format, but it also afforded me a listen to two songs from “Stick Figure Neighbourhood” after a decade or more of curiosity.
The “Stick Figure Neighbourhood” material was quirky New Wave right up my alley, but it was nowhere close to the sophistication or power that their second album brought to the table. This was a case of young musicians [though Preuss was only young in age with a dozen years of experience at that point] blossoming under the tutelage of one of the sharpest British producers with handfuls of Art Rock from the likes of Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, and JAPAN under his belt by that time!
The clarity of the recording sessions benefited immensely from the production vocabulary that Punter helped the band establish. The album, even with outliers like “South American Vacation” and “Girl In Two Pieces,” managed a powerful coherence that saw the group [there were no session players on the album, though Punter himself programmed the drum machine that was the central theme running through the songs] define the scope of the album in no uncertain terms and then proceed to fulfill its preordained destiny song by song. The outcome could not have been better for the band who wanted to take their place on a shelf with their [and my] heroes such as OMD or Ultravox. And my ears tell me that they succeeded…wildly. This was just not the sort of thing that happened to Commonwealth bands!
And the glory of it all wasn’t merely the music itself…though it certainly was glorious. The beauty was that in this case, the band synced with the zeitgeist perfectly to avoid casting pearls before swine. Their bid for talking their group to the next level [or three] worked out ideally both on an artistic and commercial level with three Canadian Top 40 singles and a gold album that made their reputation. Endings don’t come much happier than that, and though this was closer to the beginnings of the band, we’ll let producer John Punter have the last word [figuratively] with the photo of him below before we continue next with the PPM interview with Rob Preuss.
Next: …Rob Preuss Discusses The Recording Of “Arias + Symphonies”
This is a very insightful review, Monk. I have to admit I knew of Spoons, but had never listened to this album until you wrote about it. It is clearly a lost gem. Thanks for all that you do.
Finetime – Welcome to the comments! I’m glad to be of service. Everyone involved was in peak operational mode, and Mr. Preuss has cited it as the product of a “magical time” in our interview with him for good reason.