The concept of compiling a “best of” album for a band that released only three albums prior to their demise seems to be a foolhardy decision. In many cases this would be viewed as an exploitive move by a record company to capitalize on the dwindling value of the band’s meager catalogue, but given the musical pedigree of Spain’s songwriter and lead singer, Josh Haden, the release of Spirituals: The Best of Spain is understandable and even welcomed. Son of jazz bassist Charlie Haden and brother of left coast musical luminary and indie hipster Petra Haden, there is no question that Josh Haden’s musical family tree alone makes him a subject of curious interest. The pleasant surprise is that Josh’s compositions stand on their own merit and frame him as a pensive and gifted songwriter who leans heavily on the jazz, blues, and chamber pop genres as the vehicles for his moody compositions.
Collecting tracks from all three official Spain albums, an out of print 7” release, and a number of previously unreleased live recordings, Spirituals can be best be summed up as a collection of elegiac musings on the existence of god, death, love, and the nature of the world. Although Haden’s group has received more space in the music press than in the shelves of record shops, this should not stand as a statement about the accessibility of these songs. This compilation carries new material for diehard fans as well as documentation of an important chapter in the slow-core movement for fans of groups like Low, Luna, Mazzy Star, the Cocteau Twins, and others like them. There is a purity in these songs that traverses these genres and carries universal themes that will ring true with all listeners.
The one thing that is immediately evident upon listening to three or four tracks consecutively from each Spain album is the consistency of the band’s performances, the production and songwriting from one release to the next. Languid torch songs like “Untitled #1” and “It’s So True” from their debut, The Blue Moods of Spain, sprawl out comfortably alongside the inexplicably non-radio hit “Easy Lover” from She Haunts My Dreams, and the sultry piano-and-percussion-focused gem “Long Time Ago”, from their swansong I Believe, ties together the themes and sonic vision from all three albums. Haden’s smoke-infused, hazy vocals waft along over time with the band from one album to the next. If it wasn’t spelled out in the liner notes, the mistake could easily be made that this was one album full of songs recorded during the same session, rather than a collection of songs recorded over three albums and six years. This timelessness is part of the quintessential beauty of Spain. The uniformity of their vision in a quickly mutating musical community is reassuring and something to cherish.
The key tracks here for collectors will be the live recordings, which are taken from in-store performances during the final years of the band’s career. While many may complain that these performances cover little new territory since they are so similar to the studio tracks, this should be taken as a marginal slight. The same consistency that is illustrated from one album to the next in their arrangements and compositions holds true during live shows as well. Under Haden’s leadership his bandmates seem to hold firm that the album versions of the songs are the true ones, and thus must be represented in a live venue. Although it may seem strange for the son of a jazz musician to perform songs live in such a strict fashion, there is a precedent for this amongst Spain’s peers in the sad-core movement as both Low and Mazzy Star were not known for much improvisation in their live sets.
One of the finest ways to envision the sound of Spain for new listeners is to imagine Leonard Cohen covering a Jeff Buckley original to return the favor for Buckley’s gorgeous version of “Hallelujah”. Only this will convey the proper sense of enormity that exists in Josh Haden’s songwriting. Brooding, delicate, and career spanning, Spirituals is the only Spain release the casual music fan will need and a must for devoted followers.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.