The story behind the Comas last effort, Conductor, is pretty well-known by now. Lead singer Andy Herod wrote most of those songs about his break-up with former Dawson’s Creek inhabitant Michelle Williams. It was a solid album, but the band’s psychedelic leanings and arrangements were sometimes a little muddled in the production. Now, nearly three years later, the Comas seem happy to put the WB baggage behind them, and have crafted their best stuff yet with Spells.
While Conductor felt hampered by its subject matter (a feeling that was at least somewhat intentional), Spells seems to find Herod, and the band, happy to move on. Opener “Red Microphones” is straight-up power pop that gives the band some room to let loose. The song is energetic and upbeat, but not without the Comas’ signature fuzz. Time has clearly taught the Comas to use their love of psychedelic elements merely as a part of their own sound, rather than a crutch to rest the songs on. “Hannah T.” might be the loudest Comas’ moment in their entire catalog as the song ends with heavy guitars over a swirl of keys while Herod screams, over and over again, “Search and Destroy!” It would be the album’s high water mark if it weren’t followed by the fantastic “Now I’m a Spider”. Nicole Gehweiler takes the vocals here, but coupled with Herod and a healthy dose of reverb, the song sounds downright communal. The music is the perfect marriage of the band’s pop sensibility and its love of fuzz. Strings play in the background and anchor the song rather than over-dramatize it; the song soars and rises as it goes, and there is a subtle tendril of sadness that sneaks in as Gehweiler sings, “I’m a laser falling down, but first shots all around.” “Now I’m a Spider” is not only the best song on the album, it might be the best the Comas have ever done.
“Come My Sunshine” and “Stoneded” round out the first half of the album with the same energy and amped-up production. After that, the album sags a little in the middle. Songs like “Light the Pad” and “Thistledown” are solid tracks, but they sound like they could’ve been on Conductor, and the drastic switch in tone takes a little energy out of the album. To come across these songs on their own—particularly “Thistledown” with its wonderful guitar work, reminiscent of Sparklehorse—they sound fine, but as parts of an entire album, they slow the momentum a bit. “New Wolf” picks the pop back up with two-and-a-half minutes of pure rock, and the song is as catchy as anything else on here. Closer, “After the Afterglow”, slows things down again, but its atmospheric sound hearkens back to “Now I’m a Spider”, and adds subtle dimension to the album in ways the other slow tracks couldn’t.
The overall production on Spells is fantastic. One can’t help but think of Dave Fridmann’s work when you listen to the way producer Bill Racine mixed these tracks. Often the drums are mixed high, with a lot of fuzzy emphasis on the cymbals, and most of the time it works, though occasionally the drums are too loud and distract from the songs’ arrangements. Still, the production here compliments the Comas’ strengths more often than it hinders them.
The Comas seem to just be hitting their stride with Spells, and with the heft of Vagrant Records behind them, they could be in line for a much bigger audience. And frankly, any success that comes their way has been well-earned. It’s a good time to be a Comas fan, or to become one.