[15 November 2009]
On first impression, Spirit Duplicator may seem to just shuffle along in a drowsy and uninspiring fashion, but with a few listens the layers of quality in this tremendously sly recording begin to emerge. The Wingdale Community Singers do lovely harmonies, deft arrangements, and —with the help of several local friends—subtlety dynamic instrumentation. Their songs are incisive and have a mix of straightforward lyrics—which could pass for autobiographical—nestling alongside nifty wordplay that is both funny and quite brutal. For example, the primo sly “Rancho De La Muerta” juxtaposes a jaunty tune with images of drab routine, murder, and incest: “Lies with his sister twice a month, her issue does he kill / Buries them in unmarked graves right beside his steed / Tidies up for Sunday church, recites the Nicene creed”.
The Singers’ newest member is Nina Katchadourian, a songwriter, visual artist, and curator who adds to their facility for harmony, mystery, and interesting day jobs. David Grubbs is here with fabulous restraint and a creative breadth well known to fans of Squirrel Bait, Gastr del Sol, and the Red Krayola (among his projects). The presence of author Rick Moody could have caused the group to be top heavy, since novelists and other long-form writers don’t always make good lyricists. Clive James, for instance, has written some hilarious books (his autobiographical account of sleeping in a brown paper bag may be the funniest thing I’ve ever read), yet James’ crisp and deadly style didn’t translate to his Driving Through Mythical America album. It turns out that Moody’s musical tastes are rock solid, and his verbal dexterity is wicked. “AWOL” blasts doctrinal arrogance in organized religions and walks a subtle tightrope above a vat of crassness with the line “I’m the unborn fetus who won’t get born again”.
I don’t remember the last time a record grew on me as relentlessly as Spirit Duplicator has done. If anyone has made a better album of song craft this year, I’ll eat my shoes in oyster sauce. The music makes slight nods here and there to gospel, country, and other styles, but always with great urbanity. Along the way, our perceptions get twisted and rearranged. The brazenly titled “Naked Goth Girls”, for example, turns out to be calm and shockingly sumptuous as the group wreathes a fractured narrative in languid plucked notes and gorgeous harmonics. “Sleepers on the Block” is nocturnal multifaceted minimalism; an erudite view of crickets, insurance, and other aural trespass upon sleep. “Montreal” takes a positive view of a world relatively close to but far, far from environmentally and socialistically unfriendly Main Street USA where “At the wind we all keep spitting / And we bitch about the spit”. Perhaps the only trick the Wingdales miss is not having one of the gals sing lead on the plaintive “I Was Once a Young Man”, a piece which paints a huge emotional landscape with very few notes and words.
Maybe it’s sly to have saved mention of Hannah Marcus’s contribution until last. Her singing oozes intelligence, and it’s hard not to be bowled over when she draws an image of a love’s end where the bitter sadness of “There’ll be tears in my tequila, so I don’t need no salt or lime” becomes the double resolve to “leave that worm behind”.
Arguably the most affecting piece on Spirit Duplicator is Marcus’s Zen-like and poetic “My Les Paul”. It’s an aching tribute to the alluring qualities of an old guitar, and maybe also an ode to the act of deciding which imperfections are perfect for us in our personal lives. This song—which mainly features piano, naturally—may turn out to be the finest, most emotional, and most indirect tribute that will be composed to the man himself.
My Les Paul
I haven’t played it much yet at all
But it’s got such a beautiful case
And you can’t believe what it weighs
My Les Paul
I really didn’t get such a great deal
Come over here
Feel what the neck feels like
I kept asking the salesman for his advice
But I didn’t take it
‘Cos I know what I like