Morning Spy: The Silver Age

[5 July 2005]

By Peter Funk

The problem to be solved before delving into the particulars of the wonderfully semi-lo-fi indie guitar world of Morning Spy’s The Silver Age is that we need a working definition of derivative. See, right there, I saw you flinch! That’s the problem. We’ve got hardened associations that are as loaded as shotguns during duck season when it comes to music (or literature or art), and one of them is that aforementioned word which will now not be said. A dictionary definition of the aforementioned word says, at its essence, “copied or adapted from others”. That seems pretty innocuous in and of itself, but there’s something about the creative process, especially that which will be given up for public consumption, that spurs us, the digesters of that which is given up, to insist on pure originality. Whatever that means. Let’s face it, at least half of the motivating desire for originality comes from the critical world. It is the critics amongst us (yours truly included) who demand that everything we hear be either brazenly new, that it cow-tow to the influences that we see as deserving, or be a logical next step in the sound that a “scene” has been incubating. Just about everything else seems to fall under the category of junk. There just doesn’t seem to be a well-established middle ground between the accusation of “Creedism” or “Coldplayeity” and the celebration of what’s deemed to be hyper-original—especially in indie-rock circles. My working theory is that a record like The Silver Age goes a long way towards finding that middle ground by simply co-opting some of the sounds that are already successfully floating around in there. And that’s a good thing.

Morning Spy is a San Francisco based pop band that has released two albums and two EPs since 2003. Their first proper album—2004’s Subsequent Light—was a m&#233lange of dreamy pop music. On The Silver Age, Morning Spy has taken the swirling guitar charm of their last record and updated it with the kind of hook and melody that echoes bands such as Luna and The Silver Jews so well that at times it’s hard to tell the difference. But saying that Morning Spy is derivative (crap, I said it) of those bands does them a supreme disservice. Morning Spy is making beautifully intelligent pop music: just because they may be following a muse that was at the very least flat-mates (and more likely secret lovers) with the one that inspired Dean Wareham and David Berman shouldn’t be a cause for shame. Luna is dead and gone. The Silver Jews have a record coming out this summer, but after that the expected date of Social Security’s bankruptcy may be a good target for the next one. So in the interim why not simply enjoy the sound of a band that makes a really good noise and not question their intentions? Derivative doesn’t have to be bad, it can simply mean picking up the metaphoric baton that some other band has dropped and sprinting in the same direction.

The Silver Age opens with “Princess Vancouver”, a song that begins by sounding like an outtake from The Silver Jews American Water and then builds towards an outtake from Luna’s Bewitched. Singer Jon Rooney’s voice has a similar nasal sing-speak intonation to the Jews’ David Berman, though lyrically he’s not as literary. “Two Horses” sounds like Luna fronted by Berman, with such uncanny ease that Morning Spy may have to answer accusations of identity theft. The gentle strum that starts “In the Silver Age” takes the same tone and pace as “Anesthesia”, but with a noisier, less collected guitar that adds a ragged punch you would never find on Lunapark. The harmonizing of Jon Rooney and Allison Goffman on “Ask Us to Dance” rests on a lazily strummed bed of guitar and sounds like the best moments of Wareham and Britta Phillips. I think I may be belaboring a point by bending over backwards too far to draw these comparisons, but there’s something truly uncanny about Morning Spy’s sound. To me the comparisons I’m citing are so obvious it’s like getting hit over the head with a frying pan. You can’t not notice them, especially if you’re a fan of this particular sound. The only misstep here is the nearly six-minute long nap-inducing “The Slow March to Salt-White Sleep”, which sounds exactly like its title would imply.

The Silver Age is an excellent record. The songs are well written and the band is clearly staking its claim to a specific sound. Underrepresented due to atrophy, it may still be someone else’s at this stage of the game but that shouldn’t be a negative. The Silver Age isn’t a result of pillage as much as heavy borrowing. There are far, far worse starting points to call your own than the catalogs that Morning Spy has absorbed.

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