Alena Spanger 2024
Photo: Chelsea Wooten

‘Fire Escape’ Is Alena Spanger’s Thorny, Soaring Solo Debut

Alena Spanger’s music is full of odd twists and unconventional choices, but that’s what makes Fire Escape so enjoyable and undeniably beautiful.

Fire Escape
Alena Spanger
Ruination Record Co.
22 March 2024

While Fire Escape may be the first album released under her name, Alena Spanger has been part of New York’s indie art-pop scene for years as a member of the avant-rock ensemble Tiny Hazard and the cerebral synthpop outfit Leverage Models. Additionally, she’s appeared on albums by Office Culture, Keen Dreams, Nico Hedley, and Field Guides, among others. As a part of the unofficial “family” of artists recording under the Ruination and Whatever’s Clever imprints, Spanger has made her mark on this modest yet mighty scene, but on Fire Escape, her true brilliance shines unobstructed.

It seems like a cop-out cliché, a bit of journalistic laziness, to trot out the usual trailblazing artists who come to mind when hearing Spanger’s music – Kate Bush, Björk, Joanna Newsom – iconic female musical polymaths who make their mark through their sheer iconoclastic and eclectic genius. In Spanger’s case, the comparisons are inevitable and well-deserved, as she approaches each track with a seemingly deliberate sense of setting it apart from conventional norms. The opening track, “1×1”, is a gorgeous overture with dissonant piano reminiscent of the jazzier solo efforts of Office Culture’s Winston Cook-Wilson (who co-produced and performed on some of the album’s tracks). “One by one, two again,” Alena Spanger sings through a distorted filter, accompanied by piano, clinking effects, and synth blips. “Dangling loose again and slipping away / The lips and eyes we memorized.”

There’s a soulful edge to “Agios”, a sophisticated piece of pop magic, bolstered by the unique combination of fuzzy keyboards and warm brass courtesy of Kalia Vandever’s trombone arrangement (Vandever also lends her skill to the intense, avant-jazz stylings of “My Feel”). In the song, an argument during a vacation abroad allows Spanger to unspool memorable lines like “Baby, you’re talking in circles, and the curves make me dizzy.” The menacing synthesizers that run through “Ines” pull the new-wave psychedelic atmosphere into focus, and the bone-dry production gives the song the feel of a long-lost freak college radio single circa 1983.

Spanger goes into low-key ballad mode on the single “Difficult People”, with sparse keyboards and a modest rhythm section giving a hushed feel to the song about relationships and the frustration of compromise. “I want to intervene,” she sings. “Persuade them toward me / But it’s not my nature, and my pride won’t have it.” But a more ethereal setting makes its way through the title track, another moving ballad, this time with reverb-soaked keyboards that seem airlifted in from a 1980s pop single (even when the song takes an intoxicating industrial turn). Some artists who release songs like “Ines” may scoff at the arty pop sensibilities of “Fire Escape”, but Spanger moves through these stylistic shifts with the effortless ease of her artistic integrity.

The songs are all Alena Spanger’s, but she’s accompanied by a fiercely gifted group of fellow musicians who are obviously fans of the shapeshifting nature of Fire Escape‘s arty, avant-garde pop. Spanger’s former Tiny Hazard bandmate Ryan Weiner co-produced and mixed most of the record, along with producers Carlos Hernandez and Cook-Wilson. Julian Cubillos, Carmen Quill, and Rebecca El-Saleh are among the musicians joining Spanger, while Spanger herself contributes keyboards and percussion.

Fire Escape is held together with a remarkable sense of cohesion, but surprises abound at every turn. “All That I Wanted” is a clattering, percussive dance track featuring a killer chorus. “Satie Song” is a warm, folky ballad featuring a solo Spanger, her voice murmuring unforgettable lines like “I went to the ocean again with the intent of rinsing my heart out / Mouth open, cold air across my teeth / Like a Satie melody and it calms me down.” On “Sinking Like”, Spanger embraces wistful pop sensibilities with soaring keyboards wrapping around solid, sophisticated melodies.

On the album’s closing track, “Steady Song”, Spanger collaborates with Cook-Wilson on a fragile ballad held together with off-kilter drum programming and vague atonality, like a love song half-heard in a dream. “Right now steady like high gold plains untamed / Steady in breath tell high tell it with chest / C’mon c’mon it’s that love that love you said so.” The spacey, asymmetrical nature of the music is somewhat at odds with the direct nature of what appears to be a warm, optimistic declaration of love. Alena Spanger doesn’t appear to enjoy doing things the easy way – her music is full of odd twists and unconventional choices, but that’s what makes Fire Escape so enjoyable and undeniably beautiful.

RATING 8 / 10