What, at first blush, seems like a misstep or an oversight on Scott Helland’s interesting spy-themes LP, the appropriately titled The Spy Detective Collective, often turns out to be one of the album’s more notable strengths. Yes, we know the students of the orthodoxy will shout “Judas!” at Helland, who goes by the nom de guerre of Guitarmy of One and gets some of the spy genre’s details “wrong”. But, it is often done with a great service to the final product. For one, these bright-eyed, soundtrack-ready offerings, ten of them in all, lack many of the genre’s lynchpins – say, the driving bass lines of a “Peter Gunn”, the glossed-over shadows of Mancini, or the reverb-dripping Fender guitars oft associated with the form. Helland’s entire record, in fact, is a collection of largely looped refrains played almost entirely on the acoustic guitar (!) with just spare percussion keeping time. It’s an odd place to go looking for James Bond or The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or The Prisoner. But, it works.
The LP opens with “I Spy the Prisoner”, which lays down a tenuous little acoustic-guitar bridge over which Helland adds colorful, complementing guitar lines that hint at flamenco almost as often as they do at Ventures-style surf rock. Press materials identify that much of the record was written during COVID-19 quarantining but there is no existential dread or pandemic afterbirth pain in this record’s pathos; this is a joy-filled and oddly flirtatious little record from start to finish. The little details also really complete the picture. Take, for example, the little shreds of pixelated electric guitar, all wah-wah-pedaled out, on “Perry Mason Exoneration” or the way a ride cymbal comes occasionally crashing through on the faux-pop acoustic bridges of the hummable “Keeping Up With the Barnaby Joneses”.
Helland was not necessarily bred for this. He cut his milk-teeth in the early 1980s as a bassist with Massachusetts hardcore ensemble Deep Wound, two-thirds of whose members – J Mascis and Lou Barlow – went onto to form alt-rock legends Dinosaur Jr. After that formidable experience, Helland played in Outpatients, another punk concern. He jettisoned the punk-rock trappings (mostly) for acoustic guitar and, in his words, “providing music for a movie inside someone’s head,” sometime in the ’90s.
The Spy Detective Collective can be a little bit monochromatic – the songs tend to mirror themselves and sound more like templates than manifestos – but that, on the flip side, is a nice way of saying all of the tracks sort of fit together like so many puzzle pieces. “Nonesuch Napoleon Solo”, another gem, features some great solos, real emotive stuff miles away from alt-rock shreddage, and “Rockford Reckoned” might be one of the better acoustic surf-rock songs you’ve ever heard in recent years. The closing “Gone With the Bond”, which thankfully strays a bit from the 4/4 percussive march that serves as much of the record’s backbone, is downright eerie, with shades of melancholy and remorse not often associated with these strains of novelty material.
Helland also avoids one familiar pitfall of the surf-rock spy theme: its length and overall breadth. Most of the songs on The Spy Detective Collective creep, without much unnecessary stretching, past the three- or four-minute marks, allowing Helland the chance to explore multiple themes and musical motifs. He wanders sometimes but doesn’t get very lost, at least not intentionally, it seems. This is often in stark contrast to the theme songs of the spy-obsessed 1960s; I mean, Christ, even Man or Astro-man’s take on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” theme barely broke 1:30. Helland’s onto something with the length – it allows the musical characters in his pieces to breathe and become more three-dimensional. Again, at first blush, it seems odd. But, it works.
All in all, the newest from Helland’s Guitarmy of One will strike a chord with those schooled in the way of 1960s-era surf-rock and Henry Mancini themes. Sadly, this may be relegated to the bargain-bin memories of “novelty music”, a much-overlooked set of forms and formulas. But Helland has tapped something interesting and, dare we say, magical on The Spy Detective Collective. Soundtracks for the movie in our minds? I, for one, am sold.