Combining experimental weirdness with an innately melodic sound is a tough trick to master. With their debut album, 2019’s Auto-Portrait, the Chicago and New York-based Spirits Having Fun made joyfully twitchy music – combining stuttering Pere Ubu-isms with bright hooks and pop smarts. The second time around, the band – consisting of Jesse Heasly on bass, Phil Sudderberg on drums, and Katie McShane and Andrew Clinkman on guitar and vocals – continue along that same path with Two, but with a bit more polish and an impressive range of styles.
McShane eases the listener into the album with her angelic voice leading the way on the opening track, “Silhouette”. Spirits Having Fun sand down some of the more angular bits of Auto-Portrait, resulting in a more subtle approach. But the odd tempo changes and sudden shifts into post-punk, prog, and modern jazz – and we’re still talking about the opening track here – are proof that Spirits Having Fun still enjoy keeping everyone on their toes. And while Two can hardly be classified as a strictly prog album, the synth figure that opens “Hold the Phone” is straight out of Fragile-era Yes. That they can move swiftly from that kind of retro earworm straight into chugging proto-punk guitar riffs is not only a testament to the group’s talent but also an indication that seemingly disparate musical styles can co-exist if you have the right ingredients.
It would be unfair to accuse Spirits Having Fun of having short attention spans. “The Leaf Is a Chorus” would sound perfectly fine as a slice of light, midtempo funk without the band careening into sections of jazz-influenced noise rock (before dusting themselves off and getting back into the funk groove without batting an eye). Still, that type of unpredictability is one reason this quartet are such a joy to witness. When Clinkman takes the lead vocal duties on “Entropy Transfer Partners”, the mood immediately changes to noisy, psychedelic garage rock – right down to a compact, melodic guitar solo – but it never seems intimidating or daunting. Spirits Having Fun are deeply immersed in whatever style they’ve invented, but it always appears inviting and intriguing. Rarely has a band been this accurately named.
Other highlights include the spacey, trance-like ballad “Picture of a Person” (which includes guitar figures mimicking McShane’s vocal lines, adding to the jazzy aesthetic), the propulsive, atonal “Am There” – sounding like a 21st-century update of Captain Beefheart – and the dreamy, mesmerizing “See a Sky”. On the album’s closer, “The Sweet Oak”, all the things that make Spirits Having Fun unique and lovable are mashed together in one track. Heasly’s bass doubles McShane’s singing, insistent punk rhythms carry the song along. Complex, Robert Fripp-like guitar figures are unspooled, all before the song dramatically collapses in a giant sonic heap. On Two, Spirits Having Fun are doing just that, and we’re all the better for it.