Searching for a fun and funky groove to help you get through the hot summer times ahead? How about something a little bit different -- mixing a structured Steely Dan sensibility with a melodic power pop edge (akin to Fastball or Blinker the Star). If that sounds like something to wrap your ears around, head straight out and get a copy of Sitting Around Keeping Score from Minnesota's talented quartet Spymob.
Best known as the back-up band for Neptunes' side project N.E.R.D. (they played on the U.S. version of the album In Search Of� and appeared with N.E.R.D. on Saturday Night Live,Late Night with David Letterman and elsewhere), Spymob's debut is an unusual pop offering from Sony's Ruthless Records.
The work with N.E.R.D. changed things in a hurry. One day Spymob was playing hole-in-the-wall gigs in their hometown, the next thing they were touring Europe. The talented ensemble is comprised of John Ostby on lead vocals and keyboards, Eric Fawcett on drums and vocals, Brent Paschke on guitar and vocals, and Christian Twigg on bass.
This first album contains several retro influences from Todd Rundgren to Steely Dan to Prince to Stevie Wonder to Sly Stone and beyond (maybe even Guster or Ben Folds), yet mixes in electronic flavors, loops and samples, offering a dozen tracks that avoid easy categorization. The band uses vintage instruments to create a lush warm sound with their music (John uses an old Rhodes piano, Brent a classic Fender Strat, Christian uses a Fender Precision Bass, and Eric uses old Ludwig drums). Stephen Lironi (Black Grape, Hanson) produced nine of these tracks, while Minneapolis-based Alex Oana produced two others. The sound is clean, calculated, and truly fun to behold.
As guitar chords bounce from speaker to speaker, the CD gets underway. "2040" is a musical vision of mundane future domesticity and nostalgia: "In 2040 I'll reminisce about the 20th century / When we still wrote on pads of paper / Humans still did all the cleaning." Ostby considers camping out with his future grandsons, and how he and his wife will compete interactively in lawn bowling with similar couples all over the world. The harmonies are wonderful -- and rather than imagining some futuristic paradise, the everyday aspects considered here add to the song's overall charm.
While Ostby's vocals on the first track sound a bit like Sting at times, he's able to offer up something completely different on "It Gets Me Going". Starting with a wonderful falsetto on the verse lyrics, he provides a soulful voice on the chorus that reminds me of the blue-eyed soul of David Palmer (the early vocalist for Steely Dan). This song is about as genial as it gets. Driven by piano, Hammond, electronic nuances and great guitar, bass and drums, it's the tale told by a proud dog (my bet would be a retriever of some sort) of how internal chemistry clicks magically and sets him off: "Someone's laughing at the way I'll drop anything I'm doing just to chase the things they throw into a field / I'm going in ways that I can't explain / It gets me going in ways that I can't explain / Never grow tired of a routine that seldom changes."
The David Palmer/Steely Dan vibe is in full force with "I Still Live at Home" (which fittingly Spymob self-produced at their home studio). This is a lovely ballad of a song, complete with lush string accompaniment, all about honesty in computer dating: "I guess we're supposed to meet / It said so on a printout sheet / There's just one thing that you should know / I still live at home." He goes on to explain the exact situation, and how it might be a positive ("If things did get serious, it would be convenient to walk right up the stairs and have you meet my folks").
The title track goes more into the musical funk/fusion realm. It's a song about contemplation in the midst of laziness. Paschke does some fine guitar work here, and Ostby lends a bit of Philly soul into his keyboard mix, but it's the three-part harmonies that really catch your attention.
The rocking "Stand up and Win" sounds like it could be a Fastball song (in the best radio-ready sense). Spymob take what could have been a standard straightforward song (offering advice on getting thicker skin en route to success) and fill it with surprising nuances that keep it refreshing and new.
Spymob return to a jazzy mode with "On Pilot Mountain", an infectious tale of a party scene and waiting for a certain someone to appear. The piano and guitar back up a nice middle bridge of spoken lyrics, but the real hero here is drummer Fawcett, whose syncopated beats drive the song throughout.
Bassist Christian Twigg propels the track on "National Holidays". Again, Ostby finds intriguing subject matter outside the normal realm of pop fare -- examining the divorced parent's plea for civility from his ex along with regrets about only getting to see his daughter on rare occasions: "You get to wake her every day / And we divide up National Holidays / This month is highlighted yellow with one box of blue."
Driving is the focus of a few songs here. The pleasantly jazzy "Walking under Green Leaves" discusses the hours of pleasure gained driving and then walking in an extended visit to the country. The other driving opus here, the tongue-in-cheek "German Test Drive" allows the singer to fantasize about winding his sleek fast sports car around the Autobahn, though he's "only supposed to have the car out for an hour."
It's hard not to be charmed by the way Ostby's lyrics take you to places you wouldn't ever expect to find in the realm of rock and pop. "Thinking of Someone Else" is an ode to his mother, odd as that sounds. He's smashed his little toe and is sitting in the house, watching talk shows, getting depressed and longing for the kind of TLC he used to get from his mother. Ultimately she does call him, expresses her concern, and already he feels himself healing rapidly -- the musical equivalent of a happy ending.
Spymob has songs driven by unusual rhythms and harmonies, with surprising, often mundane lyrical topics. "Fly Fly Fishing Poles" offers all of this -- an anthem dedicated to a wonderful beltway that surrounds Des Moines and the summer pleasures to be found in three days off hanging near the water
The CD closes with "Joe Namath", wherein Ostby puts himself inside the mind of the football great during his season of glory: "When someone's coming up behind me I scramble to the right / And it's this sense that keeps my knees from dying." As a long suffering Jets fan, I'm thankful for the reminder of those sweet days of yore.
While these songs might remind you of past music, chances are you'll be heartened by the fact that all this tuneful fun is in fact new and noteworthy. Spymob's debut is a remarkably polished affair from intelligent musicians that appear comfortable playing across a number of genres. What's best is that these songs will have you singing along in an instant. There's excitement and energy in this musical mix of piano pop and unorthodox guitar riffs, a refreshing, eclectic stew of accomplished and diverse sounds.
Sitting Around Keeping Score is an astonishingly solid debut collection of infectious soul-inflected danceable pop tracks that are warm and well-produced, cover a variety of unexpected quirky subject matter, and are fun with a capital F. This is soft witty rock for the new millennium and a blast of good times perfectly matched to the summer ahead.