I’ve always preferred Spiritualized to Spaceman 3, the band from which Spiritualized sprung, with band leader Jason “Spaceman” Pierce breaking away from former co-leader Peter Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom) and taking guitarist Mark Refoy, bassist Will Carruthers, and drummer Jonny Mattock from his former band while adding keyboardist Kate Radley (also Pierce’s girlfriend at the time). The evocatively and aptly titled Laser Guided Melodies is a fine first album that’s also different from all the band’s other releases, as it’s their mellowest, dreamiest, most ethereal album. I’ve seen words like spacey, psychedelic, meditative, celestial, hypnotic, and woozy all be used to describe this album, and all are appropriate. Pierce’s vocals (he often sings in a whispery murmur or talk-sings) couldn’t be much more laid back, and the languid music is also very mellow and relaxed for the most part, making this an excellent album to drift off to sleep to, even though there are some louder moments as well. By and large the band’s sound, which I’ve heard likened to “The Velvet Underground meets early Pink Floyd” (also pretty accurate), relies on repetition to create hypnotic mood pieces, as Laser Guided Melodies is the very definition of a “mood album.” Comprised of four song suites (there are 12 distinct songs overall but you can only skip around to the start of each suite), these songs flow very well together, both within each suite and from suite to suite. So, these songs blend together seamlessly which is good but it’s also hard to remember individual highlights afterwards, as this album is less song oriented and varied than later records. It’s also less classically orchestrated and gospel-y, for those who came aboard later, as the album often does VU-like drones and is almost ambient in nature at times. There are parts of songs I easily remember, like the J.J. Cale lift on “Run” and of course “Shine A Light” (even if the live Royal Albert Hall version is far superior), but by and large this album is more about its intoxicatingly dreamy overall atmosphere, though at times it may seem a little light on memorable tunes.
Pure Phase (Dedicated ’95) Rating: B+
This album is often dismissed as a transitional release between two more substantial efforts, and while I don’t disagree with that opinion, Pure Phase is a fine album in its own right. Less suite-like than Laser Guided Melodes, with 12 distinct songs, this album is also less cohesive, and it has more moods as it veers between dreamy mood pieces and ear splittingly loud noise-fests. In general I prefer the former, as some of the more abrasive latter stuff can really test my patience, but though Pure Phase has its ups and downs some of the ups are pretty incredible. This album hits an immediate peak with the epic psychedelia of “Medication,” which starts with those church-y keyboards that play such an important role throughout the album. This 8-minute song is mostly very mellow but has periodic surges where the excitement is upped considerably, and there’s a certain uplifting euphoria and an undeniable sense of grandeur to the song (as with many of the best Spiritualized songs). Gorgeous flute highlights the more modest standout “The Slide Song,” while “All Of My Tears” is a pretty rewrite of an old Spaceman 3 song on which the dreamy, swirling sound again dominates. Even better is “Let It Flow,” which has more church-y organ and adds hooky gospel-y vocals as well, which would soon become an increasing band trademark along with the droning guitars that anchor their massive Wall Of Sound. The other highlights here are "Lay Back in the Sun," one of those (loud, poppy) songs that simply makes me glad to be alive, while the woozy "Spread Your Wings" provides a gorgeously affecting and suitably epic climax near the end of the album. Elsewhere, there are some pleasant songs that offer mere background music, and there are even a few that I tend to skip entirely, as Pure Phase to me is more about its peaks whereas Laser Guided Melodies was more about its consistency and start to finish listenability. Again, I prefer the former, but soundwise this was the album that pointed the way to their superior, breakthrough next release.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (Dedicated ’97) Rating: A
Spiritualized now consisted of Pierce, Radley, bass/harmonica player Sean Cook, and drummer/percussionist Damon Reece, but that’s not really true with regards to this album as tons of guests contribute to the album’s robust sound, including the Balanescu Quartet, The London Community Gospel Choir, and Dr. John. But as per usual this album is primarily Pierce’s baby, and he writes his best batch of songs ever, inspired by a broken heart due to his breakup with Radley (she would go on to marry The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft), not to mention the copious amounts of drugs he took to numb himself from the pain. By and large the band are at their best on dreamy, celestial ballads where Pierce sounds both devastated and half asleep (i.e. highly medicated), and the album peaks immediately with the brilliantly dreamy title track, which feels like it could actually float away but is gorgeous and extremely affecting. Punchy horns and gospel vocals mark the outstanding next track, “Come Together” (not to mention other songs as well), while “I Think I’m In Love” is a hypnotic, groovy slow builder that lasts for 8 all too short minutes (the synths, harmonica, drums, and guitar riffs all stand out and are impressive, but the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts). I could go through the rest of the track listing and single out additional song highlights, and certainly “Broken Heart,” possibly the prettiest, most heartbreaking song I’ve ever heard, and “Cool Waves,” a spiritual gospel incantation that by contrast makes me feel uplifted, are sensational standouts. But this whole album is uniquely excellent, and I can only use words like “dreamy,” “hypnotic,” “spacey,” “emotional,” and “sad” so much before lapsing into redundancy anyway. If I could complain about this album, and they’d be minor complaints, I’d say that I’m less into their loud, swirling free jazz freakouts (“The Individual” and “No God, Only Religion,” for example) than their blissfully melodic, spaced out mellower side, and that some songs (the mostly great 17-minute “Cop Shoot Cop”) are overly repetitive and too long, as is the album itself (70 minutes). Then again, the length of some songs lets them build to impressive crescendos, and Pierce’s lyrics are absolutely shattering at times, while his brutal honesty about his excessive drug usage is pretty eye opening as well. All in all, the fittingly titled, exquisitely packaged Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is simply an essential ‘90s alternative rock album that's also one of the best breakup albums ever.
Royal Albert Hall October 10, 1997 (Dedicated ’98) Rating: A+
Every band has their peak, and to me Ladies and Gentleman… and this spectacular live album in support of that tour both represent Spiritualized at their very best. To go a step further, I’d say that this is arguably the greatest live album of the past 20 years (1994-2004), with apologies to Wilco’s Kicking Television, My Morning Jacket’s Okonokos, Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York, and perhaps a select few others. With Radley replaced by Thighpaulsandra (Tim Lewis), and Michael Mooney (guitar, bass) and Raymond (Moonshake) Dickaty (tenor saxophone, flute) on board as official band members along with Cook, Reece, and of course Pierce, Spiritualized run through many of the best songs from their back catalogue, with the majority (8 songs) coming from Ladies and Gentleman… (there are also two songs apiece from Laser Guided Melodies (“Medication” and “Take Your Time”) and Pure Phase (“Electric Mainline” and “Medication”), a Spaceman 3 song (“Walking With Jesus”), and two versions of the “Oh Happy Day” gospel hymn). Again with help from many additional singers and musicians (primarily strings and horns), I’d be hard pressed to name too many of these versions that aren’t improvements on the studio originals, sometimes significantly so, starting with the gorgeously spiritual “Intro” (a.k.a. version one of “Oh Happy Day”), which leads into a sublime “Shine A Light.” Man, just listen to those glistening, soulful country guitars, and like several songs here this one swells into a magnificently powerful epic while featuring religious lyrics that only add to the album’s highly spiritual aura. Even the free jazz songs (or song sections) that I wasn’t as fond of previously work better here than anywhere else, as the energy level is high (on the rockers), the performances extremely strong throughout, and the songs flow beautifully into each other and complement one another (obviously a lot of thought went into the sequencing of this set list). Really, any complaints that I have about this album are extremely minor, such as the absence of “Ladies and Gentleman…” and “Cool Waves” (the latter of which would’ve been a natural fit on the more gospel-ized second disc) in favor of “The Individual” and “No God, Only Religion,” plus the fact that this double album is extremely long (135 minutes), making it a bit of a patience tester for those without the time to fully immerse oneself within it. Pretty nitpicky, huh? This live album is flat-out phenomenal and Spiritualized in their ‘90s prime was an exceptional band.
Let It Come Down (Arista ’01) Rating: A-
Acrimoniously replacing his entire band aside from Thighpaulsandra, Pierce also enlisted the support of 115 (not a misprint) session musicians and singers. After all, when it comes to Spiritualized, bigger is generally better, and Let It Come Down is a very good (if belatedly released) follow up even if it’s not quite up to the level of their prior studio masterpiece. Rather than spacey psychedelic rock that features strings and horns but is still primarily anchored by rock instrumentation, this time the album is musically dominated by strings and horns, while the grand gospel vocals are even more prominent. Aside from a couple of high energy rockers, “On Fire,” and “The Twelve Steps,” most of these songs are slow paced yet anthemic ballads. Sure, the album could use a few more up-tempo tunes (another one, and probably my favorite, is the catchy, Beach Boys influenced “Do It All Over Again”), and “anthemic” threatens to become over the top “corny” at times (like on “Stop Your Crying”), but by and large the massive sound fits these reflective, emotional songs. My favorite ballad here is probably the deeply affecting “The Straight and the Narrow,” but there’s no shortage of fine songs, including “Out Of Sight,” whose massive horns make me recall Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother,” the dreamy, lullaby-like “Anything More” (actually a companion piece to “Stop Your Crying” but better realized overall), and “Lord Can You Hear Me,” which recasts an old Spaceman 3 song as an immense gospel spiritual and provides a suitably epic finale. I once read that whereas Ladies and Gentleman… takes you up into the vastness of space, the brighter Let It Come Down lifts you up towards the sun, and I quite like that analogy. In short, these slow, hypnotic, spiritual (Pierce picked his band name for a reason!) songs work very well together, and Let It Come Down is a somewhat underappreciated release that only increased the stock of Spiritualized in my eyes.
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