20 April 2014 10:56PM
With its New York style of verbal and sonic subversion that ranges from moody melody to cacophonous dissonance, just about anything can be expected from sophisticated rockers Spottiswoode & His Enemies, though I’d never suspected them capable of anything like the deeply lyrical but almost frightening texture of their sixth record “English Dream”.
Jonathan Spottiswoode has drawn on his memories of England in this new compilation of songs, some that ache with the enigma of exile and longing, others that recall the monotony and hardship of the second world war and its aftermath, in a country just about holding itself together with not much more than a stiff upper lip. A video scrim on the Club Helsinki stage last night provided a whistlestop backdrop of images of ordinary times and places in which the England of Spottiswoode’s childhood found solace—ballrooms, at the pictures, working the fields, dips at the seaside, football in the mud, incongruous fashion shots, boat rides, obsessive gardening, lepidoptery, fish ’n’ chips and jellied eels, all in counterpoint to the thick fog, endless damp, and eternal hiss and steam of worn out locomotives that pervaded England’s air.
As Spottiswoode relives his roots, the troubadour in him somehow manages to eek out of that world, something approaching the musical parallel of a W.G. Sebald memoir. Often, exile evokes nothing more than nostalgia; Spottiswoode’s memories evoke harsh and sometimes creepy dreams.
As a longtime English exile myself (Spottiswoode and I lived in the same London neighborhood), I can certainly empathize with the picture he paints of our strange little country. Other Englishmen, inoculated by their youth, wealth or plain forgetfulness may not, and it will doubtless be harder for an American audience to get inside this consistently unsentimental reverie. Those who held up their arms when asked by Spottiswoode if they’d visited England were more likely to remember cream teas and thatched cottages. None of that in this album’s songs, of which the band played all fourteen, starting with “No Time for Love”, which says it all.
The record is a rough masterpiece, etching deep impressions. The softer numbers are oozingly beautiful. Spottiswoode knows how to tease and he knows how to bring the house down, and how to mix it up: Radiohead meets Joe Cocker (the Incredible String Band meets the Who?). Likewise, whether with sound, or absence of sound, at Helsinki the staunchly American Enemies as always filled every cubic foot of space. The great Riley McMahon delivered barely audible picks of supremely exotic sensitivity, then threw the sound through the roof. Piano, percussion, bass, horns and vocal backing were, as usual, impeccable, and it was great to see Candace back with the guys on her sax.
As the “English Dream” set wound up, Spottiswoode recalled that the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War (or “The Great War” as the English like to call it) was almost upon us. The crowd was slightly taken aback. “Alright!” was about as much as he could offer.
As if that wasn’t enough, after a break, they came back with another hourlong set, showcasing a rich picking of their shamelessly iconoclastic but achingly catchy oldies, including the still-gorgeous “In the Pouring Rain”.