What happens when you have no expectations for a record at all? It seems impossible now. With so much information at our fingertips, it would make sense that there is no such thing as a bias-free approach to a new album. That’s not to say that I didn’t know anything about the Comas. I have their Conductor album and quite enjoyed it. I know that songwriter Andy Herod wrote the tracks on that album about his relationship and breakup with Michelle Williams, she of Dawson’s Creek and Heath Ledger’s seed incubator. I know they started out in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and have since relocated to New York City. I know that they started out as a tongue-in-cheek alt-country band before turning to a more psychedelic sound. So, I’m not completely in the dark. But for some reason, when Spells, the Comas’ fourth album release, showed up in my mailbox, I had no clue what to expect. With Conductor, opinions were universally split. Some heralded it as one of the best albums of the year while some considered it absolutely forgettable. Aptly enough, I’m right on the fence. As I said, I enjoyed the album, but forgot over the last few years that I even had a copy, not to mention drawing a complete blank on what it even sounded like. So, with that in mind, what kind of enchantments would Spells have in store?
The big stories with this one revolve around the employment of producer Bill Racine (Rogue Wave, Mates of State, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) and the studio in the Catskills where they holed up for the recording. The aspect of being cut off from technology and their immersion in nature (they saw bald eagles!) informed this album during the creation, but truth be told, from the sound of it, it could have been as easily recorded in a remote New Jersey warehouse. They might be singing about spiders and wolves, but the polished fuzzed out guitars, dreamy keys and gauzy male / female vocal combination seem to point more toward a more urban hipster vibe. I suppose the transplantation of New Yorkers to the country did add somewhat of a more ethereal sound, with more strings, a relaxed downbeat and slightly stoned vocals, but otherwise this is about as `connected with nature’ as a cell phone tower in the middle of a farm.
Regardless, Spells is a solid album from start to finish. Opener “Red Microphones” finds its steady bassline and fuzz guitars absolutely infectious, like a Weezer song covered by the Dandy Warhols. However, Herod shows in this song that I guess he still isn’t over his WB love affair. “Hannah T.” is the most aggressive track on the album, finding Herod straining his vocals Cobain style while chanting an old familiar line, “Search and Destroy.” “I Am a Spider” is, for me, the proper introduction to the album as a whole. The echoing guitars and multiple vocal tracks will remind most of Racine’s other projects, and the end result is just as satisfying. There’s a little bit of Heart and a whole lot of early ’80s keyboards in “Come My Sunshine,” making you remember just how much you used to like Missing Persons.
“Stoneded,” besides being a great title, is one of the standout tracks, beginning as a straightforward pop song, but ending as a night of actually getting stoned, hazy and a little sleepy. “Light the Pad” continues the string of highlights, again relying on the male / female harmonizing to provide a gorgeous textural balance. Hey, it worked for Luna and the Smashing Pumpkins, right? (Of course, James Iha provided most of those falsetto vocals). “Sarah T.” (any relation to Hannah?) has a drum march nearly lifted from Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” but the singing combination of Herod and guitarist Nicole Gehweiler more than obfuscate the transgression. “Thistledown” also features prominently on the album, with late Beatles-like circus keys and the band taking their time getting where they are going, letting us simply enjoy the slow ride. “New Wolf” is another ’80s throwback, or at least a throwback to a few years ago when everyone was trying to emulate the ’80s, such as recent radio stars Shiny Toy Guns. I am reminded, when listening to this song, how much more dangerous Berlin used to be before essentially neutering themselves with their Top Gun hit, “Take My Breath Away.” “After the Afterglow” closes out the album with vinyl crackling in the background, which doesn’t really fool anyone. Despite this, it’s a pretty damn good song, and a nice comedown after “Wolf.”
Spells, in the final analysis, ends up to be a nice mix of charged retro pop and dreamy psychedelia, making me think at numerous times during its playing that I was listening to a Dave Fridmann helmed album rather than Bill Racine. There’s much to like with this Comas release, specifically the vocal harmonies of frontman Andy Herod (seriously, get over Michelle, man. You don’t want to end up like Cinjun Tate, seemingly moping over Alyssa Milano for the rest of his life) and Nicole Gehweiler. Their chemistry is electric, maybe even more so than the power couples of indie rock, including Dean & Britta and the Rosebuds. In this context, don’t think of Spells so much as the stereotypical witch-kind, but more as `getting the vapors’ and feeling half between a dream-like state and a hazy reality. That’s where the true magic of the Comas rests in this new album.
Mercury Rev- See You on the Other Side
Young Galaxy- Swing Your Heartache
MP3: “Red Microphones”