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Spacemen 3 / Spectrum - Recurring / Refractions: 1989-1997

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Artist: Spacemen 3 / Spectrum

Album: Recurring / Refractions: 1989-1997

Label: Space Age Recordings

Review date: Nov. 11, 2004

Common consensus about Spacemen 3 is that their more decisively rockist maneuvering rank as their finest works. There may be a ‘historical’ kernel of truth in this, insofar as Byron Coley played clairvoyant when, in a review of The Perfect Prescription in Forced Exposure circa 1987, he remarked: “mark my words, in ten years this album will be revered.” But the problem with worshipping Spacemen 3’s mid-to-late ’80s Stooge-rock period is that one often misses out on the heavy blows landed by subsequent recordings. 1989’s Playing With Fire is gospel re-writ as drug dependency (or perhaps drug dependency read as gospel truth). It’s also the first space where both Sonic Boom and Jason Pierce stripped back their songs to their pulsing, blurry, painful core. “Honey” splits the record apart and opens like a devotional shimmer; “Let Me Down Gently” is the sadness of lost love in freefall, set to the most wonderfully vibrating pulse, like an amoeba dancing to Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.” If Playing With Fire’s more rock moments – which simultaneously heightened the impact of their previous album’s devotional ire and cleaved the actual album into two not entirely consensually metered parts – were, at some level, a kind of ‘fallback’ movement, Sonic Boom let the cat out of the bag in an interview from around the period, where he stated the obvious: “I want to make music to heal people.”

By the time Recurring was released, Jason had already released one single as Spiritualized, a fairly uninspired cover of “Anyway That You Want Me,” and was readying his first opus, the 13-minute “Feel So Sad” single. Sonic had released a solo album in early 1990, entitled Spectrum, and was likewise forming a new band, sharing the same name. The core of Sonic Boom’s contributions to 1991’s Recurring shimmer with such an emotional piquancy that the listener, experiencing these songs in heightened states, may well find it hard to replace their orbit/axis with anything else.

Spacemen 3 before Playing With Fire actually became risible. Earlier recordings offered the right rock moves but the voice wasn’t there – it was the Spacemen channeling other voices. Recurring was borne of two moments, one aesthetic and one personal. The aesthetic was the continued shift away from rock climes that the band had begun with Playing With Fire – on Recurring, the band let in disco, simple and unaffected pop music, and lighter-than-air, breathless ambient blues pieces. The personal was the bitter, acrimonious dissolution of the relationship between Sonic Boom and Jason Pierce, with Recurring as the child lost in the midst of the divorce, an album of two halves – both sides of the record spilt to tape in separate rooms, by separate lives.

The best tracks on Recurring are undoubtedly those penned by Sonic Boom. “Big City” comes off mutant disco before the re-writing of post-punk canons. It has a glassy shine that you could slide off, and it is very Giorgio Mororder as re-programmed by Chris Carter. “Just to See You Smile” is all about searching for that beautiful moment when the lover’s lips upturn, the oceans of goodness that pour out of that exchange. Sonic Boom’s loves are simple. In “Just to See You Smile” he wants to walk his girl home, he wants to see her smile, and when he mumbles ”oh, babe, don’t ever change,” we all know that love changes, but sometimes it plateaus in this beautiful state of comfort. It’s post-jouissance, this love, it speaks of the curls of two bodies in soft formations.

“I Love You” is, perhaps, Sonic Boom’s finest song, the perfect summation of his aesthetic. With “I Love You,” Sonic Boom invests such joy into the I-IV-V-IV progression that it almost bursts the contours of your heart. It’s simultaneously a knowing glorification of a classic pop gesture/formula and an unbelievably affecting love song. The lyrics in these songs are simple, unadorned, some would call them clichéd – but to Sonic Boom, these clichés are purely communicative, and in his unaffected deliveries and whispered wisdoms, these clichés of love become transcendental signifiers. A cliché is a truth worn out by years of platitude: Sonic reclaims the platitude and remakes the truth, makes the cliché revelatory.

Jason Pierce’s songs on Recurring are also quite beautiful, after a fashion – but they’re not committed to anything in particular. On “Sometimes,” Pierce sounds as though he’s phoning his vocal performance in, and the song’s blues structure is set adrift in a lagoon of muddied sonics: it’s lovely, but it feels empty. “Hypnotised” is as beautiful and elegant as when it was released as a single in 1989, but however complete his songs sound on this record – and sometimes they are truly gorgeous, particularly the flicker and flow of “Feelin’ Just Fine (Head Full of Shit)” – they sound like, well, ‘Great Sonic Architectures’™, with Jason stranded in huge caverns of reverb and contrived ‘soul movement.’ The intimacy of Pierce’s songs for Playing With Fire, the whispering hymnals of “So Hot (All of My Tears)” and “Come Down Softly to My Soul,” is lost. There’s little hint of the post-Reich/Riley minimalism and emotional candor of Spiritualized’s 1992 epic Lazer Guided Melodies.

Refractions: Thru the Rhythms of Time compiles tracks from Sonic Boom’s solo output – the arc of 1989 to 1997, selecting tracks from his debut solo record Spectrum through to the final Spectrum album Forever Alien. It’s a one-sided view of Sonic’s post-Spacemen 3 music, as there are none of the pieces for analog electronics and deep-sigh breaths that scored his Soul Kiss (Glide Divine) album, and no tracks at all from his Experimental Audio Research side project. Which may be a good thing: Sonic has always been at his best within the contours of the pop song, streamlining three chords into hypnagogic pop mantras. The two tracks from 1989’s Spectrum album display Sonic at his most searching, figuring out not just the aesthetic parameters of his solo output but also the emotional resonance of his songs. “Help Me Please” and “Angel” are both dark affairs, full of doubt and question. “Angel” is devastating, not so much ‘sad’ as an absolute ocean of tears, see-sawing on a mantric bass-line and humming organs, guitars running snakecharmer lines and then overloading in distress, with Sonic talking, almost off-handedly, about the loss of a friend to heroin addiction. His reference to Pat Fish, a.k.a. The Jazz Butcher, and Pat’s song “Suzie” – from where Sonic steals the line/mantra “what could I do but care” – is touching; it’s a sign of friendship amongst friendship lost. By the end of “Angel,” his lost friend has become a specter that haunts the corners of the song; you can hear, in those buzzing and vibrating tones, those tremolos and shivers, a being limned into meta-presence.

After the release valve of Recurring and the Spacemen 3 split, Sonic finds himself in a brighter place, ruminating on love regained. 1992’s “How You Satisfy Me” pulses on a motorik subway, magnesium flares sparking all over the song. If you listen deeper, you come to the realization that this is where Sonic most accurately describes his faith in the healing and redemptive powers of music: the relationship that Sonic delineates parallels the connection the listener feels to the song, it’s a covalent relationship. It is also caught in its own halatial shudder, music that sparks with electrical currents, neon lights flashing in time with beating hearts – a mosaic, a grid, a map of pop music at its most un-contrived. “(I Love You) to the Moon and Back” sounds like La Monte Young covering Rev and Vega’s “Cheree,” with tremolo effects trailing silver spray all over Sonic’s elegant, simple refrain.

There’s too much good stuff on offer throughout Refractions: A triumvirate of songs from his overlooked Highs, Lows and Heavenly Blows album which cover myriad terrain, from ominous poetics (“Undo the Taboo”) to drone-dream epics (“I Know They Say” and “All Night Long.”) The few tracks from Forever Alien (“Owsley” and “Feels Like I’m Slipping Away”) point in another direction – they’re dense to the point of distraction, swimming in overdub after overdub of BBC Radiophonic Workshop textures, electricity fizzing through the mainframe like smoke pouring from a science-show beaker. Sonic is also a great interpreter – the compilation opens with his rendition of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End,” possibly Sonic’s most heartbreaking performance, sourcing the celebratory, hopeful core of Johnston’s sometimes depressing or confused world. Dean Torrance’s “California Lullaby” reconfigures itself in a mirage of faint-headed ghost choruses; Beat Happening’s “Indian Summer” is a child’s carnival, a carny sideshow.

Both Recurring and Refractions are reminders of a moment passed. Sonic isn’t writing songs like these anymore – to my knowledge, anyway – and although it’s entirely his imperative to keep following the muse of distended and ancient electronics, there’s a part of me that will always wish Sonic back to these shores. Because Sonic Boom’s true strengths lie as a songwriter able to sculpt incredibly simple forms – almost naive in their approach – into small trinkets of pure emotion. There is no contrivance in Sonic Boom’s songs, they are just as they are.

By Jon Dale

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