Space versus Speed: Self-titled

Out of this world

The digital delight of Space versus Speed

Since 2000, we’ve had the Popsicko, Rocktopus, As Fast As (three albums), Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia, and now Space versus Speed. All with Spencer Albee as principle songwriter and frontman. Seven full-length records [this was first released in late 2010]. 

It seems like a lot until you consider Eric Clapton was with the Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith (for my money the best classic rock album of all time), Delaney and Bonnie, Derek and the Dominoes, and then fronted a solo record all between 1963 and 1970. Makes Albee look downright focused.

I don’t give a shit if he has a different band name every other Friday. I’ve never been disappointed, and I still listen to at least a few songs off every record he’s ever made. Every band has had its signature sound, filtered through a Beatles-pop lens Albee loves to apply. The most recent School Spirit Mafia was almost folksy, with lots of acoustic guitars and backing harmonies. It felt very super ego. Rational. Space versus Speed might be the record that is the most Spencer. The id. He used to like to throw these spacey keyboard lines into Rustic tunes, or tracks that were basically fine with just normal guitar-bass-drums voicing with As Fast As, because, well, he’s a keyboard player. But this album is keyboard centric, as though he finally realized that he didn’t need to front this band with a guitar. It’s all spacey keyboards, and guitars that sound like spacey keyboards, and bass that sounds like spacey keyboard. It’s a digital celebration. 

It’s down, dirty, and probably the most fun thing he’s every done, too. It all started with the “iRok” single back in August. It was though Albee impressed himself with the melody line that runs through it, like he fell in love with it. I’m glad he did. Coming seventh on this 11-song disc, it is the album’s heart. A blast. And you can’t even really tell Albee sings on it. Saiyid Brent’s rap is certainly the song’s identity. But it’s the energy that matters. It’s undeniable. 

Albee’s got other help, too. Horn player from the Mafia Jamie Colpoys (Fogcutters Big Band) gets a writing credit on “iRok,” and she’s now part of the band. As is Nate Nadeau (Conifer) on drums, Neil Collins (Lincolnville, Twisted Roots, Eldemur Krimm) on bass, and Walt Craven (Goud’s Thumb, 6gig, Lost on Liftoff) on guitar. That’s some serious talent and experience. 

All but Collins get songwriting credits on the second single from the album, “Tea and Cocaine,” which opens with a melody line that sounds like a “power-up” in a Mario video game, and Albee vocals so distorted and mirrored by a robot voice that you could again hardly know it was him. But the song structure and melody are all Albee. There are few who write a catchier chorus, and this one delivers in full. Which makes the contrast with the video game stuff all the more jarring, like an ice cube on the back of the neck on a summer day. Bracing, but good. A little bit exhilarating. 

“Indispensable,” the chorus of which is repurposed for Spose’s “Into Spose,” was cowritten by the Lucid’s Dominic Lavoie, and is a bit psychedelic like that. The chorus is “Florida Sunshine” good, as is Tim Emery’s lead guitar bit between the last two choruses. Lights out. 

“Set It Off” has a wicked na-na-na vocal line. Wicked. 

There is a line of heaviness that Albee edges across every once in a while that sounds somewhat forced – “Red Line Cannibal,” “AC15” – but Albee is pushing the envelope and a songwriter isn’t trying hard enough if some things don’t work 100 percent of the time. 

He comes full-circle by the finish, with the song most like his oeuvre, “By Land As By Sea,” a straight pop-rock tune infused with a tinge of melancholy and no co-writers: “I’ve failed them, as captain/ How could I let this happen?/ And now I’m living with this.” 

Failed? Not hardly. 

As Fast As: Destroy the Plastique Man

Seek and Destroy

As Fast As pull out their Plastique

It’s an unpredictable world we live in. The Red Sox keep winning the World Series, a Canadian dollar is now worth more than our pathetic greenback [this originally ran in 2008, height of the financial crisis], and that hack from American Idol, Daughtry, is among the best-selling rock acts in the world. Now I find there isn’t a single giant pop-rock singalong on the new As Fast As album.

What is the world coming to?

Well, it turns out Spencer Albeee and company have traded in their standard McCartney-Wings pop for a ’70s style more informed by the Bay City Rollers, the Bee Gees, and Yes, in the process knocking out something of a concept album. Destroy the Plastique Man is the band’s first since parting ways with Octone/A&M Records, with which the band released only 2006’s Open Letter to the Damned, an update of the band’s local debut by the same name in 2004. However, combined with Albee projects the Popsicko (self-titled, 2001) and Rocktopus (I Love You! Good Morning!, 2002; Something Fierce, 2003), which featured pieces of the current AFA lineup, there is a five-album track record of big, singalong choruses, cheery piano parts, and loud guitars that might lead one to expect more of the same.

As Fast As prove here, though, that history is a poor predictor of future performance. Penned by Albee, the tunes here still largely conform to pop songwriting convention, with verse-chorus-bridge construction, but the chords are less than bright, virtually every instrument sports a digital buzz, and the time signatures aren’t always 4/4. Albee has shown an inclination for the dark before — this is, after all, the guy who wrote: “Maybe you love me/ Maybe I’m a monkey/ Maybe you’re just bored with a belly full of drinks, so you want to take me home and fuck me” — but he never before seemed so interested in making you uncomfortable, poking you in the ribs with contrapuntal notes instead of rubbing your belly with major-chord melody.

As for that concept, the album basically details the psychedelic wanderings of Albee alter-ego Aaron (it’s his middle name, and the middle name of guitarist Zach Jones and bassist Pat “Hache Horchatta” Hodgkins, as well), who wakes up to crickets and loons in the 30-second opener and seems to be the Plastique Man of the title track, wondering: “Can I finally learn to love myself?” You want to talk ’70s? The opening of that title track apes Frampton’s whole talking-through-the-guitar thing, but actually makes it a melodic and workable chorus, “I don’t know what the meaning of tomorrow is/ But I know what it is to take the fall,” juxtaposed with Albee’s normal-voiced narrative verses: “He’ll destroy the plastique man/ Then he’ll learn to love again.”

I’ll leave the psychoanalysis for you armchair types out there, but I’ll tell you the digital laser beams that shoot through the song, paired with chords that punch like a Brahms string section and the ghost of a violin, build tension here in all the right ways (guest spots here include Stu Mahan, John Maclaine, Dominic Lavoie, DJ Moore, Aren Sprinkle, Jay Villani, Holly Nunan, Angela Doxsey, Dave Noyes, Emily Dix Thomas, and Garry Bowcott — I’m not going to parse them all).

This is definitely a headphones album. A rocket launch races around the channels in “Homewrecker,” where Aaron “can be good/ I can be pure/ I can convince you if you’re not sure.” Then an electric guitar builds late over sampled shouts and yelling, before Albee upgrades the chorus with a yelled high harmony and some trumpet or trombone. This is Pet Sounds pop, with doubled and tripled vocals, but devoid of the syrup that infuses Smile.

Digital loops, sometimes seeming aimless, often pop up in the left channel without warning. Basses are always fuzzed and thrumming. Keyboard solos sometimes are so affected it’s hard to perceive the tone. Pair those with handclaps for percussion, lush vocal harmonies, and beautifully crafted rhyming verses, and it can be sometimes difficult to find your bearings, but Albee’s doing that on purpose and it’s a good thing.

“Sleighjacking” is a deliciously odd Christmas tune, with a Latin beat tied to a Kingston Trio delivery. “Your Lips to G-d’s Ears” is like a heavy rock tune without the guitars and a lyrical device where Albee repeats the last couple words of each line: “I got hot dripped juices on my chin, on my chin/ I see slap-shot pretty shaking in, shaking in/ I shake my head, cuz bitch trashed mommy, shakin in, shakin in.” And then the chorus is so sweetly delivered, “I know just what you’re going through,” a move from indifference to empathy.

“Somebody’s Fool” is where things run disco, full on glitter ball, like what you’d hear on the new Taylor McFerrin (yep, Bobby’s son) album.

Finally, there is the “single,” which is greatly matured and nuanced compared to “The Single,” that triumphantly graced the Popsicko album. “Dancing a Murderous Tango,” gracing the airwaves on WCYY, opens with scritchy fiddles, then a chugging guitar line paired with the bass. The “c’mon” that finishes each line of the verse recalls (Albee’s other band, maybe you’ve heard of it) Rustic Overtones’ “C’Mon” off Viva Nueva, and the back-and-forth in the verse perfectly mimics the lock-step of the tango: “You think it’s sad/ I think it’s funny … you say death/ I say destruction … You say purpose/ I say function.”

Then there’s the big, expansive chorus, where Albee lets loose with all his chords will give him: “We’re dancing a murderous tango/ I’ll take your word/ Take me for everything.” He’s opened himself up laid himself bare. Take it and do with it what you will.