In 2009 Spectrals began life as a one man band. That one man was Heckmondwike, Yorkshire resident, Louis Jones, and he played everything on his early releases himself. A number of singles were released on labels such as Captured Tracks, Tough Love, Underwater People and Moshi Moshi; somewhere along the way Louis recruited his brother, Will, to play drums; touring band members came and went, but the core of the two brothers remains to this day.
In 2011 Spectrals signed to Slumberland (in North America) and Wichita (for the rest of the world) and those labels released the debut album, Bad Penny. Recorded by Richard Formby (Wild Beasts, Spectrum etc.), the album was critically acclaimed, with Pitchfork giving it a 7.5 and described it as having “a youthful spirit but rooted in a classic sound”, whilst the NME gave it a 7, welcoming “another intelligent, funny, soul-baring songwriter to the fold”. They also named Louis as “the Slacker Poet… a mantle not lightly bestowed” in a more recent article about their favourite recent lyricists.
But what of the new album?
Well, after an understated guitar intro, a buzzsaw starts up and ‘Let Me Cave In’ comes sliding in. At once it is obvious that Sob Story oozes a new confidence not heard on Bad Penny or his earlier releases. The songs sparkle: they are catchier, poppier, more direct into your ears than ever before.
The album displays Louis’s wide-ranging influences – many loves developed on family car journeys growing up – from Big Star and The Rolling Stones, through Nick Lowe, Tom Petty and Slade to Galaxie 500 and even blink-182. Some of these sounds are more obvious than others but it is legendary Welsh Rock’n'Roller, Dave Edmunds that Louis names as the key influence on his songwriting and the sound he wanted on this record, saying that he was “trying to cop some of those Country and Rockabilly licks he does”.
Louis takes all these influences and puts them together to create something that is undeniably Spectrals. You might argue that he does this in a similar manner to his very favourite musician (“that’s my guy”), the one and only, Elvis Costello (on a recent run of solo shows, the only song that Louis played that was not taken from his new album was a cover of an early, rough Costello demo, ‘Cheap Reward’.)
Much like Jones on this new album, Costello has always been a musician who could traverse many styles across an album but who never lost his own style and voice whilst doing so.
And speaking of voices, what really stands out as you listen to Sob Story is how the once shy Jones, who would hide his vocal in a cloak of echo, can be heard singing more clearly, strongly and proudly than ever before. Long gone are the reverb-soaked days when Louis would be heard at gigs asking the soundman to turn the reverb on his vocals up between every song, whilst also requesting they not even turn it off between songs when he speaks to the audience (something that is a commonplace practice for most musicians) because he didn’t like to hear himself in the monitors without it.
So what has caused this undeniable leap in confidence? It could well be the result of two years on the road, touring with the likes of Real Estate (and as support act, as well as backing band, to the R.E. side-project, Ducktails), Cults (two months across North America), Best Coast, The Cribs and many others, including GIRLS.
There was a strong mutual-appreciation between Spectrals and GIRLS from the start and having got to know Chet “JR” White from the band, and being a fan of his production work for is own band, it made perfect sense to ask him if he would like to work on the next Spectrals record. Following a meeting at the legendary, if somewhat rough-around-the-edges, Bull & Gate pub in London’s Kentish Town, JR said he was into the idea too and plans were made for Louis and Will to fly out to San Francisco to start laying down the songs that now make-up Sob Story at the Decibelle studio.
Working in his hometown allowed JR to call in friends of his to contribute their own magic to moments of the album. Guitarist Jon Anderson added lead guitar to five of the twelve tracks, of whom, with typical modesty, Louis said “it was ace to have a real guitar player around”. The band were also joined on three songs by pedal-steel player, Tom Heyman. “It was a big deal to have a pedal steel player come and play on one of my records”, said the Spectrals mainman, “to me the sound of those things is like a shorthand for “sad” and a thing they have on proper studio albums. I was thinking how I could have the songs sound more sad and knew I had to get a pedal steel in”.
JR even played some of the basslines himself, as well as adding some deft manipulation from behind the soundboard, for example the atmospherics that he created for one of the stand-out tracks, ‘Milky Way’. As JR said in a recent interview for Paste magazine, “we had to use a lot of creativity and in the end, it sounds really cohesive and big. It’s not a lo-fi record”.
The central theme of this record is love – that has always been the case with Spectrals, as Jones once said it’s all “just about love really” – but this time the lyrics are more reflecting on and questioning of love and relationships.
There are songs that are clearly loves songs in the classic sense (‘Limousine’, ‘Milky Way’, ‘Sob Story’). The problems of long-distance relationships are covered in ‘Blue Whatever’ (“I’ve been blue as a bruise ever since you went down / ’cause to me it could just as well be another galaxy”); that same topic, as well as the problems caused by being away on tour so much, come up in ‘Karaoke’ (“If I stop playing guitar / Learn to drive a car / And try and get my head around living in a bigger town”); he discusses how he can be the cause of their problems in ‘A Heartbeat Behind’ (“I made such hard work of getting you / Love became a hobby too / I’m in no way badly done to / After all, I have you”); and with his characteristic humour, ‘Something To Cry About’ tackles a question asked by a number of journalists when reviewing Bad Penny – what will he write songs about if he doesn’t have trouble in love???
Sob Story sees Spectrals back and better than ever, brimming with confidence and the best songs of the Jones brothers’ careers so far. It’s an album that begs to be played again as soon as it finishes and one that will also create excitement at what is to come next from this band, whether Louis is lucky or unlucky in love between now and then.