Y’all can’t match Douglas Martin’s hustle
It’s natural for people to rhapsodize over the thing they hear the most in music, especially if the more interesting aspects take a little excavating. Even though Spaceships have always been a good band with well-structured songs and a deceptively intriguing lyricist, they have been heretofore primarily described in relation to the amount of fuzz their songs had been covered in.
Their self-titled EP was a hodgepodge of virtually every type of guitar music I’ve written about for this column, while their excellent debut album Cool Breeze Over the Mountains skewed toward obsessively replayable, punk-leaning garage-pop. (So obsessively replayable, in fact, it’s on constant loop in my car right now. Very suitable for the early spring we’ve been getting in Seattle.)
The songs on each release roll out of the speakers half-stoned and swaddled in warm-sounding, staticky fluff, which adds to the slacker’s allure of their aesthetic but belies the craftsmanship involved in the songs themselves. So what happens when you can actually hear what’s going on in their tunes?
Little Buddha might initially come off as a bit of a shock to those of us who were on the ground floor with Spaceships; it certainly did to me upon my first listen. I’ve ruminated over this idea at length more than once before: When a band characterized as lo-fi (whether by design or because they have no other choice economically) steps up their recording game, they either rise to the occasion or expose their deficiencies as songwriters. Many of the songs on Spaceships’ new full-length aren’t new; Little Buddha is a collection of songs recorded between 2010 and 2014. Which means much of the album doesn’t have to concern itself with the pressure of gaining a little audio quality. Whatever makes Spaceships good, they’ve pretty much always had it.
Album opener “Woodz” features a rare vocal turn from drummer Kevin LaRose, who wraps juvenile delinquency, teenage infatuation, and the turn of karma’s wheel in a chord progression fantastically swiped from “Sweet Jane” and bolstering some slanted and enchanted guitar work. There’s a classic rock veneer permeating the song in both sound and the band’s confidence, which brightens the nostalgia highlighted in the lyrics.
“Stone,” the very next song, is undoubtedly the most gorgeous thing Spaceships have written to date, with singer/guitarist Jessie Waite opening up to her trepidations and insecurities
“I want to let you in my heart / But I’m scared,” “I don’t want to try, but I don’t want to die / And I don’t want to get a job, and I don’t know why” over a skyward guitar riff and laconic pace.
Somehow, the band took the idea of laying out in the grass on a summer afternoon and made the perfect musical equivalent of it, watching the clouds and the impending weight of adulthood pass them by. This combination of songs are the best of any in Spaceships’ discography yet, and the most foolproof argument against anyone who says they’re lo-fi because they can’t write songs.
A variety in the songwriting approach greatly benefits Little Buddha just as sparsity benefited their past releases. Throughout the album, the increased audio quality shows an amazing sense of texture, adding touches of light psychedelia to songs like “Immortal,” “Money,” and “Lucky.” Waite remains one of the sharpest (and most unsung) lyricists in super-underground-rock music right now. (When she sings, “I don’t mind a little suffering in my life” on “I’m the Mouse King,” it’s one of the most unexpectedly emotional moments on the album.)
The only problem with the album really is that it runs a little long, the middle section drags a little. If the album were nine or ten songs instead of twelve, it could even be a frontrunner for Dirty Shoes Album of the Year. But even that might be knitpicking a bit, as Little Buddha, even in its lagging section between tracks 5 and 8, is still greatly enjoyable, especially when driving along under the West Coast sun.
Watching Spaceships progress as a band over the past few years has been vastly intriguing. They’re a talented enough band to where they could have gotten a lot of mileage out of writing the same three or four songs over and over, but somewhere along the way, they committed to bringing their closeted experiments in songwriting out to the forefront and have succeeded wildly because of it.
Maturing as songwriters doesn’t mean you have to write about quote-unquote “more adult” things, it means taking more chances and see where they land you. Spaceships traversed the proven ground of punky, garage-y, home-recorded rock music, now they’re heading off into a new frontier. If they keep on this path, they might find greatness waiting for them over the horizon.