(Sparks Music/Tommy Boy; 2007/2009)
By Eric Sams | 3 June 2009
I don’t, by-in-large, smoke weed. I have no half-assed moral objection to the practice, and I, like most people who’ve attended a liberal arts institution, have been fucked up on a large number of illicit substances, marijuana cigarettes included. I just don’t really find it enjoyable; it smells weird and tastes terrible and feels strange when it strikes the tuning fork of my spinal chord. And, at the risk of sounding like an unforgivable poindexter, it, um, gives me a headache.
So it’s rare when I run across something like Spiral Beach’s Ball that makes me want to blaze into the troposphere, headache be damned, and look down at it from that remove, oxygen poor and shaking with laughter. Guillermo Del Toro’s lush World War II nursery rhyme Pan’s Labyrinth put this malady on me, as did Paul Thomas Anderson’s bizarre Magnolia. World-fashioning works with densely imagined superficial oddity that whisper in my ear the sensuous hint of a flip side are usually the cause of this uncharacteristic urge. It’s less about heightening any particular aspect of the art (I don’t crave sophomoric giggle fits or dubious epiphanies) than seeing the whole work from a new vantage, picking up things that I missed the first time.
Drugs, regardless of your stance on them, are about perspective alteration, but in order for me to go through the birth pangs of actually ingesting the vile psychotropic I need to be sure that the vision to be birthed is one worth nurturing. In this capacity Ball is an extra special rarity since my palette confines such worthy visions almost solely to narrative media, preferably with a visual facet to boot. There’s little to no narrative on Spiral Beach’s sophomore release, and obviously no visual element, but there’s sure as shit a heavy dose of theatricality.
Ball is a Monster Mash in a cartoon graveyard, purple headstones akimbo, Frankenstein’s monster on the one’s and two’s working the animated crowd into a delirium with electro-art rockabilly fusion jams that have them lurching around like they’re missing some frames. These images are actually more of the band’s creation than mine. Live Spiral Beach shows are notoriously raucous, polychromatic multimedia affairs, open in some instances to all age groups. This is not Danielson, however. There’s no impossibly twee conceit spackled into this band’s foundation; Spiral Beach have an idiosyncratic presentation to be sure, but they are not an orchestra or a choir or a cult.
What they are is expert in the alchemy of musical genres—a discipline that requires precision, one that can produce unlistenable music if given over to the whims of wild-eyed improvisation. The performance can be chaotic as fuck, sure, but it’s obvious by the sound produced that these songs were stitched together with meticulous care. I hesitate to overuse the word “fusion,” since it seems to me that the aim of fusion is seamlessness, and Ball certainly isn’t that. Rather, the assembled tracks celebrate their own contradictions, at times going out of their way to nudge them to the fore.
The cinematic counterpart to Ball would be Edgar Wright’s criminally underrated Shaun of the Dead. Like Wright, Maddy Wilde and Airick Woodhead realize that an exhaustive knowledge of genres in isolation is a crucial prerequisite to any attempt to mix them. Shaun works so well because it could credibly function as a horror flick if you took the jokes out. The horror scenes are filmed using zombie film techniques, from make-up to camera angles. Without this seemingly minute detail the juxtaposition of slapstick comedy and graphic, brutal violence would fall on its face.
Similar moments exist in Ball. At the end of a chorus in “Kind of Beast” Maddy Wilde speaks the refrain, adding a tagline of her own: “What kind of beast am I? / Nobody knows / When I look down at my feet / I see ten toma-toes.” I can’t think of another context in which a pun so patently stupid wouldn’t be ruinous, but it’s delivered here so abruptly and absurdly that it’s endearing. The song actually benefits from that levity—stopping a barn-burner as hot as this to tell a pre-schooler’s joke is a little like using the gruesome death of your protagonist’s family members to set up physical comedy gags. It’s preposterous, but that’s the point.
What’s striking is not that Spiral Beach open their shows to children, that’s a gimmick; it’s that I could actually see a child digging the act, asking his parents to bring him again. I can almost hear his androgynous little voice chanting with gleeful morbidity the lyrics to the chorus on the crunchy groove “Casual t”: “Accidents happen / Why should we wait? / All of us sleep in the end / Accidents happen / Let’s have one today / All of us sleep in the end.” It would be simultaneously hilarious and poignant—and it is precisely in these moments when a person is well served to be high as hell, so as to fully appreciate both sides of the coin.
I guess a fitting cliché—for those of you who bemoan CMG’s trademark meandering analysis—would be that this record “keeps you guessing,” but I’m not convinced that Spiral Beach give a shit whether you’re guessing or not. Just as long as you’re vibing to the sum of the jaggedly stitched parts.