Click to hear: “Big Old House”
Any kid knows too much candy will make you sick to your stomach. Likewise, listening to an album’s worth of pop ear-candy can make you queasy. This album is called Candy, Cake and Ice Cream. You can’t say you weren’t warned.
Former Rustic Overtones keyboardist Spencer Albee has been making polished pop-rock for many years now under a variety of guises: Frankenstien, Rocktopus, As Fast As. In this latest incarnation, Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia, Albee proves that a.) with the exception of Rocktopus, he still can’t name a band; and b.) he is one talented mofo.
There are 10 sweet singles on Candy and one bitter pill, “Betaphorm,” a bitch about the tortures of touring and the “executive shits” in the recording industry that’s incongruously tacked on near the end like the surprisingly unsavory nugget in a Whitman’s Sampler. If you can make it that far in one sitting, I’m impressed. Give yourself a pat on the back and snort a couple more rails of Pixy Stix.
Candy hints at being a concept album. It’s bookended by a brief sitar intro (“I Love You, Good Morning”) and a minute-long outro (“We Love You”), with a 20-second break of humming and strumming (“Mmm Mmm Good”) in the middle. But other than maybe love or romantic reconciliation, there’s no unifying theme or narrative thread, like the one that ran, however obliquely, through As Fast As’ last album, 2008’s Destroy the Plastique Man.
This is a collection of singles best digested that way: one at a time. Each is a delightful exercise in classic pop songcraft. Sir Paul’s influence on Albee is as evident as ever, but Candy is more akin to The Kinks’ loose concept album, The Village Green Preservation Society. Picture the intersection of Tin Pan Alley and Abbey Road, and you’re almost there.
With the exception of the aforementioned “Betaphorm,” the songs are all sunny and easygoing, playful and fun. Albee wrote, arranged, recorded and produced almost every note, and handles the bulk of the instruments and vocals. He’s joined here and there by As Fast As guitarist Zach Jones, bassist Stu Mahan, and a gaggle of female backup singers, as well as cellist Emily Dix Thomas, violist Kallie Ciechomski, and trombone player John Maclaine, among other guests.
Albee adds these players to the mix like a master chef, layering each confection with strings, horns and vocal harmonies as needed to balance and embellish his compositions. “Big Old House” sashays out of the gate with bells tinkling on its way to a beautiful bridge built of strings and backing vocals. “Where You Been?” marches toward a similar bridge accompanied by a ska-flavored trombone line that recalls Rustic’s roots.
Hooks abound throughout Candy, any number of which will pop into your head for days after you hear it. The stomping “Whatever Garry” and the sweetly restrained “Nobody Got Off Easy” are especially infectious; “Come Back Monday,” with its sing-song verses and gorgeous chorus, could cause a pandemic.
But again, it’s best to take this album in small doses. Shuffle it into your iPod so its treats will arrive like pleasant surprises. And beware of seeing the band live. Collectively, the group numbers a baker’s dozen, and the cutesy factor, as displayed in the photo at left, might drive you to punch someone in the face.
Maybe that’s where the mafia part comes in…
— Chris Busby
For more on the band, visit myspace.com/schoolspiritmafia.