It can be a difficult road to fame and fortune. Though he would probably be quick to divert attention away from this truth with characteristic self-deprecation, Spencer Bates surely knows this. Spencer is a solo artist in the most literal sense. He is a singer-songwriter who regularly plays alone, relying upon only his voice and his piano. He also is entirely self-taught. Having said that, music and performance have never been far from his grasp. Spencer devoted much of his time as a teenager to musical theater, where directors were quick to take advantage of his surprising vocal range. During those early years his primary artistic focus was film, which he began studying formally upon entering college.
But the drive to perform loomed large. Inspired by a one-time performance at the end of high school, in which faculty and student musicians alike backed him on renditions of classic pop tunes, Spencer began spending every free hour at the piano, an instrument that he had previously never played. As it happened, he had a natural ability to learn the instrument that matched his innate vocal gift. Some might interpret Spencer's lack of formal training as a handicap. But, to the contrary, it's one of his greatest assets: his melodies are clear, direct, and indelible - refreshingly devoid of any overstudied pretense.
Spencer's first recordings of original music, the full-length Everybody has a Song and the Back to School EP, captured a performer and songwriter still finding his voice. Though saturated with his strong sense for melody, they featured songs that only hinted at his potential. Mostly, they contained fairly straightforward love songs. At this point, as Spencer's piano playing has evolved, so too has his approach to his art: "I prefer writing songs that are more interpretable."
Fortunately, this approach serves both Spencer and his listeners quite well. His new record, Goodnight Rosebud, is not only easily his best to date, but also a startlingly sophisticated step forward. The same knack for melody remains. However, this time Spencer has produced lyrics and arrangements that more than match his inherently catchy songs; they enhance them.
Gone are the straightforward tunes of puppy love and heartbreak - and in their place lie songs that tackle broader and in some cases - as in the triumphant "The Time Must Come" - more political issues. But Spencer chooses not to use his voice for any soapbox preaching. "I don't need to be overtly political. It wouldn't be constructive to alienate anyone." Nevertheless, the song lends itself to political interpretations; crucially, though, in keeping with the album's commitment to subtlety, it never hammers anything down your throat.
Rather, Spencer seems interested in questioning. Tellingly, the album opens with the line "Could it be I was mistaken?" In a way this calls back to his earlier work, where self-doubt and heartache - the domain of teenagers - reigned supreme. But the song, "Back of My Mind," also suggests maturity and reflection, while acknowledging that the trials of early adulthood are every bit as complicated and confusing as those of late adolescence. Musically, the song boasts a far fuller sound than any previous recordings, as strings and ringing guitar nicely complement Spencer's piano. The extent of this album's musical advances doesn't become fully apparent, however, until the third song, "Outside Looking Out."
After a subdued solo piano intro for the second track, "Outside Looking Out" quickly announces itself: over some of the album's most rhythmic piano playing, a low, guttural horn line sweeps in with all the fanfare of a '70s cop-show theme. In a way it harkens back to the sloppy, gritty days of early rock 'n' roll but, like all of Spencer's work, it remains defiantly pop (complete with layered background harmonies). It's the sort of arrangement that, sadly, modern pop music rarely uses. The horns continue throughout the song, crisply punctuating some of the album's most clever lyrics, which mock the frivolity of consumerist, mainstream culture.
One could easily see the song, with its references to "corporate sponsorship" and "status symbols," as a partial reaction to the music industry and Spencer as a man railing against it. But, for Spencer, the music industry brings its own benefits: specifically, top-notch musicians. "I approached Goodnight Rosebud as a collaborative effort. I wanted to feel part of a team. I wanted other people's stamp on it, so I encouraged other musicians' interpretations. Fortunately, I found myself surrounded by creative people."
To illustrate this, Spencer points to the album's seventh track, "Waves," which focuses primarily on a lilting piano melody and voice, but also features contemplative, understated mandolin. When someone came in to contribute mandolin to the song, Spencer had a specific sound in mind, but the player, Skinny McCallister, brought something entirely unexpected: "He played this part that sounded imitative of a clock, which I thought really worked." It fits the song's somber tone beautifully, underscoring its lyrics about a relationship that has been overcome by time.
It's preceded by "Halloween," a cello-laden track that alternates between a sleepy, funeral dirge of a melody (complete with a creaky, carnivalesque organ) and glorious outbursts of cymbals, shimmering piano, and voice. The lyrics are some of Spencer's most opaque and fantastical: "Children made older and older made young / Peasants unseating their king / Even the trees have undone what's been done / Losing the bounty of spring." The song manages to simultaneously capture the wonder of youth and convey a force that is dark and unknown.
It's one of the album's greatest moments - a testament to Spencer's unique approach to his music. With its cinematic imagery, it's also a reminder that, not so long ago, this career musician was setting his sights on the film industry. The movies also creep into the album's closing track, "For a Child," which features lyrics as economical and evocative as the tightest screenplay. Cameras zoom in and out, mirroring the melancholy calm of the verses and the escalating crunch of the chorus, as a young man tries to find the delicate balance between misfortune and privilege, complacency and fulfillment.
Spencer guides us through the scene with all the flourish of one of the directors he grew up admiring. It's obvious that films inspire him, and it makes one wonder what might happen if he ever chooses to sit in the director's chair. But ever since he first sat down at a piano several years ago, Spencer has completely devoted himself to his music. He's honed and refined his style at piano bars, an experience that forces him to "win the crowd over again every single night."
Besides continually proving his unending patience and tolerance, the job has drastically improved Spencer's piano skills and helped him develop an engaging stage presence. But surely having people loudly, drunkenly demand that he play "Sweet Caroline" for the seventh time isn't exactly what he had envisioned for his musical career? Wouldn't he rather be playing "Outside Looking Out?"
Spencer mostly shrugs this off, keeping his sights set on his goal of playing his own music, his own way, to large audiences. "It's true that people [in the piano bars] come to see me perform other people's music, not necessarily to see me. Of course I wish I could be playing them my own music. But it can be rewarding to interpret other people's stuff - when it's a song I really love. And, anyway, I'm making a living off of performing."
He also finds it comforting that both Elton John and Billy Joel performed in piano bars for awhile. As a pianist and singer-songwriter, Spencer inevitably gets compared to those two musicians. He certainly draws inspiration from them but has no interest in merely rehashing their achievements for a new generation. As Spencer puts it: "I don't care who I'm compared to. Sometimes the similarities are obvious to me. Other times I'm compared to someone I've never even heard of."
No, Spencer has big plans for his music, and Goodnight Rosebud is a significant step forward. It benefits from his knowledge of the work of John and Joel, but also combines many of his other disparate influences. It's soaked in the traditions of musical theater - something Spencer immediately acknowledges. "I'm highly influenced by theatrical composition and vocals, so I tend to favor melodrama."
It also draws from much of the great pop of the last few decades: echoes of the Beach Boys can be heard in the vocal harmonies, the bite of a satirist like Randy Newman can be felt in the lyrics, and one doesn't have to listen too hard to grasp that Spencer appreciates the sonic explorations of artists like David Bowie and Radiohead. But Goodnight Rosebud ultimately doesn't sound or feel like the work of any of these people.
It's the work of a singular young musician beginning to hit his stride, choosing his words and melodies wisely and figuring out new and exciting ways to present them. The album's fourth track, "Geometries," uses one of Spencer's most intense, raucous choruses as a sort of call to arms. It isn't an urge for violence that motivates him, but rather a need to understand the unknown. It's a declaration of the desire to find meaning amid the chaos - articulated by the repeated mantra "Show me more." It's impossible to tell exactly what he will find and what the future will bring, whether he's on the outside looking out or the inside looking in. But the songs of Goodnight Rosebud make one thing feel certain: Spencer Bates has a lot more to show us.
-- Jonathan L. Knapp, Flavorpill (www.flavorpill.com)