In line at a Chinese buffet, the choices spread out before you, the thought rarely occurs, “maybe I should just get the sesame chicken and rice.” No, you pile your plate to the sky, precariously steadying a Babel Tower of noodles, meat, sauce and egg rolls. Man was not meant to test the digestion gods in such a way. By the time you start popping Tums like Tic-Tacs, two hours later, you realize your mistake. “What was I thinking?”
Of Spain Colored Orange, and the debut album Sneaky Like a Villian, I ask the same question, “What were you thinking?” The album is a glut of this, that and the other. It’s never cohesive. In fact, I hesitate to even call it an album at all. That would make it seem as if the songs sound like they should be in the same place. The collection could be easily mistaken for a b-sides collection culled from several years on the cutting room floor.
Spain alternates – and this is not an exhaustive list – between ’70s, ’80s and ’90s pop; Spanish influences; tempos ripped from gypsy music; vaudeville chicanery; nods to The Who (on “Birds and the Bees”); nods to Pink Floyd (on “Uh Oh, Trouble”); funk; drum machine induced (slow) dance tracks; world music in general and large doses of ELO. All the while, horns blow through every track.
Defenders of Sneaky Like a Villian have glossed over this musical gluttony with, “there’s no such thing as over-the-top when the songs are this hooky” (Austin Decider). Other arguments include,”Spain is fearless with music” (Houston Chronicle). There’s no such thing as over-the-top? Really? I never heard hooky on Sneaky Like a Villian, but I did hear four and five minute songs that failed to go anywhere. “I Remember It was Christmastime” has the kind of ridiculous wailing choir you might hear in a bad science-fiction film when you first catch a glimpse of the “baddie” in slow-mo. The electronic drum beat, stifling repeated keyboard runs, itchy guitar strikes and horns of “Better Left Alone” makes it elevator music’s close cousin, an electronica/jazz/latin track best played at Club Nowhere.
Amalgamation of this level is tricky and doesn’t succeed easily. However, when it does, there is control, editing of vanity, cohesion to the album and a specific set of tools to pull from. Listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pet Sounds. Both work because the tracks are generally short, snappy and each track bleeds into the next. For modern examples look to the little-known and now defunct band Havalina (formerly known as Havalina Rail Co.), on their gem Russian Lullabies, or the Northern Irish up-and-comer Duke Special, on Songs from the Deep Forest, a vaudevillian, orchestral, pop success.
Sneaky Like a Villian isn’t a total wash, however. There’s about an EPs worth of material to salvage, “Uh Oh, Trouble” being a front runner. It’s prog rock for sure, borrowing elements mostly (as I said earlier) from the Pink Floyd playbook. The horns actually enhance, rather than weigh down the track. On “Cheap Thrills” the drunk, jazzy horns sound at home. While the track does change from pure-pop to a Tom Waits-esque cabaret number, the transition is tight, logical and unforced.
The mistakes on Sneaky Like a Villian overwhelm the promise and talent. Restraint could have saved this album. The rule of less-is-more is proved true once again. Track two on the album is titled, “Who Am I?” Spain Colored Orange should be asking themselves that question.
“Who Am I?”