ENGLISH DREAM, Spottiswoode & His Enemies’ sixth studio recording, is a haunting new departure for the New York septet. After winning two Independent Music Awards for Wild Goosechase Expedition - a poppy and satirical romp about a rock band’s doomed tour - the band returns with a beautiful and much more atmospheric set of songs.
It’s an English record, written and sung by an Englishman but recorded in Brooklyn by a New York band. “SALVATION, our fourth record - was Americana” says Spottiswoode, the band’s songwriter and frontman. “This time we’ve gone Anglicana and made a pastoral collection of songs about nature, love, childhood and the other side of the pond. Sometimes it’s idyllic and sometimes it’s a bit scary.”
The journey begins with the airy Till My Dying Day, a love song set in London. From the start, it’s clear the band has scrapped its old formula. A sparse unhurried ballad as the opener? Spottiswoode has shelved his trademark wit. He’s painting a landscape here, full of depth and warmth. The long and lush instrumental fade-out highlights a new more relaxed approach as well as the band’s effortless trademark dynamism.
Golden Apple is another love song, although this time the subject is forbidden love. The lyrics sing like a spooky nursery rhyme set somewhere between a quaint English grove and the Garden of Eden. The rhythm is upbeat and urgent. The band has’t abandoned its rock and roll predilections after all. But once again there’s something different. Spottiswoode’s capo’d Fender Stratocaster played in Nashville tuning through a Twin Reverb chimes like a bell, the perfect counterpoint to his brooding baritone vocal. The recurrent reverb-drenched Nashville-tuned Strat becomes one of the signature sounds of the whole collection.
Clear Your Mind is again unusual. The band sings an anthem, part Byrds part Fleet Foxes. I Didn’t Know I Was So Sad, the following track, is one of Spottiswoode’s most plaintive ballads to date. The singer, feted at a beautiful party in his honor, leaves in despair and wanders alone to the riverbank where he lies down in the grass and stares “up at the moon high above the trees in the silver sky.” The natural world on this record is ever present.
In English Dream, the album’s cinematic title track, the singer takes a train journey to visit an old friend in an English town only to be confronted with visions and memories from his past. Performed in an off-kilter 5/4 time signature, the track features the spooky trilling of Riley McMahon on mandolin. This is the third Enemies album that McMahon, the band’s lead guitarist, has also produced.
At last we emerge from the fog. More songs about nature follow: Majesty, a bombastic and exuberant hymn to the planet; Genius Flower, an ode addressed to a daffodil or a tulip (or perhaps even to the listener?) that would make a Romantic poet blush; and Butterfly, a heartbroken ballad featuring more fluttering mandolin trills and also the evocative accordion of Tony Lauria. Despite the more subdued nature of the record as a whole there are still plenty of flashes of old-fashioned Enemies theatre.
Lauria then switches back to piano to open up No Time For Love, the album’s poppiest number. Delivered as a duo harmony by Spottiswoode and Kevin Cordt, the song is sixties retro both in melody and sentiment. Cordt soon blasts a punchy trumpet harmony over the rocking instrumental section, adding a touch of boogaloo brass. Even so, Lauria’s melodic driving piano gives the number a hooky dose of contemporary piano pop cred.
Another Year shows off the versatility of the band’s rhythm section. Tim Vaill on drums and John Young on bass address an almost Klezmer accordion melody with a driving neo-dub groove. The season has now switched to the autumn. The Englishman has taken his sorrows to an apple orchard.
Dreamer Boy returns us to the city. A young boy moves house and changes school. He sits alone in his London room playing guitar while dreaming of a better life far away. It’s the most directly autobiographical song on the record. “If only Tom Waits were a friend of mine and had an English accent,” says Spottiswoode, “I’d ask him to sing it very loudly.”
Who Were You, Baby?, a twisted and catchy ballad about a courtly affair, is followed by two lush closing tracks each featuring the gorgeous blended horn work of Candace DeBartolo and Kevin Cordt on tenor sax and trumpet respectively: Melancholy Boy, one of Spottiswoode’s more vintage noir ballads; and Sweetest Girl, an upbeat and folksy love song that brings the record full circle.
“I’ve spent more time back in my home country during recent years,” say the English bandleader, “so it feels like an appropriate moment to create this record. It makes sense to me musically and thematically. It sounds different from anything we’ve done before. Organic and very open. Riley took the concept and ran with it. And the band is always happy for a new challenge. I’m sure some of our fans will miss our more dramatic and comedic sides. But this isn’t supposed to be a riotous live show. It’s a record to listen to at home through a good stereo or through headphones. Does anyone do that any more? Oh well, I suppose that’s part of the dream.”
released April 15, 2014
Spottiswoode: Vocals, Guitars
John Young: Bass Guitars, Vocals (#6)
Tim Vaill: Drums, Vocals (#6)
Candace DeBartolo: Saxophone, Vocals
Kevin Cordt: Trumpet, Recorder, Vocals
Riley McMahon: Guitars, Mandolin, Percussion, Vocals (#2, #6)
Tony Lauria: Piano, Accordion, Hammond Organ, Vocals (#6)
Produced by Riley McMahon
Basic tracks recorded at The Bunker Studio, Brooklyn NY
Engineered by John Davis
Overdubs recorded at New Warsaw Studio, Brooklyn NY
Engineered by Riley McMahon
Mixed by Riley McMahon at New Warsaw Studio
Mastered by Fred Kevorkian at Kevorkian Mastering NY, NY