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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1719

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Spencer Day: The Mystery of You
by George Graham

(Concord 33041 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/20/2013)

Retro music is happening on numerous fronts -- from Beatles-influenced pop to Motown soul revival, from 1970s art rock to 1980s synthesizer pop. And there have been a lot of younger performers reviving pre-rock styles. Since the commercial success of Norah Jones starting a decade ago, there have been numerous women vocalists who have taken up the romantic, occasionally jazz-influenced style that we call the chanteuse. Far fewer in number are the male counterparts, the crooners. But there have been a few who share a lot of stylistic traits with jazz singers but who cross over into the pop and singer-songwriter realm such as Jamie Cullum, Curtis Stigers and the artist whose CD is our focus today, Spencer Day. His new release, his fourth, is called The Mystery of You.

Spencer Day was born in small-town Utah, where his parents' marriage was a troubled one. His mother was a classical vocalist, but his musical backdrop was a wide-ranging one, listening to composers from John Lennon, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon to the Gershwins and Cole Porter. He says that in his conservative town, about the only options at the local movie theater were the old MGM musicals, which he also absorbed into his musical sensibility.

Largely self-taught, he was 21 before he started performing in public, mainly singing and playing jazz standards in piano bars and retirement homes. But after a while, he decided that artistic fulfillment meant creating his own material, which he started to do. But his first album, released in 2004, called Introducing Spencer Day, was primarily a collection of jazz standards, though it did contain an original song that began to attract attention, winning an award in a San Francisco songwriting competition.

Since then, Day has been moving toward being the singer-songwriter, more than the jazz crooner. We featured his last album, Vagabond on this album review series in 2009.

His bio says that in the more than three years since Vagabond, he has had his share of personal upheavals, including a ill-fated relationship. But that provided the lyrical grist for most of the new CD. Stylistically, this recording is unapologetically retro, not for the era of the jazz crooners, but for some of the sounds of the 1960s, such as the influence of the soundtracks for spy films and spaghetti Westerns, plus Motown soul, 1960s pop, and bits of the psychedelic scene. But Day maintains his crooner's vocal approach, which sometimes makes it an interesting hybrid.

While Day is a respectable keyboard player and was featured in that role on his last album, this record features him primarily in a vocal-only mode on most tracks. The added personnel varies but most often includes a long-time collaborator, guitarist Yair Evine. Other more frequent guests include guitarist Davíd Garza and backing vocalist Gaby Moreno, a singer-songwriter in her own right. As on his last album, there is are some string arrangements on several tracks, some of which Day wrote himself.

The decidedly retro sound is much in evidence on the title piece, The Mystery of You which combines the twangy guitars of Enio Morricone spaghetti Western soundtracks with a drum line borrowed from the Motown sound. Lyrically the song sets up the relationship that ultimately falls apart during the course of the album. <<>>

Also drawing on the Motown sound is the song called Here I Go. It's a nice mixture of influences and a lyrically a good old-fashioned love song. <<>>

Hints that all may not be well in the relationship that forms the theme of the album becomes evident in track called Love and War. It's a well-written song, tastefully performed with the addition of the sting section. <<>>

Something Wicked is one of the more interesting musical hybrids, with bits of a psychedelic-era sitar, with a spooky-sounding string arrangement written by Spencer Day. <<>>

Jazz keyboard player Larry Goldings who has worked with Day in the past appears on a song co-wrote with Day called I Don't Want to Know, which moves the narrative toward the romantic breakup. <<>>

Spencer Day says that The Answer was a kind of musical dedication to Roy Orbison. Meanwhile, lyrically the song confirms that the relationship is over by that point. <<>>

The 1960s psychedelic scene is revived on A Long Way (Black Rock City). It's got an intriguing pastiche of sounds. <<>>

With all the retro ingredients, there is a song that has a nice, simple folky arrangement. Nevermind is the part of the song cycle in which acceptance of the end of the relationship comes. <<>>

Spencer Day's new CD The Mystery of You is an interesting and worthwhile album by a singer-songwriter with a jazzy crooner vocal style. This one is has a lot going for it, with an creative blend of occasionally-borrowed retro stylistic ingredients, sometimes put together in ways that did not happen back in the day. And lyrically, the CD is a kind of concept album with a beginning, middle and end of a relationship that started out torrid and then ended up with the subsequent broken hearts. The songs are well-written and the musicianship is tasteful. They often nail it achieving a degree of authenticity to the retro ingredients like the twangy guitars, occasional orchestral bits from spy movie soundtracks, Motown rhythmic lines and vocal harmonies, psychedelia, and even hints of 1960s style bossa nova. The result is an album that goes beyond being merely a retro record. A lot of revival groups pick one style and concentrate on it. Spencer Day takes the bits and pieces and puts them into a musical blender. But it works well.

Our grade for sound quality is a B minus. It's definitely a step down from his last album. The reasons are depressingly typical -- too much volume compression overall. And Day's warm vocals sound a little thin with apparently a misguided attempt to simulate the sonic limitations, including the tendency for some distortion, of old analog equipment.

Spencer Day has gone from being a crooner of jazz standards to being a creative singer-songwriter coming up with essentially a concept album on his new release The Mystery of You. And he succeeds very nicely.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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