Spencer McGarry’s second album is perhaps best described by the man himself. It is, he says, a “camp baroque nightmare”.
A marked step from his last record Episode One, he’s edging closer to achieving his goal of releasing a “box set” of six albums, all based around a different musical genre. The first one, released last year, was a bouncy, sing-along slab of three-piece rock in the vein of the Kinks and Talking Heads. This time he’s back with 17 tracks of eccentric orchestral pop.
His mini orchestra consists of some 13 multi-instrumentalists, including Sweet Baboo and singers from The Hot Puppies, and the layers of sound create a brilliantly flamboyant base for his faltering, but at the same time triumphantly confident, vocals. From the off, it’s clear this is a different album. Opener Happy Talk is lyrically similar to McGarry’s last outing, but it’s like he’s been lifted from his happy state in 1970s socio-pop land, and plonked into a Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack or a 1950s Disney film.
Clattering trumpets, flutes and strings flitter around McGarry, who acts as a wry, knowing conductor – his raised eyebrow almost pokes out through the song. He’s got a Neil Hannon-esque command and a similar grasp of melodies, which is shown best in the jutting, sleigh bell-laden Waiting For Isabel.
Some of the songs that represent the biggest departure from Episode One – All Things To All Men, 1 km More – nod towards the guitar-focused, complex indie-rock of Field Music, whereas the likes of The Serology Of Love/In Nervous Sleep and Great Enemies edge into XTC territory.
McGarry, who wrote and wrapped up his second effort within 13 months, fitting recording in around his job as a civil servant in Cardiff, obviously hasn’t abandoned his love for Talking Heads and upbeat, straight-up pop, and Intention Ten Folds To Tension could have been lifted from Episode One. “I’m in love with music,” he chirpilly declares, over an infectious whistling.
But while there about 10 great tracks on here, its length is its downfall, and almost half feel like fillers. “If my first album was brain holding back, this time I feel like it’s given me too much,” he claims in the accompanying press release. And in turn McGarry has given us too much – Episode Two is dizzying and hard to dissect. There’s an orchestra, there’s gloom, there’s cheery, sunny pop, there’s quirky art-rock…and while it’s certainly value for money, and the fillers are by no means terrible, an abridged version would have acted as a kind of quality control, sieving out the tracks make you reach for the skip button.
Episode three is going to feature more synthetic music, apparently; an idea cleverly introduced at the end of the album with The Big Broadcast of 2006. Presumably referring to his involvement in the BBC’s inaugural Electric Proms, it sticks out like a thumb from the rest of the collection, but sees McGarry experiment with shuffling electronic beats, whetting the listeners’ appetite for things to come. Camp electro daydreams anyone?