Lost In The City

Spottiswoode And His Enemies

New Warsaw Records, 2018

http://www.spottiswoode.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/19/2018

Among his many other distinctions, Jonathan Spottiswoode, in the company of the backing band affectionately known as His Enemies, sometimes feels like the punchline to a joke that begins “Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Frank Sinatra walk into a bar…” The man and his jaw-droppingly tight seven-piece are simply that sophisticated, that eccentric, that charismatic, time after time after time.

The one certainty at hand when a new album shows up from bandleader, singer and songwriter Spottiswoode and his assemblage of musical disciples is that you will not be bored. Whatever transpires in the ensuing 70-odd minutes (and some of them will be odd; count on that) will be memorable. It will be different. It will surprise you, and likely charm you, and without any doubt entertain you.

It’s possible it will also puzzle, startle and/or aggravate you, or any number of other verbs that might be used to characterize a relationship with a particularly volatile and dramatic friend. But the vibe in the end is decidedly friendly and approachable. Spottiswoode is the urbane chum who will regale you with witty anecdotes and stories for an entire evening and deep into the night, until you eventually plead exhaustion and slink home. (My one and only substantive criticism of this album is that, at 18 tracks and 72 minutes, it eventually comes to feel like a bit too much of a good thing.)

On this particular night out, your path home would take you down darkened city streets slick from a midnight rain, the low whistle of solitary cars criss-crossing the dampened intersection ahead the only sound other than your footsteps and the background hum of teeming life in every building you pass. Lost In the City is a kind of urban fantasia, an immersive theater-of-the-mind love letter to New York City, the Englishman Spottiswoode’s home of many years.

The opening scene finds our wistful narrator delivering a subdued, rather Cohenesque monologue over a string section, wandering through the city on a quiet afternoon, thinking back on his life, until he reaches the river at sunset, looks out across it and sees that “It’s not heaven / It’s just Hoboken.” Cute, but then the piano and bass and drums and horns wend their way into the picture, momentum building until sweeping, dramatic strings and guitar arrive to propel the song up into the sky and it all starts to feel rather “Born To Run” for a moment as Spottiswoode calls “Yeah-yeah-yeah” ecstatically over the top. It is as perfect an opening overture as one could ask for to an album that seems to be about feeling lonely in a crowded urban landscape, and setting off on a quest to find a cure for that feeling.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The bulk of this plus-sized album takes its musical cues from that scene-setting opener and the title track that follows; the vibe this time around leans heavily to the nightclub-jazzy alter of the musical multiple-personalitied Spottiswoode. This thankfully ensures that the Enemies—John Young (bass), Tim Vaill (drums), Candace DeBartolo (sax, backing vocals), Kevin Cordt (trumpet, backing vocals), Riley McMahon (guitar, backing vocals), Tony Lauria (keys, backing vocals)—are in full deployment on just about every track here.  

That said, each song is distinct, highlighting a different character or aspect of a character on this crowded urban stage. On “Love Saxophone,” Spottiswoode plays a sassy gourmand of life who turns playing saxophone into a deeply sensual experience even as he name-checks Kerouac and Ginsberg. He’s not above cruder, more obvious gags, as “The Walk Of Shame” proves, but even when he goes that direction he turns it into something fresh and memorable, locating the pain inside the moment (“When will it end / This journey through the dark my friend / You’re lonely and you can’t pretend / You’re pretty anymore”).

And on we go. “Goodbye Jim McBride” opens sunny and bright at a funeral, tip-toeing through a couple of pensive verses before morphing into a driving soul revue finale complete with a call-and-answer chorus of female background vocalists. “It’s On Me” highlights the late-night ruminations of a bad boy who’s feeling guilty… but how guilty, really? He leaves the answer ambiguous. “Batman And Robin” features jazzy muted trumpet and Spottiswoode’s most Sinatra-esque vocal, all panache even as he’s singing of sodas spilled on the floor of the car shuttling kids between divorced parents.

Short of turning this review into a full-length production on the scale of the album itself, at this point let’s cut to the highlights. If it’s samba you crave, try “Now Didn’t I?” For spooky atmospheric late night ruminations, select “Tears Of Joy” (just don’t jump out of your shoes when he shifts to that eerie falsetto five minutes in). For a cheeky bachelor-pad travelogue set to a thumping soul backbeat, head for “Dirty Spoon,” highlighted by an ecstatic James Brown scream and the best line of the entire album: “A rusticated werewolf howling at the honeydew moon.”

And then there’s more, and more, and more, and more, all sharply realized and engaging and oozing personality, and if you have the full hour and 12 minutes to devote, remarkable in the fullness of its vision. But let’s skip to the end now, where Spottiswoode declares with spittle-spraying certainty “You’ll See,” a final purge of lingering bile that leads into the album’s denouement, the closing, rather elegiac meditation “I Don’t Regret.” “I don’t regret,” he sings, “My foolish loves / Those blessed nights” in a voice clearly tinged with it, before affirming that “I don’t regret, no I don’t regret my sordid life / It’s been a miracle, and I saw the light, I saw light.”

If that sounds something like the closing number of a Broadway musical, it probably should; in the hands of auteur Spottiswoode and his right-hand Enemy McMahon, who produces, that’s what this particular set of songs ends up feeling like. Spottiswoode’s sense of drama never wanes, and every song is arranged and performed like it might be the most important one the band has ever recorded. Lost In The City is a full-on musical experience, pulsing with a flair and passion that brings new dimension to the word charisma.  

Rating: A-

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© 2018 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of New Warsaw Records, and is used for informational purposes only.